Monday, June 13, 2011

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” ~Mark Twain

I am currently on disc four of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Part One, as read by Grover Gardner, who has narrated so many hours of literature in my virtual presence that he is becoming a very good friend. This audio book is 25 hours on 20 discs, and it's a most stimulating read.

The first two-and-a-half hours is all introduction, which includes a lengthy and detailed discussion of how the manuscript came to be. Countless caretakers of the manuscripts were involved in preserving Mr. Twain's writing. Many duplicates of various sections are also in existence with words struck out or portions edited in one place but not another. Systems were required for analyzing dates and times portions were produced and determining which version should supercede. The publication begins by identifying all who have been involved in sorting these strands out and assembling them properly over the past 100 years, and thanking them.

Now the notion of publishing this voluminous work 100 years after his death was not the marketing idea of a modern publisher. Quite the contrary. It was Twain's own idea, and he details it in this introduction to the story of his life.

Mark Twain had an unusually interesting life and he wanted to tell about it. But he did not know exactly how to do it. Begin with his birth and take the chronological approach? One could precede that and talk about ancestors and their influence. And should one bang it out on a typewriter? And what about all the stories and insights and feelings and beliefs that you wanted to share that you feel you can't because you will hurt other people?

This last was a thorny item for Twain. And he literally mulled it over for years, at one point suggesting that those stories be told between-the-lines, knowing they would still be painful to others when deciphered. No, the best way would be to give strict instructions that the manuscript be left unpublished till 100 years after his death, at which time he would be "dead, and unaware, and indifferent."

The other matter of how was resolved when he hit upon the idea of dictating his life story. And even in this form the guy was an original. It would not be a story told in any particular order. Rather, whatever interested him at the moment is what he would talk about.

The hundred years has passed and the book is now a reality, capturing all the wit and humor and acerbic commentary one might expect from the pen, or in this case tongue, of Twain. Here's one example. A reviewer wrote with such over-the-top praise for something he had written that Twain confronted him thus. "Oh come on, in the Twain household they don't lather it on with a knife, they use a trowel."

In the intro when Twain was wrestling with the problems of candidly telling his story, I thought about today's world where so much of what people think and feel is posted on blogs and on Facebook and who we are encountering when we see one another so apparently transparently displayed. What kinds of things would be written and posted if the only readers were people who lived 100 years from now, after we're dead and gone? How many people on Facebook are portraying themselves as they are, and how many have been crafting an identity that is far different from who they really are?

As for the Autobiography, here's a good summation of the book from a review by Publisher's Weekly:
Eschewing chronology and organization, Twain simply meanders from observation to anecdote and between past and present. There are gorgeous reminiscences from his youth of landscapes, rural idylls, and Tom Sawyeresque japes; acid-etched profiles of friends and enemies, from his "fiendish" Florentine landlady to the fatuous and "grotesque" Rockefellers; a searing polemic on a 1906 American massacre of Filipino insurgents; a hilarious screed against a hapless editor who dared tweak his prose; and countless tales of the author's own bamboozlement, unto bankruptcy, by publishers, business partners, doctors, miscellaneous moochers; he was even outsmarted by a wild turkey. Laced with Twain's unique blend of humor and vitriol, the haphazard narrative is engrossing, hugely funny, and deeply revealing of its author's mind. His is a world where every piety conceals fraud and every arcadia a trace of violence; he relishes the human comedy and reveres true nobility, yet as he tolls the bell for friends and family--most tenderly in an elegy for his daughter Susy, who died in her early 20s of meningitis--he feels that life is a pointless charade. Twain's memoirs are a pointillist masterpiece from which his vision of America--half paradise, half swindle--emerges with indelible force.

In the meantime, have a great new week.

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