Wednesday, January 08, 2014


"...manuscriptural riffraff..."

Well, here is the Autobiography of Mark Twain Volume 2 in all its glory.  Another gorgeous doorstop of a book, just published a few months ago, 776 pages, with a slightly larger typeface throughout (thanks be):   

I love this image of Sam on the dust jacket, just a young man here, with so much of his living and nearly all of his writing still ahead of him (which he doesn't look too happy about, and unbeknownst to him he will have good reasons to be so).  This second volume comes across as having much more meat on its bones, as a narrative, than Volume 1.  Twain seems to settle in to the dictation, not to mention warm up to it, and has his say about writing, publishing, contemporary events, religion, and particularly people.  He really lets a few old friends and enemies have it.  Often his scathing sentences take my breath away (p..417):

"In the early days I liked Bret Harte, and so did the others, but by and by I got over it; so, also, did the others.  He couldn't keep a friend permanently.  He was bad, distinctly bad; he had no feeling, and he had no conscience."

Want a bit more?  Here you go (p.425):

"I have said more than once, in these pages, that Harte had no heart and no conscience, and I have also said that he was mean and base.  I have not said, perhaps, that he was treacherous, but if I have omitted that remark I wish to add it now."

He spends much time with Harte, and after demolishing his character - both social and literary - in great detail, he turns the other cheek and lets Harte be himself - a rascal according to his nature, and indeed since that is his nature how could he be otherwise.  But Twain doesn't always speak with such wrath, thank goodness.  He gives us many vivid and loving portraits of people he knew throughout his life.  From his early days in the west, he describes Frank Fuller, acting Governor of Utah Territory (p.38):

"He was an alert and energetic man; a pushing man; a man who was able to take an interest in anything that was going - and not only that, but take five times as much interest in it as it was worth, and ten times as much as anybody else could take it in - a very live man."

Then this, about friend and author William Dean Howells (from the explanatory notes pp.533-534):

"For forty years his English has been to me a continual delight and astonishment.  In the sustained exhibition of certain great qualities - clearness, compression, verbal exactness, and unforced and seemingly unconscious felicity of phrasing - he is, in my belief, without peer in the English-writing world."

And oh how he speaks of his beloved wife, Olivia, called Livy (p.28):

"My wife... she and I were really one person and there were no secrets.  Sometimes I was that person, sometimes she was that person.  Sometimes it took both of us together to constitute that person."

In their household he was called the King by his children, but he was apparently always boyish and the nickname his wife bestowed upon him was Youth.  He said Livy's death was "...the disaster of my life..." (p.80).  At one point he sees a death notice for an old acquaintance in the paper, and remarks upon it (p.277):

"It is another tragedy.  Apparently, broadly speaking, life is just that, simply that - a tragedy; with a dash of comedy distributed through it, here and there, to heighten the pain and magnify it, by contrast."

Maybe that's why the dust jacket image of him seems so right.  As a youth, he gives his own future, and us, a straight hard look.  The famous humorist is not in evidence in this image, and while his autobiography contains many flashes of levity, there are much stronger currents of anger and sorrow throughout.

I hope these scattered quotes give some sense of how fascinating this book is.  Twain is so well-known that it is hard for me to know how to talk about his life and work, at all.  One phrase jumped out at me, though, as I read along - at one point Twain sets his daughter Clara to find a certain work in progress for him, something begun and then set aside long ago, and says (p.199):

"...she would find it among the manuscriptural riffraff in my study somewhere."

Both volumes of this Autobiography are worth reading for phrases such as that alone.  As if we needed just one reason.        

Comments: Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?