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Twain on Twain

In response to:

His Own Best Straight Man from the February 24, 2011 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One [NYR, February 24], Andrew Delbanco commits an error common to readers (as well as scholars) of Twain. While there are earlier editions of the autobiography that make use of Twain’s manuscripts (he cites the work of Albert Bigelow Paine, Bernard DeVoto, and Charles Neider), it is incorrect to describe Neider’s as the most recent attempt.

Mark Twain provided twenty-five individual chapters of his autobiography to the North American Review during 1906 and 1907. The material was chosen by Twain in collaboration with George Harvey, then editor of the North American Review, and Twain had the final say on what material would be included. “Chapters from My Autobiography” can be considered the one text of his life story that Mark Twain offered the reading public. That text appeared in book form in 1990 as Mark Twain’s Own Autobiography; a second edition appeared early in 2010 (with an expanded introduction and notes; University of Wisconsin Press).

As the editor of that volume, I think that it stands as a more focused representation of Twain’s intention for the materials. It is, perhaps, the final “book” of Twain’s last years. Much of the best materials from Twain’s early experiments in autobiography (especially the work he did during 1897–1898 while in Austria as well as his dictations that blend his voice with his daughter Susy’s) were used in “Chapters” (examples that Delbanco summarizes in his review). In all, Twain’s public presentation focused on the distinctly domestic relationships that he prized and that he lost with the deaths of Susy (in 1896) and his wife Olivia (in 1904). Among other tales, “Chapters” is the record of that loss.

Chapters” has been elided from the discussion of Twain autobiography. Readers should be aware of Twain’s own attempt to present his story to the public. And they should be given a full description of the work that informs the complicated history of Twain’s autobiographical texts.

Michael J. Kiskis
Leonard Tydings Grant Professor of American Literature
Elmira College
Elmira, New York

Andrew Delbanco replies:

Professor Kiskis makes a fair complaint. In mentioning earlier editions of Twain’s autobiographical writings, I had in mind those that claimed to represent the whole of what he wrote about his life, but I should have mentioned the portions published in the North American Review, as well as Professor Kiskis’s valuable annotated edition.

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