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'The Autobiography Of Mark Twain': Satire To Spare

Mark Twain changed the rules of American fiction when, in Huckleberry Finn, he let a redneck kid tell his story in his own dialect. But the brilliant satirist had a hard time figuring out what rules to break as he struggled for years to tell his own life story. Now, 100 years after his death, Mark Twain's autobiography is being published the way the author himself wished -- from dictated stories collected by the University of California, Berkeley's Mark Twain Project. The first volume (of three) is out now, and the long-anticipated release is drawing attention from Twain-lovers around the world.

You will never know how much enjoyment you've lost until you get to dictating your biography.

'Wander At Your Free Will All Over Your Life'

Twain knew early on that he wanted to write an autobiography, but his first efforts to put his story on paper failed. He attributed his troubles to trying to follow a chronological calendar; a plan that, he wrote, "starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side excursions permitted."

Then, in 1904, Twain hit upon the right way to tell his story. "Start at no particular time of your life," he wrote. "Wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it at the moment its interest starts to pale." Naturally, he couldn't resist a comic hyperbole, adding, "It's the first time in history such a method has been discovered."

But Twain still couldn't wrap his head around how to tell the tale of his life -- that is, until a few years later, when he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells about another eureka: dictation. "You will never know how much enjoyment you've lost until you get to dictating your biography," he wrote. "You'll be astonished at how like talk it is and how real it sounds."

Twain first tried dictating into Thomas Edison's new recording machine but didn't like it -- he was a man who strutted stages all over the world, delivering extemporaneous spiels. Twain needed a live audience to speak to, not a bloodless machine. He eventually found that audience in stenographer Josephine Hobby and author Albert Bigelow Paine, his first biographer.  Paine says Twain often dictated from his bed, clad in a handsome silk dressing gown of rich Persian pattern, propped against great snowy pillows. He also got up, paced the floor and waved his arms as he poured out nearly 2,000 pages of typescript over three years.

A lock of Twain's hair, from the UC Berkeley archive.
John McChesney / NPR
A lock of Twain's hair, from the UC Berkeley archive.

'He Was Capable Of Composing Entire Paragraphs In His Head'

Robert Hirst, director of the Mark Twain Project, spoke about the resulting "talked" autobiography, which follows a less linear path than a more traditional written work. "If you think about it, this is really the culmination -- Mark Twain comes out of an oral tradition of humor," says Hirst. "And if you look at any of the books, you'll see this method of digression, even in Huck Finn -- basically it's a trip with digressions, strung off it like beads, beads on a string."

Inside the temperature-controlled room that houses the largest collection of Twain papers in the world, Hirst explains that Twain made only minor corrections on the stenographer's dictated notes. The elegant structure of Twain's autobiographical dictations shows that the writer was able to translate complex ideas into spontaneous speech. "The evidence is that he's capable of composing entire paragraphs in his head," says Hirst. " I have editors who would come in and say, 'Listen to this,' and they would read it to me. They couldn't believe that somebody could dictate that."

More Hard News Than Raw Confessions

In the autobiography itself, Twain mixes news and history, using something from the "infernal newspapers" as a jumping-off point for his dictation. For example, the American war in the Philippines was still going on in 1906, and Twain read that American troops cornered 600 of the Moro tribe, including women and children, in a volcanic crater. Leonard Wood -- Twain called him Theodore Roosevelt's "fragrant pet" -- gave the order to "kill or capture" the 600.

"Apparently our little Army considered that the 'or' left them authorized to kill or capture according to taste," Twain dictated. "And that their taste had remained what it had been for eight years, in our army out there ... the taste of Christian butchers."

But while the autobiography contains many such bare-knuckle outbursts, you won't find many revelations about Twain's inner moral struggles. Three months into the dictations, he says, "I have thought of 1,500 or 2,000 incidents in my life which I am ashamed of, but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet."

"So he has realized that he's not a confessional autobiographer," says Hirst. "That's not what this is."

'You Can't See The Whole Thing For A Hundred Years'

Still, despite his lack of emotional confessions, Twain did say things in the first draft that his biographers and his daughter felt were too personal or too scalding to print in the early editions of the autobiography. As legend has it, Twain wanted people to wait 100, or even 500 years until after his death to see specific passages.

In spite of these efforts at suppression, however, most of the autobiography has surfaced over the years, and the supposed "embargo" has only led to increased interest in and sales for the book.

If you say here’s a little bit of the autobiography, but you can't see the whole thing for a hundred years, you're gonna sell a book.

"I would say, can you spell marketing plan?" jokes Hirst. "If you say here's a little bit of the autobiography, but you can't see the whole thing for a hundred years, you're gonna sell a book. Mark Twain knew how to sell a book."

Historian Robert Hirst inside the Mark Twain archive.
John McChesney / NPR
Historian Robert Hirst inside the Mark Twain archive.

Hirst also emphasizes that this new edition follows Twain's own design, while previous editions have been rearranged by editors who thought they had a better idea. The new edition also includes the numerous false starts Twain made before he settled into the dictation, so the reader might find it a bit of a slow read at times.

"It is heavy slogging," Hirst says. "But I would recommend what Mark Twain would recommend: If you're bored with it, SKIP."

For more information on the Mark Twain Project, visit www.marktwainproject.org or www.marktwainhouse.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

John McChesney
Since 1979 senior correspondent John McChesney has been with NPR, where he has served as national editor (responsible for domestic news) and senior foreign editor. Over the course of his career with NPR, McChesney covered a variety of beats and traveled extensively throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and Asia. His reports can be heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, and newscasts.