Biography, Books for the News, Commentary, Literature

The (auto)biography of Mark Twain: in which we hitch our wagon to a star

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“Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.”
In with a comet, out with a comet: Halley’s, that is. For elementary students, the life of Mark Twain is first introduced as celestial; later, with adolescent reads of that “great American novel” The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, our humorist falls back to earth, where his larger-than-life sensibilities, rich use of narrative, and social critique sharply attuned to human vanity, frailty, and hypocrisy, introduce a particular breed of American pathos. Beyond the work—which spans everything from colloquial verse and travelogues to historical fiction running the gamut from realist-inspired to proto-science—is, of course, the life. Mark Twain died on April 21, 1910, and in keeping with his wishes, just this fall the University of California Press released the first volume of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, in celebration of that centenary. But as the New York Times reports this weekend, demand has far exceeded expectation for the surprise best-seller: and as we approach the holiday gift-giving season, booksellers are struggling to keep it on the shelves.
“Books are for people who wish they were somewhere else.”
Mark Twain in Nikola Tesla’s laboratory, 1894
If you count yourself among Twain aficionados (full disclosure: I am one of you!) and find yourself fretting in search of a copy, don’t despair. Part of the beauty of Twain’s autobiography, as any amateur Twainian or anyone familiar with the University of California, Berkeley’s astounding Mark Twain Project Online might let you know, is that the book is non-chronological and ever so slightly absurdist. But to reap the riches Twain touches upon in his final years—his involvement with the Society for Psychical Research; his battles with serious depression; and his friendships (and feuds) with paupers, monarchs, and Standard Oil executives alike (his loathing of George Eliot! his fascination with Joan of Arc!) —why not read the biography that the New Republic calls “one of the most reliable and readable books in the whole huge library of Twain biographical studies”? Hamlin Hill’s Mark Twain: God’s Fool embraces Twain’s difficult last years with candor and verve, charting the personal tragedies and questionable business decisions that marked the author’s final decade.
“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”
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Want to dig deeper into how this manifested in Twain’s work? Susan Gillman’s Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain’s America plucks the confidence men, disguised characters, and assumed identities from Twain’s pages and plunks them down alongside the laws regulating race classification, paternity, and cases of rape that underwrote much of Twain’s writings in the 1890s and onward. Here spiritualism’s “pseudoscience” and the birth of modern psychology provide the complex cultural vocabularies essential to the last two decades of Twain’s work.
Humble suggestions from the Chicago Blog about our humble chronicler of good humor and that new American anxiety—and no matter your thoughts, we’re geeked to share this brilliant clip, in inspiration. Shot by Thomas Edison at Twain’s Connecticut estate Stormfield in 1909, it features Twain playing cards with his daughters and combing the hallowed grounds—like Mark Twain: God’s Fool and Dark Twins, it’s not to be missed: