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His Own Best Straight Man

This is the Twain who, at a formal Washington gathering in honor of “Woman,” announced that “as a wet nurse, she has no equal among men.” It is the Twain—the first American author, as Hemingway famously put it, to “use the words that people have always used in speech”—who described a murder trial in Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896) at which witnesses for “the prostitution” testify to the bad blood that existed between the defendant and “the diseased.” It is the same writer who, in Huck Finn, gives this famous rendition of Shakespeare at his most elevated:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death
Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of…
But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws,
But get thee to a nunnery—go!

Yet ever since they became certified classics, Twain’s books—led by Huckleberry Finn, lately joined by Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894), whose theme of racial ambiguity has made it a classroom staple—have been subjected to the test of formal or ideological coherence. It’s a test he cannot pass. Many critics have wanted to know why Huckleberry Finn concludes with a drawn-out “coon game,” with Jim as hapless victim. It seems a case of the tail wagging the dog, and, worse, a relapse on Huck’s part into the childish insouciance with which he had once treated Jim. But the very subject of the book is inconstancy and improvisation. Whenever Huck goes ashore to figure out how far downstream he and Jim have drifted, or to replenish their provisions, he goes in disguise—dissembling, tall-tale telling, so inventive of new identities that he runs the risk of forgetting his alias of the day. Why should he evolve from a prankster into the achieved hero of a bildungsroman?

Others want to know what Twain’s position was on, say, technology, or war, or religion, or the idea of progress. But such questions miss the kind of writer he was—a writer whose only method was to follow his responses to whatever he sees, wherever they lead, often into collision with himself. As Howells put it:

He was not enslaved to the consecutiveness in writing which the rest of us try to keep chained to. That is, he wrote as he thought, and as all men think, without sequence, without eloquence, without an eye to what went before or should come after. If something beyond or beside what he was saying occurred to him, he invited it into his page.

As Twain grew old, he wanted still more latitude. “With a pen in the hand,” he said, “the narrative stream is a canal; it moves slowly, smoothly, decorously, sleepily, it has no blemish except that it is all blemish. It is too literary, too prim, too nice.” He wanted to break free from the chronology of lived experience and to take advantage of what Harriet Elinor Smith, chief editor of the new edition, nicely calls “the disinhibiting nature of talk.” And so, in his last years, he abandoned the pen altogether in favor of a technique he had tried from time to time: dictation.

At first he spoke to a hired “shorthander,” later to a machine (an early “recording phonograph”), then to willing friends and family—his former lecture agent, James Redpath, his daughter Jean, who became a proficient typist—and finally to a series of stenographers, including Isabel Lyon, whose relation to Twain in his late years has long been the subject of speculation.2 The switch from writing to talking doubtless made the project seem less daunting. But he had an artistic motive as well. He wanted to register the way memory actually works—long-ago incidents popping into the mind not by some sequential logic that replicates the order in which they occurred, but through the associative process by which experiences separated by years suddenly show up, unbidden and in a disorderly jumble. To his brother Orion, who was thinking about writing his own autobiography, he made this suggestion: “When you recollect something that belonged in an earlier chapter do not go back, but jam it in where you are.” The more Twain worked at his own memoir, the more he took his own advice.

The result is recognizably the work of the same writer who, in Following the Equator (1897), launches into a tirade against Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield as “one long waste-pipe discharge of goody-goody puerilities” for no reason other than the fact that the ship conveying him across the Pacific does not contain a copy of Goldsmith’s book in its library. The sight of the Taj Mahal, about whose sublimity he had heard and read too much, sends him back in memory to his first visit many years earlier to Niagara Falls, when, expecting “a sea-green wall of water sixty miles front and six miles high,” he found, instead, the “toy reality” of “a beruffled little wet apron hanging out to dry.”

The practitioner of this associative method was a glaringly, gloriously erratic writer who could have said, with Whitman (whom he warmly admired), “Do I contradict myself?/Very well then I contradict myself.” He was both a fabulist and a realist, a writer of children’s stories and a pornographer who wrote a faux-Elizabethan tale (for private circulation) about a golden age when “pricks were stiff and cunts not loath to take ye stiffness out of them.” He was a memoirist of Southern innocence and yet, as Howells called him, “the most de-southernized Southerner.” He insisted that “no nation, howsoever mighty, occupies a foot of land that was not stolen,” yet he praised the “English resolution and English devotion” of India’s colonial rulers.


So it is fruitless to search the autobiography for coherence or a strong narrative line. These were rarely Twain’s aims—certainly not in this end-of-life work. What he was after, I think, was to cross the “abyss of time” and make the past vivid—in the first instance for himself. To that end, he threw into the work anything that would help: diary entries, texts of his own speeches delivered years before, passages from the touching biography that Susy had begun to write of her father when she was a child, pasted-in newspaper clippings about events that had once caught his interest—everything from the latest pogrom in Russia to the expulsion from the White House of an aggrieved woman who had come seeking an audience with President Roosevelt.

But there is a common premise throughout the miscellany. Twain knew that “history can carry on no successful competition with news“—in the sense that the past comes alive only if rendered with eyewitness immediacy. To do so was his great gift. “Dear me,” he interrupts himself during one dictating session, “the power of association to snatch mouldy dead memories out of their graves and make them walk!” At one point, he employs a single word—“embroidery”—as a bridge between his childhood memory of his mother cautioning a friend that when her boy Sam tells a tale, it must be discounted “30 per cent for embroidery” and an occasion forty years later when a member of a Hartford literary club used the same word to cast doubt on Twain’s claim that he had seen his brother’s death foretold in a dream.

It is almost always wise,” he tells us, “and is often in a manner necessary, to kill an editor.” The autobiography was his murder weapon. It contains passages that even America’s literary icon could not have gotten past any editor, such as this one explaining that America’s favorite holiday has its origin in the vicious cycle of wars between white men and Indians:

Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.

This is the same Twain whom one glimpsed through another striking item in the show at the Morgan Library—a handwritten note on the flyleaf of his excoriating 1905 pamphlet King Leopold’s Soliloquy: A Defense of His Congo Rule, in which he proposed that the front wrapper should display an image of the king holding a “basket of severed hands in one hand & butcher knife in the other.”3 The proposal was rejected. The final published cover shows a crucifix lying across a sheathed knife.

We have two opinions,” Twain says about the writing life, “one private, which we are afraid to express; and another one—the one we use—which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy.” In the autobiography he is finished with Mrs. Grundy. The man we meet here is generous at one moment, cruel the next; grateful and bitter by turns; petty and large-hearted, sometimes driven to hot indignation, sometimes stoic and kind. He is freer in scope and tone than elsewhere in his writings, yet he is ultimately the writer we know from his best work, as when, in Huckleberry Finn (a book, he said, about the collision between “a sound heart and a deformed conscience”), he describes Huck’s contradictory fears that his brutal father might come back and that he might not come back. Twain knew that any picture of any human being as a self-consistent creature is a false picture. He “may have been,” as Justin Kaplan has said, “the least ‘racist’ of all the major writers of his time, Herman Melville excepted”—yet in the autobiography he refers sneeringly to a Connecticut acquaintance as “the dullest white man” in the state.

He was a connoisseur of his own contradictions. He was preoccupied with the theme of conflict between apparently identical twins (in Pudd’nhead Wilson and The Prince and the Pauper (1881), among other works)—but his real theme was the deeper one of the divided self, as in this portrait, in Following the Equator, of the “native Australasian”:

He kills the starving stranger who comes begging for food and shelter—there is proof of it…. He takes his reluctant bride by force, he courts her with a club, then loves her faithfully through a long life—it is of record. He gathers to himself another wife by the same processes, beats and bangs her as a daily diversion, and by and by lays down his life in defending her from some outside harm—it is of record. He will face a hundred hostiles to rescue one of his children, and will kill another of his children because the family is large enough without it…. He is a sociable animal, yet he turns aside and hides behind his shield when his mother-in-law goes by.
  1. 2

    In Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years (University of California Press, 2004), Karen Lystra portrayed Lyon as a manipulative woman intent on displacing Twain’s daughters in his affections as he grew old and dependent. Michael Shelden, in Mark Twain: Man in White—The Grand Adventure of His Final Years (Random House, 2010), suggests that she took advantage of the aging widower’s trust to exploit him financially. In Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years (Knopf, 2010), however, Laura Skandera Trombley aims to rehabilitate Lyon’s reputation by presenting her as the victim of both Twain’s attraction and his irrational anger. 

  2. 3

    See Gewirtz, Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress, pp. 106–107. 

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