His Own Best Straight Man

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One

edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, Benjamin Griffin, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, Sharon K. Goetz, and Leslie Diane Myrick
University of California Press, 736 pp., $34.95


He would have loved it. Dead for a hundred years, but climbing the best-seller lists with a memoir whose publication he deferred for a century till everyone mentioned in it, along with anyone who remembered them, would be dead too and in no position to complain. Since he lived (1835–1910) as if a single lifetime could not contain him, it’s entirely apt that he’s back with a posthumous encore.

Berg Collection/New York Public Library
Mark Twain, Tuxedo, New York, 1907; photograph by Isabel Lyon from ‘Mark Twain: A Skeptic’s Progress,’ a recent exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum. The catalog is published by the New York Public Library.

Mark Twain is sometimes imagined as a shambling fellow with a slow drawl (there are no known recordings of his voice), but in fact, he was incessantly restless, edgy, tight-wired, rarely at rest. In one three-month period while living in Washington, he moved five times. He made dozens of ocean crossings and lecture tours, including one between the summers of 1895 and 1896 during which he “barked at audiences” up to twenty times a month across the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, and what was then Ceylon.

Even on those rare occasions when he was more or less sedentary, he kept up a prodigious pace, “working,” by his own account, “every night from eleven or twelve until broad day in the morning.” If his drive slackened on one book, as it did repeatedly while he was writing The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), he would “pigeonhole” it, turn to another, then come back renewed by the deflected effort. He was never much for sleeping. According to his friend William Dean Howells, he would coax himself to bed with champagne, beer, or hot scotch—sometimes, no doubt, mixing them into a soporific cocktail. “I am going to settle down some day,” he wrote to a fellow contributor to the San Francisco Alta, the paper that gave him his start by printing his dispatches from Europe that became The Innocents Abroad (1869), “even if I have to do it in a cemetery.”

As it turned out, he never did settle down, exactly. Instead, he spent his last years planning on “speaking from the grave”—his phrase for the memoir that has now appeared upon the centenary of his death. With the excusable vanity of genius, he had high expectations for its reception. It will “live a couple of thousand years without any effort,” he told Howells, and will “then take a fresh start and live the rest of the time.”

In one way or another, he worked at it for much of his life. “The truth is,” he told a friend, “my books are simply autobiographies” in the sense that they are stocked with fictional versions of people he had known, including himself. But starting around age forty,…

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