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The Fruits of the MLA: II. Mark Twain

At the end of my earlier article, I discussed the advisability of printing an author’s notes and early drafts—that is, what Lewis Mumford calls his “garbage.” This question is raised by Mr. Franklin R. Rogers at the beginning of his Introduction to Mark Twain’s Satires and Burlesques, one of the volumes of Mark Twain’s hitherto unpublished papers which are being brought out in fourteen volumes, under the auspices of the Modern Language Association by the University of California Press. “It should always be with some misgivings,” Mr. Rogers confesses, “that an editor presents to the public materials which the author has discarded. By returning the materials to his files, the author has voted against publication. By resurrecting them, the editor risks exposing the author to the adverse criticism which he wished to avoid. But, at the same time, the resurrection serves a valuable purpose by making available almost indispensable evidence to be used by those seeking to understand the creative process.” In this case, Mr. Rogers claims that the many false starts and imperfect pieces that have been collected here show that it was not true that Mark Twain, as he sometimes pretended, found it easy to tell a story, that, on the contrary, he often found great difficulty in getting one under way. A parody of Victor Hugo, he believes, throws some light on Mark Twain’s attitude toward the South in the Civil War and toward the policies of the Republicans afterwards. But beyond this, for the ordinary reader, who is not obliged to use them for a Ph.D. thesis, these papers have no interest whatever. If he has already looked into this author’s complete works, he knows that Mark Twain, during his lifetime, had already published so much now uninteresting clowning that there can be very little point in salvaging any he rejected.

In the volume of Mark Twain’s Letters to His Publishers, edited by Mr. Hamlin Hill and published in the same series, there is ample evidence that, as Mr. Hill begins by saying in his Introduction, “It was a dangerously dehumanizing experience to be Mark Twain’s publisher,” since you were likely to be subjected to abuse that suggests the zöological denunciations which are standard in the Soviet Union. One of his publishers is “not a man, but a hog”; his successor is called a tadpole. Of the first of these he writes to his brother, “I have never hated any creature with a hundred thousand fraction of the hatred which I bear that human louse Webster”; and of another man he writes that he “was a tall, lean, skinny, yellow, toothless, bald-headed, rat-eyed professional liar and scoundrel…I have had contact with several conspicuously mean men, but they were noble compared to this bastard monkey.” Mr. Hill believes, no doubt correctly, that Mark Twain’s fury against these publishers was at least partly due to their failure to make as much money out of his books as he had hoped, and that this fury was especially embittered by a resentment within himself “toward the commercial aspect of his own personality.” He sometimes blames them for losing money through courses he had suggested himself.

All this matter would be useful to a biographer, and it is perhaps just as well to have it on record. But some of Mark Twain’s unpublished papers have another and more serious kind of importance. They contain a good deal of material that is of special interest to his admirers, because it is an integral part of his work, of his report on his own life, which at first his own inhibitions, imposed by fear of offending public opinion in making known his real ideas about religion and sex in America and his feelings about accepted public figures, prevented him from publishing during his lifetime; and posthumous publication was long, for similar reasons, held up by his surviving daughter. His philosophic dialogues called What is Man?, which expound a rigid determinism, he did have printed in a private edition, which he distributed among his friends. It was published for general distribution only after his death in 1910, when its ideas were shocking to nobody but revealed the dark conclusions to which he had at last been forced. In the same volume were included his darkest pages, his reflections on the death of his daughter Jean, which were to end the “Autobiography.” We must hope that this long autobiographical manuscript, which Mark Twain had begun in the Seventies and to which he added much in his later years, is to be given to us at last as he left it. Mark Twain took it very seriously. He prefixed to it a “Preface as from the Grave,” in which he says that from the grave he can “speak freely.” “When a man is writing a book dealing with the privacies of his life—a book which is to be read while he is still alive—he shrinks from speaking his whole frank mind; all his attempts to do it fail, he recognizes that he is trying to do a thing which is wholly impossible to a human being.”

Now, we have never had the whole of this work, but only three sets of selections from it: one edited by his first biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain’s Autobiography, which is much censored and quite innocuous; another, Mark Twain in Eruption, edited by Bernard DeVoto, which collects some rather derisive and sometimes embittered descriptions of public figures whom Mark Twain had known, such as Roosevelt, Carnegie, and Bret Harte; and a third, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider and, contrary to Mark Twain’s expressed wish, arranged in chronological order instead of in the disjointed and scrambled order in which he had dictated the sections. Mr. Neider has included in his volumes some particularly injurious passages on such special bête noires of Mark Twain’s as Bret Harte and Mrs. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, but he leaves out a good many other things. It is surely one of the prime duties of these editors of the Mark Twain papers to give us a complete and straight version, newspaper clippings and all, of the whole of the autobiographical manuscript. One hopes that this is what is promised by the University of California Press when it announces three volumes of Autobiography.

ANOTHER IMPORTANT SECTION of Mark Twain’s unpublished writings which has needed to be put in order and made available is the nexus of manuscripts which represent his repeated attempts to write a difficult and disturbing novel which should give voice to the mood of despair that produced What Is Man? and The Death of Jean. The publication of these has also up to now been impeded by the objections of the Mark Twain Estate—objections, presumably, based on their uniform unpleasantness and skepticism. These fragments seem all to have been written between 1896 and 1905. They have now been collected by Mr. John S. Tuckey in a volume called Which Was the Dream? and Other Symbolic Writings of the Later Years. Mr. Tuckey has succeeded very ably in disentangling this complicated cluster, in tracing the relationships between the fragmentary narratives and their relation to the tragic aspects of this period of Mark Twain’s life. They are certainly of very great interest, and they ought, with the Autobiography, to be included—if we are ever to get one—in any Collected Works of Mark Twain.^*

The best discussion I have seen—in fact, the only adequate discussion—of this confused and agonized phase of Mark Twain’s life and writing is Bernard DeVoto’s chapter “The Symbols of Despair” in his volume called Mark Twain at Work. Mark Twain, after the early successes that made him rich and a public figure, lost his money by investing in a publishing business and an impracticable typesetting machine, and was put under heavy pressure under the obligation to pay his debts by lecturing that went against the grain and a kind of popular travel writing that bored him. He had established a beloved family in Hartford, Connecticut—where he had built for them a delightfully luxurious and highly individual house—it imitated the shape of a steamboat; but in 1896, when the Clemenses were on their travels, one of their daughters, left at home, died suddenly of meningitis; another had turned out to be an epileptic and died, in 1909, the day before Christmas, in one of her seizures. Olivia, Mark Twain’s wife, broke down in 1902 from what were then called “heart disease” and “nervous prostration,” and died after twenty-two months, during which her husband had sometimes for long intervals not been allowed to see her except for a very few minutes on some such occasion as a wedding anniversary. He had shaken her religious faith and deprived her of belief in an afterlife, and he bitterly reproached himself for this. He had also reproached himself for his having been away at the time of Susy’s death and for the death of their first child, a twenty-two months-old son whom he had taken out on a winter day and allowed to become uncovered. His failures in his business ventures had brought hardships upon the family as well as humiliations to himself.

These years were thus tormented by an acute sense of guilt, and all these writings are an attempt to project this. What is common to nearly all of them is the idea of a man having a dream—a kind of dream that gives the impression of lasting for many years but that has taken only a few minutes—in which his fine house is burned down and he and his family are reduced to poverty, or in which, though respected by everyone else, he is driven by the desire to keep up appearances into courses that are actually criminal. Mr. Tuckey, in his Introduction, tells us that a visit to the Hartford house had evidently set off this fantasy. Mrs. Clemens, after Susy’s death, could not bear to go on living there, so they had rented the house to friends. “It seemed,” he wrote to Olivia, “as if I had burst awake out of a hellish dream, and had never been away, and that you had come drifting down out of those upper regions with the little children tagging after you.” I think that DeVoto was correct in believing that Mark Twain, who blamed himself for everything unfortunate that had happened to him, was tormentedly trying to reconcile the prosperity and happiness of his earlier period with the anguish and loss of what followed. He had always made fun of “the Moral Sense,” but his conviction of sin never left him. I agree with Bernard DeVoto that the determinism of What Is Man? is an attempt to escape the necessity of this self-conviction of guilt by assuming that neither he nor anyone else is responsible for his actions, and that in his stories of the horrible dream in which the central character is made to realize that he could not have acted otherwise, Mark Twain is making an effort to alleviate his painful situation by suggesting that these miseries may be all a dream from which he will in time awake.

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