Biography, Books for the News, Literature

The emergence of a very different Twain

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One hundred years after his passing Mark Twain is about to reinvent himself. Though published in redacted form several times already, Twain’s autobiography will finally be released later this year by the University of California Press in an unexpurgated edition that includes all the controversial material left out of earlier editions. Seeming radically different from the personality that penned his classic and beloved depictions of nineteenth-century American life, a recent article in the New York Times notes that in the Autobiography of Mark Twain the author “emerges more pointedly political and willing to play the role of the angry prophet” than ever before. From the NYT:

Twain’s opposition to incipient imperialism and American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, for example, were well known even in his own time. But the uncensored autobiography makes it clear that those feelings ran very deep and includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers.
In a passage removed by Paine, Twain excoriates “the iniquitous Cuban-Spanish War” and Gen. Leonard Wood’s “mephitic record” as governor general in Havana. In writing about an attack on a tribal group in the Philippines, Twain refers to American troops as “our uniformed assassins” and describes their killing of “six hundred helpless and weaponless savages” as “a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.”

But while such a contrarian self-portrait might seem unprecedented, in fact, in 1973 English and American Studies scholar Hamlin Hill published an iconoclastic biographical account of Mark Twain’s later years that anticipated Twain’s own latest self-revelations. Despite myths to the contrary perpetrated by Twain’s early editors and literary executors, Hill’s Mark Twain: God’s Fool was one of the first accounts to reveal Twain as a man deeply troubled by a number of personal tragedies, failed business ventures, and harshly critical of the social, economic, and political milieu in which he lived.
Find out more about Twain’s autobiography with this recent NYT article or find out more about Hill’s groundbreaking biography.