The Chapters from the
North American Review
Michael J. Kiskis, Editor
(University of Wisconsin)
Like most good writers, Mark Twain grew to have a strong distaste for the act of writing. By the time he was seventy years old, he discovered a pleasant alternative. He sat in a rocking-chair and chewed the fat ... with himself: he began dictating his memoirs.
Since he was a natural raconteur, the words came easily, and in the Autobiography, they form a natural story-line, stretching our belief system ... but only so far. Because he was, as we all know, a river-boat captain; and, as with lawyers and fundamentalist preachers, we know that the truth is not to be found in (or anywhere about) river-boat captains.
Twain's facility with the spoken word gives us many prime passages, reaching, at times, high art --- such as this on the "common garter snake:"
We carried them home and put them in Aunt Patsy's work-basket for a surprise, for she was prejudiced against snakes, and always when she took the basket in her lap and they began to climb out of it disordered her mind. She never seem to get used to them.
Or this, on falling off a 19th Century bicycle --- one of those six-foot-tall monsters they used in the early days:
I didn't always go over the front way; I had other ways, and practiced them all; but no matter which way was chosen for me there was always one monotonous result --- the bicycle skinned my leg and leaped up into the air and came down on top of me.
"After a day's practice," he wrote, "I arrived at home with my skin hanging in ribbons, from my knees down."
It was always a surprise to me that I had so much skin, and that it held out so well. There was always plenty, and I soon came to understand that the supply was going to remain sufficient for all my needs.
Then there is this, on the star boozer of Hannibal, Missouri:
Frank's father was at one time Town Drunkard, an exceedingly well-defined and unofficial office of those days. He succeeded "General" Gaines, and for a time he was sole and only incumbent of the office; but afterward Jimmy Finn proved competency and disputed the place with him, so we had two town drunkards at one time --- and it made as much trouble in that village as Christendom experienced in the fourteenth century when there were two Popes at the same time.
Here we have, in a writerly sense, two trains, beating down the rails with a vengeance, at which time the tracks suddenly merge, to the disadvantage of both the Catholic Church and The Drinking Class.
§ § §
Twain's style is so strong that it allows him to show off his wit and literary gaiety --- in the traditional sense --- along with a ravishing touch of tragedy, in this case, the sorrow brought on by the loss of his beloved daughter Suzy. As with the comic, the woe is offered with an edge of magic, avoiding an overburdened prose, avoiding the grave of most writers: sentimentality.
He is helped by the fact that Suzy kept a journal for much of her youth; and she turns out to have been a felicitous writer. She is thus co-author of this Autobiography, for Twain quotes generously --- misspellings and all --- from her notebook. Her entries constitute a mirror lovingly turned on papa:
His complexion is very fair, and he doesn't ware a beard. He is a very good man and a very funny one. He has got a temper, but we all of us have in the family. He is the loveliest man I ever saw or hope to see --- and oh, so absent-minded. He does tell perfectly delightful stories. Clara and I used to sit on each arm of his chair and listen while he told us stories about the pictures on the wall.
In one of his 1907 dictations, he presents a picture of the two of them, from long before her death at age twenty-four, Suzy and father, arms around waist, striding back and forth, there in the study, talking about everything in the world together, laughing, back and forth, confiding: the perfect picture of a loving father and a loving daughter ... soon to be gone.
§ § §
If you are looking for the new Autobiography of Mark Twain, this isn't it. The New York Times and others tell us that the first volume of the University of California edition contains about ninety-five percent of Twain's previously published pieces about his life and times. This earlier edition from the University of Wisconsin was arranged and edited by Michael J. Kiskis from material that appeared in the early days of the twentieth century in the North American Review, a popular magazine. The real scandalous stuff, they say, will appear further on down the line from California when Volume III appears. You may pick up this present edition by mistake, thinking it is the one that is said to be "flying off the shelf," but don't be dismayed, go ahead and buy it anyway.
It's much of the same material for half the price. We'd go for it in any form whatsoever, for it includes a very funny letter addressed to Grover Cleveland or, better, to his one-and-a-half-year-old daughter, being an impassioned plea on the behalf of Twain's friend Frank Mason.
"I detailed to her Mr. Mason's high and honorable record and suggested that she take the matter in her own hands and do a patriotic work which I felt some delicacy about venturing upon myself."
I asked her to forget that her father was only President of the United States, and her subject and servant; I asked her not to put her application in the form of a command, but to modify it, and give it the fictitious and pleasanter form of a mere request --- that it would be no harm to let him gratify himself with the superstition that he was independent and could do as he pleased on the matter.--- Richard Saturday