Mark Twain in His Own Words–a Review

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1With its third volume now published the Autobiography of Mark Twain as he intended it – more or less – is now complete, over a hundred years after the death of its author, Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Many smaller pieces had been published before in very different form, often expurgated, always out of order.

If you look for a linear narrative, not necessarily what Twain started out to produce, this third volume is the most consistent one. It is roughly the last two years of his dictations, which in turn follow these years rather closely. There is still the odd anecdote from way beyond, usually when Twain tries to give context to people he meets.

Two larger episodes stick out: His visit to England for getting his honorary degree from Oxford, which tends to drag a bit with overblown reverence, almost adoration, for the European noble class. An episode with lines upon lines upon lines of boring insubstantial details about long forgotten rich bourgeois.

The second episode is contained partially in the Autobiography proper, but the bulk is in a text not having been published before, the so called ‘Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript’. It deals with events surrounding two of Twain’s employees/acquaintances, who appear to have skimmed off his riches. With all corrections, false starts, deletions, ramblings etc. kept intact by the editors 2 it gives a good glimpse of Twain as a man and a writer in regard his work process.

Some readers have been less than flattering about this edition, particularly when the first volume was published. They don’t like there being anything but genuine Twain between the title and end pages. Sure, an edition without any notes or introduction is conceivable, and was, I think, done for the first volume, the so-called ‘reader’s edition’. I have not had a look into it but if it really got rid of all the explanations provided by the The Complete and Authoritative Edition it cannot be much fun.

Apart from the fact that Twain all too often bends reality to suit a better tale or because he forgot/mixed up things, most of the characters he talks about, many of the then big events are now at best mere footnotes to literary, political, theological history. Even specialists do not necessarily know them. Without the painstaking work of the editors the reader wouldn’t know anything about them, hence, walk in the dark. Well, at least the very dimly lit.

In some cases this may work, in others not so much. Sometimes Twain simply forgets to mention the function of a certain person he remarks upon – without which their actions doesn’t make any sense 3. In other cases, out of narrative choice, Twain introduces details giving a completely false image of the – real! – persons involved, as with … Ah, but I shouldn’t spoil this particular episode. Let’s just say it has to do with his household, his servants, and a burglary.

When he started, in fits, his Autobiography Clemens had two goals in mind. He wanted a true image of the man in all his glory and particularly all his infamy. He was aware that nobody could honestly write about themselves, especially not when trying their hands on a linear narrative from birth to … Hence, his decision for the anecdotal approach. It is, curiously the ‘Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript’ presenting the most honest, for many readers possibly sobering, even horrifying image of Clemens the man. It is more of a very long rant4 – and intended as such – than a well thought through analysis of characters and occurrences.

It is still open to debate what really happened between the Clemenses and Ashcroft-Lyon although I tend to believe the core of Twain’s accusations are true with him blowing everything out of proportion for very personal reasons. He was clearly deeply hurt by what he perceived as treason; it didn’t help his secretary [Ms Lyon, then Mrs Ashcroft] and her suitor to drag his daughters into it, two women he dearly loved.

His second aim was to provide his daughters with income from his books, only feasible by extending copyright on them. Hence, many a piece was intended to be stuck unto new editions of his old books. As a whole his Autobiography was to be published a hundred years after his death as not to tarnish any living person’s reputation. In the case of the ‘Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript’ no publication at all seems to have been intended.

The three-volume Autobiography as it now stands is a treasure trove for historians and literary scientists specialised in US American Modernism of the second half of the 19th century. It shows us not only the thoughts and writing processes of a specific person – Samuel Langhorne Clemens – but gives a picture of its times, of how people lived 5, and what they thought about contemporary events.


The Autobiography of Mark Twain – The Complete and Authoritative Edition [in 3 volumes] is available in print, as e-books, and on the Website of The Mark Twain Project.

I recommend the e-book variants for ease of use and carrying.

1. This is a corrected and slightly amended version of a review I published earlier elsewhere.
2. Details on why and how are found in the editorial notes, introductions, and explanations in the three volumes.
3. Or the actions are not even explicated but are obvious when we learn the profession.
4. Exceeding 400 manuscript pages, making for a small book in itself.
5. Mostly prosperous people but Twain and many of his acquaintances weren’t always wealthy

Nach dem Abitur habe ich an der Universität Hamburg Anglistik, Amerikanistik, Soziologie und Philosophie studiert. Den Magister Artium machte ich 1992/93, danach arbeitete ich an meiner Promotion, die ich aus verschiedenen Gründen aufsteckte. Ich beschäftige mich meist mit drei Aspekten der Literatur: - soziologisch [Was erzählt uns der Text über die Gesellschaft] - technisch [Wie funktioniert so ein Text eigentlich] - praktisch [Wie bringen wir Bedeutung zum Leser] Aber auch theoretische Themen liegen mir nicht fern, z.B. die Frage, inwieweit literarische Texte außerhalb von Literatur- und Kunstgeschichte verständlich sein müssen. Oder simpler: Für wen schreiben Autoren eigentlich?

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