Mark Twain’s Autobiography

Twain's Autobiography (cover)Today I finished Mark Twain’s autobiography. While it wasn’t as funny as I expected, it was … more than that. Twain captured just about every human emotion in his rambling narrative for that book (edited by Charles Neider from dictated notes). Humor has its place, alongside outrage–all that’s to be expected. And I’ve read enough of Twain to know his colder, more cynical side. But the depth of his feeling, his loneliness, despair, indignation, sarcasm, wounded pride, depths of sorrow, stoicism, charity, confusion, superstition, rationalization, nostalgia, humility, longing. All of these flowed out to me from this seemingly random anthology of anecdotes.

Reading it was like living.

The book’s plan is minimal. In this edition, it simply follows a more or less chronological scheme. But what holds it together is its honesty, its fabrications, and its bold-faced lies. Twain, whatever he may say, was an astonishingly honest man. At least in print. He was capable of the extreme of every emotion–like most of us, I suppose–and he was able to get them onto the page. And I have to think this is part of what made him such an incredible writer. His wit and humor helped, of course. He was a writer who found his voice (try “Roughing it” and “Innocents Abroad”) and nurtured it. He was honest with his own writing, too. He discarded subpar manuscripts. He edited, like we all do, omitting needless words (before Strunk and White) and adding others. In fact, he seems to have been an ordinary man with one exceptional trait: his honesty.

I think that ability to convey such emotions, from the grand to the petty, could only come at the price of honesty. Writing that way is exhausting, at least to me. But it’s also indispensable. Nothing great in literature lacks that honesty.

What else to say? “Rest in peace”? It seems a little late for that. I guess I just wanted to share my profound respect for this man’s achievement. That, and to say goodbye, after living with him for the last four hundred pages.


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