Essays and Criticism (Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1544

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.

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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 style that he himself was planning. He instructs Orion to "tell the straight truth in it," say ing that" thi s had never been done,'' and that if Orion succeeded, ‘‘his autobiography would be a most valuable piece of literature.’’ Apparently, in real life, Orion succeeds, for Kaplan notes that ‘‘[t]he first installments struck Sam as so 'killingly entertaining,''' that he sent them on to try to get them published. But when Twain recalls Orion's autobiography, he says, ‘‘great was my disappointment. ... In it he was constantly making a hero of himself, exactly as I should have done and am doing now.’’ In an effort to justify his own autobiographical embellishments, Twain's dictation alters the past so that he is not the only one adding embellishments.

This trend intensifies when Twain's humor turns dark and he becomes especially vicious towards others in his autobiography. On these occasions, the facts would suggest that he is crafting a lie and attributing it to a scapegoat to hide a fault of his own. The most notable examples from the book come from the discussion of Twain's relationship with his nephew-in-law Webster. From the start of his recollections about Webster, Twain fabricates the actual details. In his account, he paints Webster as a vain, uneducated, and inexperienced man who eventually swindles Twain out of his business, picks up a drug habit, and mismanages the publishing business to its ruin.

In reality, these claims are unfounded. The truth of the matter, as Kaplan notes, is that Twain completely tied himself up with the daily details for the publication of the General Grant book, which is the type of job that he hired Webster to do. ‘‘He simply could not hand over authority, and Charley's days as a publisher were numbered,’’ says Kaplan, who notes that for years Twain ran Webster ragged with small errands, at the same time warning him not to work too hard. Largely due to this stress and the resulting health effects, Webster sold his share in the business and died an early death at the age of forty.

This is a far cry from the story that Twain tells about Webster, but it makes sense why he makes up the tale. Twain cannot admit that it is his own mismanagement that makes his book business fail, and so he demonizes Webster to try to absolve his own guilt. In Twain's version, Twain is the embattled underdog who has to deal with his nephew-in-law's traitorous act and soldier on to regain financial solvency. Even when he does not have an audience, Twain is in such need to deny his own guilt that he maintains Webster has wronged him. Kaplan notes that until his death, Twain ‘‘held Webster responsible for every terrible thing that happened, including bankruptcy and the deaths of Susy and Livy.’’

Twain himself admits in the autobiography that his memory is failing, and that when he was younger, he could "remember anything, whether it happened or not.'' But in the case of his strong feelings toward Webster, it goes beyond remembering something incorrectly. His hatred becomes an internal reality, which manifests itself in his excessive use of vicious humor at the expense of his nephew-in-law.

On a similar note, Twain is most honest when describing tragic events that are totally devoid of humor, such as the accounts of the deaths of his daughter Susy and wife Olivia. This fact is not lost on Twain's biographer. Says Kiskis, ‘‘As Paine came to realize the conflicting approaches, he drew a distinction between the materials related to Livy and Susy as being different from the other materials.''

A significant portion of Twain's autobiography is devoted to the death of his wife Olivia and two of his daughters, Susy and Jean. In each of these tellings, Twain is notably moved. ‘‘It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live,’’ says Twain, when recalling his reaction to Susy's death. He goes on to say that ‘‘the intellect is stunned by the shock.'' For the great humorist with the noted quick wit, there are no humorous alleviations for his grief; death of a close personal loved one is the single topic that cannot be qualified with a joke.

Jean's death hits him so hard that he ends the book with it. There is no mistaking his tone when he recounts the death of this daughter. Humor is still absent, and the voice is one of a man in pain: ‘‘Possibly I know now what the soldier feels like when a bullet crashes through his heart.’’

Given the fact that Twain makes this statement in the last chapter in his book, which was also one of the last chapters that he dictated, it might be that this is Twain at his most honest. All of his playful humor is gone, and he is merely waiting for his own death, which he views as a "gift." Indeed, Twain dies a mere four months later, one presumes from a broken heart, which even his incredibly imaginative mind— with its characteristic and sometimes falsifying sense of humor—could not repair.

Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on The Autobiography of Mark Twain, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

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Essays and Criticism