Essays and Criticism (Nonfiction Classics for Students)
How does one go about reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain? Noted by generations of critics and readers alike for its sprawling collection of experiences that lack an obvious structure, the work has also been studied with a historical microscope to determine what facts hold up under inspection.
Indeed, even while the bulk of the material was being dictated to Albert Bigelow Paine, the biographer himself had doubts as to its authenticity. As Michael Kiskis notes in his article, "Mark Twain and Collaborative Autobiography," "Paine came to believe that the material was infected by dramatization, a belief that drove a wedge between his work as biographer and Clemens' s as autobiographer.’’
To some extent, this should have been expected, given Twain's profession. Twain was known for his ‘‘tall tales’’ in both his fictional works and semi-autobiographical travel works, and the tendency to embellish his life for the amusement of others was—by the time of the autobiographical dictations—instinct.
Twain may not be alone in this instinct. Speaking about autobiographies in general, Alvin P. Sanoff notes in his article "Autobiography and the Craft of Embellishment’’ that ‘‘scholars are now asking whether autobiographers actually bare their souls or whether their works are every bit as much a product of the imagination as a well-crafted novel.’’
However, this does not necessarily mean that one should read Twain's autobiography with a history book or documented biography nearby, although some readers do. Instead, a reader who wishes to understand the truth within the work should consider focusing on the particular qualities of the words themselves. Perhaps one of Twain's own quotes sums it up best. In an excerpt from a conversation to his friend, William Dean Howells, reproduced in Kaplan's book, Twain says ‘‘The remorseless truth is there, between the lines.’’
If reading between the lines is the trick to understanding the truth of Twain's autobiography, then there must be some formula, some focusing point, with which to view the work to find its subtext, or hidden meaning. Indeed, when one examines the situations in the book in light of their relative quality of humor, a possible formula presents itself. Specifically, Twain uses three different levels of humor in his autobiography—mild humor, vicious humor, and the total lack of humor—all of which give an indication of how truthful the account is.
When Twain uses mild humor, there is good reason to believe that he is embellishing the truth, if not manufacturing the entire story, telling the equivalent of a harmless white lie to benefit the narrative. There are many examples of mild humor in the text. In the narrative, when Twain almost takes part in a duel, he acts like he is worried and says of his opponent, "If the duel had come off he would have so filled my skin with bullet holes that it wouldn't have held my principles.’’ This is a funny little anecdote, but the duel never happened. As Leland Krauth notes in his article "Mark Twain Fights Sam Clemens' Duel," "Clemens' challenges ... were never accepted; there was no confrontation on the field of honor.’’
That does not mean, however, that other instances where Twain uses mild humor are totally false. For example, Kaplan notes that Twain's brother Orion does have a number of misadventures in real life, including the incident where he sneaks into the wrong house in the middle of the night and snuggles up against two old maids, whom he mistakes for his brothers. Whether the maids actually screamed or whether Orion ‘‘was out of the bed and clawing around in the dark for his clothes in a fraction of a second,’’ readers may never know, although it is likely that Twain embellished this part somewhat for greater effect.
However, in other portrayals of Orion, Twain does not give the full story. In his narrative, Twain discusses how he gave Orion the task of writing down an autobiography in the...
(The entire section is 1,544 words.)