The Quintessential American Memoir

“Quintessential” can be an overly expansive term, and almost always is, but to describe Mark Twain as the “quintessential American author” may not be broad enough to encompass the work of this man who died a century ago this year.

In any event, the first volume (of three) of this quintessential American memoir, the Autobiography of Mark Twain, is in print and available ahead of the Nov. 15 publication date but, per Mark Twain’s own dictate, exactly 100 years after his death.

This large and heavy book, 736 pages through the index, of which 264 comprise the actual “autobiography,” is Samuel L. Clemens thinking and writing about Mark Twain, and will be treasured for that quality alone. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and Jim and others from Mark Twain’s fiction show up early on, as characters born of real-life relatives, friends and acquaintances from the author’s childhood and early life. But mostly this is Mark Twain on Mark Twain, unrestrained by the need to avoid thoughts and opinions that might come back to bite a living writer.

Here, Clemens/Twain talks “only about the thing which interests you (meaning him) for the moment,” giving sections of the autobiography a stream-of-consciousness feel, with little regard for chronology or explicit precedent.

The Mark Twain Project, described as “an editorial and publishing program” of the Bancroft Library at the University of California in Berkeley, has produced for the first time Mark Twain’s “uncensored autobiography in its entirety and exactly as he left it. The volume includes roughly 500 pages of notes, references, and appendices, all of which make fascinating reading in themselves.

There is heart and soul in this book. “I’ve struck it!” Mark Twain wrote in a 1904 letter to a friend. “And I will give it away—to you. You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography.” Finally, after dozens of false starts and hundreds of pages, Twain embarked on his “Final (and Right) Plan” for telling the story of his life.

Despite the author’s centennial injunction, others used the material Twain left, in 1924, 1940 and again in 1959, to produce “autobiographies’ of the writer. But in those instances, the “editors” rearranged and otherwise edited the material to the point, the UC team asserts, “that no text of the Autobiography so far published is remotely complete, much less completely authorial.”

The Autobiography of Mark Twain will send you to the bookcase to read, or re-read, books like Innocents Abroad, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and others—not to mention The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. If these books are not at the ready for you, here’s a recommendation to check out the wonderful Dover editions that are reasonably priced and frequently contain original illustrations.

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