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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

Autobiography of Mark Twain. The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1

by Harriet Elinor Smith et al, editors
The Mark Twain Foundation
University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 2010
760 pp. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 978-0-520-26719-0.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Sunnyvale, CA, USA


So, in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
"With our own feathers, not by others' hands,
Are we now smitten." - Aeschylus

As near as can metaphorically said to be straddling that blurred boundary between "science" and "art", that is where the field of "humor" is situated as evidenced by its intrinsically formulaic nature [1]. Of all the luminaries bestriding that field as a Colossus, the name that springs first to most minds is Mark Twain.

Last month, the first volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain was finally published after a delay of 100 years imposed by its author. For the most part, the delay was beneficial in that it afforded the editors an extra couple decades to sift through the massive corpus of typed transcripts in a painstaking manner so as to suit the author's goals in what was probably a far better way than he himself would have been able to do had he been able to live an additional century.

The idea of this time lapse was a solution to the problem of achieving honesty by insuring that all parties discussed as well as their heirs would probably be long dead before much of the work would be read. Indeed, the prefixed 1906 preface was marked "from the grave" and, as with all human creation, that is the only possible vantage point from which, figuratively, to witness the "engineer hoist by his own petard".

Twain was not just an accomplished editor, novelist, playwright, and lecturer, his particular form of humor was satire and his expertise in highlighting the absurdities of all forms of discrimination (racism in Huck Finn, classicism in Prince and the Pauper, regionalism in Connecticut Yankee, etc.) is what so often made his writing so compelling.

This first volume of the Autobiography is not without merit. Twain amply covers the distinctions between effective use of the written word versus the spoken word.

Indeed, he even sets the record straight on two famous quotes far too often credited to him. The line about "out-and-out lies, damned lies and statistics" he says he seemed to remember first reading as having been used by Disraeli (even though the editors find no substantiation) and the crack "Wagner's music is nowhere near as bad as it sounds" he heard from Bill Nye. These two items alone whet the reader's appetite for the other two volumes that probably will take another five years, according to the good folks involved at University of California Press in Berkeley.

Where Twain missed the mark was in believing that being able to speak honestly, by delaying the date of publication, would also eliminate any need for being able to rethink conclusions reached much less retract any of them. The most glaring example, found in the final pages of this volume, include a letter he wrote to be read at a 1906 fundraiser he was unable to attend in support of the Russian Revolution.

While the more persnickety might argue that the Revolutionaries of 1905 were ideologically far from the same as those who eventually overthrew the Tsar over a decade later, the hubris on Twain's part in thinking our 20/20 hindsight a century later would, stretching the metaphor more than a tad, upon "spectral analysis" not reveal the obliviousness to the "bloodier shades of red" rendering him less prophet than doofus. His biggest miscalculation was theorizing that any revolution to shake off the bonds of royalty would result, long-term, more like that of 1776 than even the French Revolution.

Since Twain died in 1910, one can only speculate as to how would he have reacted to the reality of the way events actually unfolded under Lenin and, especially, Stalin. Would he have had misgivings about acts by Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernyenko, "Gorby the Glasnost Gasbag", Yeltsin, Putin and Medvedev?

Elsewhere, Twain heaps gushing praise upon Grover Cleveland and, later, opprobrium for McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. One of the more perplexing ruminations is the distain for the mediation by TR resulting in the peace settlement of the Russo-Japanese War because Twain felt it dealt the deathblow to the Russian Revolution.

His apoplectic paroxysms over the matter of Mrs. Minor Morris, the 1906 cause clbre equivalent of Cindy Sheehan, end (at least in this volume) with the prediction that we will react as he did.

Can one assume such ideological sentiments would remain static through FDR's tenure? Would Twain's abhorrence of war have given way to any exception after Pearl Harbor? How about 9/11?

What would he have had to say about Yalta, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki? As of 1906, he retracts no admiration of his friend (and former client) U.S. Grant.

None of these questions can be answered conclusively by reading of this first volume and probably not even after publication of the other two. Indeed his daughter's recollections [2], while enjoyable reading that tend to reveal more of the human side of this great figure, do not shed much light on the question of how, if at all, he might have revised his views.


[1] Hofstadter, Douglas R., et al. Human vs. Computer Creativity; Creation of jokes and humor [videorecording -- VHS] (Stanford, CA., The Stanford Channel, 1998). Taped Nov. 21, 1997 through Spring 1998 as part of a series of symposia at Stanford University. Four presentations with questions and answers concerning computers and jokes. Douglas Hofstadter presents mathematical jokes, Kim Binsted discusses JAPE, a computer program she wrote for constructing puns, Marvin Minsky examines the nature of jokes and comedian Steve Martin provides reflections on humor.

[2] Clemens, Clara My Father, Mark Twain, (New York, NY, Harper and Bros., 1931). See also My Husband, Gabrilowitsch (New York, NY, Harper and Bros., 1938).

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