July 4, 2011


A Good Joke Spoiled: a review of Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1 By Mark Twain Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith (Michael Lewis, June 23, 2011, New Republic)

He seems to have arranged to be treated as a child as often as possible. The role that he carved out for his wife, for instance, was less spouse than custodian: he played Tom Sawyer to her Aunt Polly. Her chief function, to judge from his account of her here, was to prevent Twain from getting away with being who he naturally was. He allowed her to excise all jokes, phrases, and sentiments from his books that she deemed to be in poor taste. Her nickname for Twain was “Youth,” because “I had certain mental and material peculiarities and customs proper to a much younger person than I was.” One such custom was his habit of leaving a mess behind him for others to clean up. He can’t go camping beside Lake Tahoe without setting fire to the forest. When he gives a match to a drunk in the local jail, the drunk uses it to burn down the jail, with himself inside. When he dabbles in venture capitalism—funding the creation of one-handed grape shears, perpetual calendars, a cloth made from peat—he creates commercial mayhem. A rich businessman friend is called in to sort it all out.

Twain is never oblivious; he always professes to be aware of the damage that he has done. After each of his mishaps he is able to see that his actions had consequences. But he feels no need to address the root cause of the problem, even when its consequences are tragic:

I was the cause of the child’s illness. His mother trusted him to my care and I took him [on] a long drive in an open barouche for an airing. It was a raw, cold morning, but he was well wrapped about with furs and, in the hands of a careful person, no harm would have come to him. But I soon dropped into a reverie and forgot about my charge. The furs fell away and exposed his bare legs. By and by the coachman noticed this, and I arranged the wraps again, but it was too late. The child was almost frozen. I hurried home with him. I was aghast at what I had done, and I feared the consequences. I have always felt shame for that treacherous morning’s work and have not allowed myself to think of it when I could help it. I doubt if I had the courage to make confession at that time. I think it most likely that I have never confessed until now.

That chilling anecdote is the beginning of the story of the death of his first child, his only son. It is the most sincere expression of remorse in an autobiography filled with moments of phony remorse. But even this passage feels to me, I don’t know, undigested—less an expression of deep torment than of a desire to shed an unpleasant memory. Perhaps that’s unfair.

In any case, Twain clearly thought of himself, and enjoyed thinking of himself, as heedless. For a writer of his caliber he had surprisingly little interest in assuming a fully adult role in the world, partly because adulthood struck him as an inferior state. Reflecting on the death of his eldest daughter, Susy, he writes that “Susy died at the right time, the fortunate time of life; the happy age—twenty-four years. At twenty-four, such a girl has seen the best of life—life as a happy dream. After that age the risks begin; responsibility comes, and with it the cares, the sorrows, and the inevitable tragedy. For her mother’s sake I would have brought her back from the grave if I could, but I would not have done it for my own.” When Twain was in his late sixties, after the death of his wife, he found companionship in a series of young girls. He took twelve-year-old girls as his dates to grown-up parties and entertained eleven-year-old girls for the weekend at his home. The Angel-fish, he called these young friends—though he does not have much to say about them in his memoir. And while it sounds completely creepy, it also feels deeply characteristic. There doesn’t seem to have been a hint of sexuality in these relationships, at least from his side. The man just preferred to feel like a boy.

He also enjoyed the excuse of childhood: the right to do and say the things a child can do or say and still be loved when an adult cannot. I do not mean this as an original criticism. Orwell long ago called it “the central weakness of Twain’s character,” in an essay that went on to charge him with a deeper fraud:

Mark Twain describes his adventures as a Mississippi pilot as though he had been a boy of about seventeen at the time, whereas in fact he was a young man of nearly thirty. There is a reason for this. The same part of the book [Life on the Mississippi] describes his exploits in the Civil War, which were distinctly inglorious. Moreover, Mark Twain started by fighting, if he can be said to have fought, on the Southern side, and then changed his allegiance before the war was over. This kind of behavior is more excusable in a boy than in a man, whence the adjustment of the dates.

Whenever Twain writes about himself, and especially when he writes about his childhood, the reader senses that he has been invited to participate in a delightful fiction. In these dictations, Twain says several times words to the effect that “when people write their memoirs they do nothing but lie and puff themselves up. Because I will be speaking directly to you from the grave, with nothing to lose, this will be the first deeply honest autobiography.” But he isn’t any more interested in simple, artless honesty in death than he was in life. Honesty, for Twain, was not a virtue, and it was certainly not the best policy. It was a tool in his toolkit, to be used from time to time, when the occasion called for it.

BUT WHEN YOU READ even the most innocent of the funny stories that Twain tells about himself, and think about it for a minute, you realize that not only could it never have happened just the way he tells it, but the real point of the story is to settle, cheaply and painlessly, the question of what sort of person Mark Twain is.

After all, with the exception of those who see him as a scourge of middle America, who reads anything but his children's books and stories: Huck Finn, Jumping Frog, Tom Sawyer and Connecticut Yankee? (and, really, who these days reads anymore than Huck Finn and that only for school?)

Posted by at July 4, 2011 7:57 AM

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