The Autobiography of Mark Twain

by Mark Twain
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Essays and Criticism

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5251

‘‘All my books,’’ Twain once confessed, ‘‘are autobiographies.'' To an unusual degree this is true, as he mined his past for his fictions and recorded versions of his present for his travel books. At the same time, from at least 1870 on, he began to write sketches of his life experiences and his family that are more directly autobiographical. The impulse found new impetus in Vienna from 1897-98 and acquired a new mode in Florence in 1904 when he began to dictate (he had tried dictation briefly in 1885). Finally in 1906 he started the series of almost daily dictations that would continue to within a few months of his death. Always self-conscious, always performing versions of himself, Twain took naturally to autobiography, especially during his later years when he was worrying over his present and future image. As Michael Kiskis has observed, however, most of Twain's autobiography was ‘‘composed during periods of creative, personal, and emotional stress’’. The result of Twain's writing and dictating portions of his life story off and on for some forty years is, in the words of one critic,"one of the most perplexing compilations in American letters.’’

Part of the problem is the form of Twain's autobiography. It is a series of fragments, written or dictated at different times, that replaces chronology with free association prompted by present events as well as past memories. It incorporates, though it has never been published this way, a range of documents, some personal to Twain, others just the flotsam of everyday life. Twain intended to add some parts of his autobiography as notes to his already published works in order to extend their copyright. He also intended to have his self-told life story published in successive installments only after his death, the first installment of which would omit characterizations of his acquaintances, while the second, third, and fourth would leave out what he thought were his more heretical opinions. He designated certain chapters to be sealed and unpublished for one hundred years. Rather clearly visible in these designs is not only a desire to perpetuate Mark Twain but also a large sense of self-importance.

Given the complications, not to say, the peculiarities, of Twain's forays into autobiography, as well as his directions about them, there may never be a definitive text of this work, despite the ingenuity and energy of the editors at the Mark Twain Project. Fortunately, however, Twain himself may have given us a final version of his autobiographical self. Enticed as ever by money ($30,000 in this case), he agreed to publish in the North American Review in twenty-five installments "Chapters from My Autobiography.’’ They were selected and edited by George Harvey, editor of the Review and the senior editor at Harper who was handling Mark Twain, but, as Kiskis has pointed out, Twain was ‘‘involved in the choices for the installments, had final control over the revisions that were made to the texts, and gave his approval for their publication''. The "chapters" appeared from September 1906 to December 1907. If they are not the definitive version of the autobiography, they are certainly the final, extended public representation of Mark Twain.

In naming these selections The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Clemens confounds the customary triad of autobiographical composition: author, narrator, subject. Who is which? Reversing the usual relationship in which Clemens did the living, Twain the writing, here Clemens seems to become the writer, the biographer of Mark Twain, who seems to have a life of his own—at least until the term autobiography dissolves the difference between the two. It is tempting to say that the narrator and the subject are both Twain, making Clemens just the author, but what the Autobiography of Mark Twain actually presents are the facts (and fictions) of Clemens' s life. To complicate things further, this autobiographical text presents itself throughout as unreliable. Its author repeatedly subverts his story by suggesting that it may not be the truth. The last line summarizes the deliberately uncertain status of the whole: "Now, then, that is the tale. Some of it is true’’. And yet these problematics are perfectly characteristic of Mark Twain. They point once more to the all but inextricable unity of Clemens and his persona. Here the pseudonym does not subvert the autobiographical act. The text does tell the life of Clemens, but it tells it through the eyes and style of Mark Twain. The two are, in the end, in this end, one. Further, the autobiography is not an especially humorous performance, thus reinforcing the view that the pseudonym Mark Twain signals the entire range of the creative self, the serious, sentimental, and conventional as well as the comic, caustic, and unorthodox. The autobiography, perhaps more than any other text of Mark Twain's, makes it clear that we need to enlarge our sense of the persona to at least the proportions of its actual practice.

Although Clemens' s life was in reality a spectacular instance of success against heavy odds (followed by failure, capped yet again by success), the autobiography does not shape itself around the traditional pattern of rising in the world. Nor does it isolate any turning point or conversion experience. (Twain specifically denies that there are any.) And if, as Susanna Egan has argued, post-Civil War American autobiographies are typically cast as "his tory in the making, with the self, in varying degrees of objectivity, as participant,'' then Twain's autobiography is atypical for its time. It does not place the self in history; it is not concerned with the self as master or victim or even exemplar of historical process. Even Henry James whose memoirs are so firmly lodged in the development of his own artistic consciousness, offers a fuller sense of historical force than Twain. Twain simply ignores history or shrinks it to the dimensions of the personal. Thus, to take only a few obvious examples, in his life story slavery becomes the childhood experience of black folkways and interracial companionship; the Civil War is refracted into Mark Twain's visits to and conversations with General Grant; westward expansion is reduced to anecdotes of Mark Twain's time in Nevada and California; reconstruction is skirted altogether except for allusions to personal friends, such as Cable, who were in the thick of its ideological struggles; and urbanization and industrialization are either overlooked or realized only as affording modern conveniences for Mark Twain. (In the North American Review version, Twain even omits his highly publicized opposition to imperialism.) Despite the fact that he was in so many ways a Representative Man of his era, Twain chooses to place his autobiographical self largely outside of his times. He thus removes from his self-portrait the shaping influence of historical process, making himself appear independently self-created.

Ignoring chronology, Twain also presents himself as fully formed from the first of his narrative. Although he does begin the first chapter with scattered remarks about ancestors (including Satan), he jumps almost at once to his literary use of his mother's cousin and then moves in his second chapter to unconnected events separated by as much as fifty-seven years, with several other discrete episodes slipped in between. Thus by the second chapter his method of autobiography is fully under way: "It is a deliberate system, and the law of the system is that I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted. It is a system which follows no charted course and is not going to follow any such course. It is a system which is a complete and purposed jumble''

The randomness of his system defies the causality common to most autobiographies. Essentially a collection of nonchronological fragments that begin, unfold, and conclude willy-nilly, his form is designed to thwart the emergence of any coherent pattern and with it a meaning to his life. He is as unconcerned with presenting, or discovering, a unified self (despite his emphasis in What Is Man? on idiosyncratic temperament) as he is with displaying a multiple self (despite his complex representations in Pudd'nhead Wilson of individual identity). His guiding principle is ‘‘the matter which for the moment interests me.’’ Such a conception of autobiography is massively egotistical as it privileges the present interest of the writer above all other considerations. It also presupposes that what is of interest to Mark Twain will inevitably be of interest to his readers.

Thus enacted in the very form of Twain's autobiography is the absolute autonomy of self. The self is the narrative fragments, and each is assumed to be equally revelatory, defining, and engaging. This heralding of the independent self is common to the Victorian mode of male autobiography, which tends to diminish community and silence the voices of others (see Danahay). On the other hand, Twain's peculiar version of self-creating actually employs groups and places others in dialogue with the self. His autobiography is in its way consummately social. His narrative voice is often that of the storyteller, and storytelling presumes and creates an audience. But the people he surrounds and involves himself with in his text—from family, to friends, to publishers, to presidents—are used on the whole only to highlight the many facets of Mark Twain. With so much functioning to illuminate him, what Mark Twain is finally revealed?

A remarkably conventional one. Whatever the range and quirkiness of his complete autobiographical writings and dictations, in the selections published in the North American Review Twain's life is defined as more mainstream than divergent, his self more conventional than radical. He appears as a winsome, slightly eccentric, but thoroughly respectable Victorian.

As with many Victorians, he achieves his upright, public self through a series of repressions. Suppressed in, or edited out of, this autobiography are, among other things, his antagonism toward his father, the actual facts of his aborted duel, his violent aggression toward imagined enemies, his business dealings, notably those leading to his bankruptcy, and his sexuality. And muted, though as we shall see, not entirely suppressed, is his religious skepticism. More generally still, the autobiography conceals his domineering personality. What is presented, then, is the conventional person: the loving husband, the doting father, the successful writer, the tender sentimentalist, the staunch moralist, the urgent sage, the famous personage. While these roles may not, indeed do not, disclose the whole man, they do define fundamental aspects of him; they reveal the proper Mark Twain.

In the well-known preface he prepared for his autobiography (not one he used in the North American Review version) he imagined, to protect as well as to liberate himself, that he was "speaking from the grave’’. He also proposed a model of free expression:

The frankest and freest and privatest product of the human mind and heart is a love letter; the writer gets his limitless freedom of statement and expression from his sense that no stranger is going to see what he is writing.

It has seemed to me that I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was writing would be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware, and indifferent.

In his autobiography Twain does not attain anything like the intimacy and candor of a conventional love letter, for the fragments of his life are always told, sometimes, when he was writing, to an imagined audience, always, when he was dictating, to a real one—to some gathering of his stenographer, secretary, authorized biographer, and even upon occasion his business manager. (Throughout his later years, special audiences, whether made up of his domestic circle, his "aquarium" of young girls, or his male cronies, fed his sense of personage.) But in one sense the autobiography is a love letter—a love letter to Livy. He memorializes her with affection and tenderness, evoking many of the same terms of praise and devotion he had used in his courtship correspondence. Again, she is both "girl and woman,’’ a loving innocent full of ‘‘limitless affection’’ and unfailing "charity," a saintly person of ‘‘perfect character’’; and again, she is the object not only of his love but of his "worship''. Twain's use of the love letter as analogue for his autobiographical narrative recalls the postures Clemens assumed in his courtship. Significantly, the one that seemed so real at that time because it was weighted with his visible imperfections, the role of prodigal returning to the fold, is gone now, replaced by a resolute skepticism, while the other major postures, ones that proclaimed his achieved, constant character, his roles as Man of the World, Man of Feeling, and Man of Letters, are all confirmed in the autobiography. Indeed, his life story as he tells it testifies that he has lived as the man he assured Livy he was. The first full expression of himself as a proper gentleman is reenacted in the autobiography.

The conventionality of the autobiography has not escaped notice. For all of his promises of personal and conceptual fireworks, Twain actually created a fairly staid set of narrative fragments. Certainly, as Cox has pointed out, there is "little of a revelatory or shocking nature in all the dictations’’. And there is nothing at all that shocks or surprises in the selections Twain actually published, unless one is taken aback by their very orthodoxy.

Predictably, those passages that seem to lie deepest in Twain's past, to define in some way his core, his recollections of the Quarles farm, are repossessed and re-created—repossessed through their re-creation—in a highly stylized manner. This, too, is indicative of the conventional in Mark Twain. Their vivid particularity, the sensuous specificity, the astounding details of his descriptions are all knit together in a self-conscious, complex syntax, governed by the rhetorical refrain, ‘‘I know,’’ and its variants, "I can see'' and "I can remember''. The passage, probably the most admired in the entire autobiography, is a successful set piece of ostentatious prose of the sort practiced so long ago in the love letters (and repeated in one form or another in many of the major works). Bathed in nostalgia, Twain's litany of lost,"blessed'' things depends on the romantic assumption that"the eye of the artist is the eye of the child’’. This is a very traditional notion, to say the least, one that infatuated Romantics and Victorians alike. To approximate that innocent vision, Twain incorporates Susy' s biography of him into his own autobiography. Just as George Harvey selects and edits Twain's chapters, so Twain chooses and presents excerpts from Susy's text. (He does leave her style, with all its misspellings, for it conveys her untutored youth, certifies her innocence.) His appropriation of Susy's observations allows him to pay eulogistic tribute to her, to recover the wonder of a child's perspective, to celebrate himself (for Susy's remarks are full of admiration even when they chide him), and to display to the full his loving fatherhood. Through Susy he enshrines himself within the family nexus as a loving husband, father, neighbor, and friend. It is a very Victorian act.

It is also through Susy that Mark Twain frames his own skepticism. His report of her innocent, wondering question ‘‘What is it all for?’’ echoes throughout his story. And at times he uses her as access to his own deeper doubts. He reports her account, for instance, of familiar childhood play: ‘‘Sept. 10, '85.—The other evening Clara and I brought down our new soap bubble water and we all blew soap bubbles. Papa blew his soap bubbles and filled them with tobacco smoke and as the light shone on them they took very beautiful opaline colors,’’ and then he adds to it his own sentimental moral reflection: "It is human life. We are blown upon the world; we float buoyantly upon the summer air a little while, complacently showing off our grace of form and our dainty iridescent colors; then we vanish with a little puff, leaving nothing behind but a memory—and sometimes not even that. I suppose that at those solemn times when we wake in the deeps of the night and reflect, there is not one of us who is not willing to confess that he is really only a soap-bubble, and as little worth the making’’. From the initial metaphor, through the trite language, to the final idea of human transience, this is a stock piece of Victorian melancholy.

Twain could hardly be more conventional— and hence safer—in his musings. Yet he is so uneasy about his cynical reflections that he seeks (or rather creates) multiple sanctions for them. First, his thoughts are prompted by—and softened by—Susy's play, and then he reaches for the exemption of universality—‘‘there is not one of us who is not willing to confess’’—to depersonalize his despair. Such a moment as this in the autobiography reveals (though the revelation is neither new nor shocking) just how conventional Mark Twain is: conventional enough to write effectively using familiar tropes, conventional enough to reflect moralistically on the vanity, the brevity, and insignificance of life, and conventional enough to feel guilty about the religious challenge of his reflections (as far as one can tell, he was pleased with their expression).

Had Twain been less conventional, he might have reveled in the doubt he shared with so many other Victorians. In his North American Review autobiography, however, he only toys with orthodox religious belief, tweaking the noses, as it were, of true believers with his humorous—and therefore, he must have felt, safe—remarks about Providence. This version of his quarrel with God is staged as little more than a quibble conducted through quips.

The quips are both frequent and varied. Explaining the horrors that plagued his childhood—fears of death, nightmares of mutilation, remembrances of violence—he observes facetiously, "They were inventions of Providence to beguile me to a better life.’’ Then he exploits his past innocence to mock the framework of such thought: "It would not have surprised me, nor even over-flattered me, if Providence had killed off that whole community in trying to save an asset like me. Educated as I had been, it would have seemed just the thing, and well worth the expense’’. The adult Twain often uses Providence for his humorous criticisms, disarmingly including himself in those he attacks:"It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden''. Sometimes an anecdote is shaped around the mistaken notion of attributing to God what is done by man. In this vein he complains that his family, in the habit of giving credit ‘‘to Providence’’ for every good event out of ‘‘automatic religion,’’ thanks God for providing ducks when it is he who buys them. As he relates this story, he creates an unusually ugly picture:

There was a stranded log or two in the river, and on those certain families of snapping-turtles used to congregate and drowse in the sun and give thanks, in their dumb way, to Providence for benevolence extended to them. It was but another instance of misplaced credit; it was the young ducks that those pious reptiles were so thankful for—whereas they were my ducks. I bought the ducks.

When a crop of young ducks, not yet quite old enough for the table but approaching that age, began to join the procession, and paddle around in the sluggish water, and give thanks—not to—for that privilege, the snapping-turtles would suspend their songs of praise and slide off the logs and paddle along under the water and chew the feet of the young ducks.

Vying comically here with Providence for the respect due to one in control, Twain raises, however obliquely, the fundamental question of causality and opens the lens on a savage nature. At such moments what seems good-humored play has a dark nether side. Relating a variant of a familiar Twain joke, he says that in his boyhood people were always thwarting Providence by saving him from death: "I was drowned seven times after that before I learned to swim—once in Bear Creek and six times in the Mississippi. I do not now know who the people were who interfered with the intentions of a Providence wiser than themselves, but I hold a grudge against them yet’’. The final ironic inversion—resenting those who saved his life— implies a preference for death over life that is openly announced elsewhere in the autobiography, most poignantly perhaps when the grieving father says that even if he could he would not bring back the dead Susy to suffer "the cares, the sorrows, and the inevitable tragedy of life''.

In a dazzling, provocative study of the autobiography, G. Thomas Couser explores Twain's conception of a narrative that would open itself to "the subtlest impulses of consciousness and memory''. Echoing Twain's own metaphor of narrative as a river stream (‘‘narrative should flow as flows the brook’’), Couser observes this: ‘‘Alternating between rapids and leisurely eddies, the narrative would resist, if not negate, the chronology and teleology of life-writing that point toward the subject's death’’. While the act of narrating might as it transpires provide such a resistance, Twain's actual narrative engages rather than avoids his own mortality. Light as they are, his jokes about Providence, especially in their cumulative force, undercut the prevailing religious teleology.

His published autobiographical chapters are haunted by death. Most obviously, Livy and Susy cast the dark shadow of death over the entire autobiography, but Twain goes out of his way to chant the names of the dead: Olivia Clemens, Susy Clemens, Jane Clemens, Orion Clemens, Henry Clemens, Pamela Moffett, Samuel Moffett, General Grant Harriet Beecher Stowe Dean Sage, Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Bret Harte, Frank Stockton, James Redpath, Charles Dudley Warner, John Garth, Will Bowen, Sam Bowen, Ed Stevens, Irving Ayres, George Butler, Ruel Gridley. His litany expands as the narrative unfolds until the story of Twain's life begins to feel saturated with death. As counterpoint perhaps to naming the dead—and thus honoring them—Twain paradoxically offers from time to time a generalized reflection on the meaning of all life that emphasizes its futility, thus indirectly suggesting that everyone dies in vain:

A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other; age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities; those they love are taken from them, and the joy of life is turned to aching grief. The burden of pain, care, misery, grows heavier year by year; at length, ambition is dead, pride is dead; vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place. It comes at last— the only unpoisoned gift earth had for them—and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing; where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; where they have left no sign that they have existed—a world which will lament them a day and forget them forever. Then another myriad takes their place, and copies all they did, and goes along the same profitless road, and vanishes as they vanished—to make room for another, and another, and a million other myriads, to follow the same arid path through the same desert, and accomplish what the first myriad, and all the myriads that came after it accomplished—nothing!

Whatever stays against death narrating his autobiography may have provided, Mark Twain's immortality lay, as he perceived, in his literary achievement. It was the rock upon which he was tenoned and mortised. In The Turning Point of My Life, a comic bit of autobiography published just two months before his death, he does what he refuses to do in the autobiography proper: he offers an explanation of his life's centering. ‘‘To me,’’ he writes, ‘‘the most important feature of my life is its literary feature’’. Although its deliberately nonchronological, nonpatterned, nonpivotal form denies overall significance to the life, the chapters published in the North American Review do return time and again in one way or another to his career as a writer—to his life's ‘‘literary feature.’’ He does not, to be sure, explore the creative process itself. He no more enters into that subjective arena than into his own psychological makeup and emotional states. Despite his belief that the true life of a person resides in the flow of ideas and feeling in consciousness, his autobiography is notably lacking in inwardness. But he refers to the sources of his works, to their subjects, to their publications, to their receptions, and to their earnings so recurrently that not even the determined randomness of his form can conceal the importance of his identity as author. It flits through the times and places of his narrative like a ghost whose presence is always felt. The figure of Mark Twain, the writer, is arguably at the center of his wandering memoirs, informing all the other facets of his life. Both husbandhood and fatherhood are tied to his authorship: he discovers Livy because he is traveling abroad as a writer; Susy undertakes his biography because he is a famous author whose character, she believes, is misper-ceived by the world. Given the importance of authorship to his life story, as he tells it, there is an aptness about the first of the two events with which he concludes his North American Review narrative. That penultimate episode also marks an important metaphorical turn in the awareness of death that pervades the autobiography.

In the first half of his final chapter, Twain revisits what he felt was the greatest catastrophe in his literary career—the Whittier birthday speech. In returning to that episode he exercises a power inherent in his form, one fundamental to the autobiographical act: the ability to rewrite one's life. As we saw earlier, the original speech, given in December 1877 at the dinner held by the Atlantic Monthly to honor Whittier at seventy, was perceived by Twain—with a lot of guidance from Howells—as a disaster of incalculable magnitude. Twain felt its consequences keenly, believing that he had offended Emerson, Longfellow, and Holmes, the objects of his burlesque, as well as Whittier, the guest of honor. He believed for a time that the speech itself was of inferior quality. And he believed that he had disgraced himself as a member of polite society. Believing all this, he feared that his literary career was in jeopardy, and, as noted in chapter 2, he may even have gone abroad in the spring of 1878 to escape what he imagined to be a continuing storm of public protest. His anxiety is worth recalling. "My misfortune,'' he wrote to Howells, "has injured me all over the country; therefore it will be best that I retire from before the public at present''. Given his delusions and, as he says as he retells the episode and reprints the speech, his actual pain, there is at least symbolic truth as well as humor to his saying, ‘‘I shall never be as dead again as I was then’’. Insofar as his autobiography records the life of Mark Twain the writer, this is his moment of death.

The Whittier fiasco epitomized the cultural conflict between elite gentility and democratic commonality. Twain is customarily taken to be at one with the latter. Yet his distress over his performance was so great precisely because he cared about being genteel. He had, or so it seemed to him (and Howells), failed himself, failed as a gentleman, betrayed his innate sense of propriety, however accidentally and momentarily, and so lapsed in social grace. Precisely because all this mattered to him, he exaggerated the proportions of his blunder. Howells deepened his sense of monumental error. ‘‘Every one with whom I have talked about your speech,’’ he wrote Twain, ‘‘regards it as a fatality’’. But this report of the death of Mark Twain was premature. He recovered at the time, of course, and went on to greatness as a writer. And in the autobiography, having suffered his death in the retelling, he resurrects himself—for himself—by reclaiming the very proprieties of character he once feared he had lost. Rereading his speech, he testifies that there is no "coarseness" in it, no "vulgarity." It is, he says, "smart" and ‘‘saturated with humor’’. Twain thus restores himself to the living, rewrites the past, and removes a supposed blemish from his person. At the near end of his autobiography, he reestablishes his character as a proper gentleman.

Ironically, the final story he tells plays directly against that character. The tale, in brief, is that he once sold another man's dog (for three dollars), reclaimed it for its true owner (returning the three dollars), and then accepted a reward (three dollars again) for his service. Told with stylish innocence, often displaying Twain as inspired idiot, the story ends the autobiography with a tale that may be tall ("some of it is true,’’ Twain says. It shows Twain at the last as an accomplished literary humorist, but that very act raises a question about the humor of the autobiography. To put the issues in terms appropriate to the form: what kind of a humorist is Twain in his life story?

The final comic tale, made important by its very position, discloses the essential nature of the humorous Mark Twain of the autobiography. There is an orality about its narrative (but then the autobiography itself often feels spoken, as indeed much of it was), and it does show off Twain as master of illogic, non sequitur, and deadpan stupidities. The tale also takes yet another comic swipe at religious ideology, since Twain undertakes his dog dealing to provide what the Lord hasn't. But the humor overall really turns upon Twain's protestations of morality. ‘‘I was always honest,’’ he says. ‘‘I know I can never be otherwise’’. The joke at the heart of the anecdote turns on the question of how honest Twain has been in his dog dealing. In somewhat broader terms, however, what entertains here is the spectacle of Mark Twain, celebrated writer, famous person, moralist to the nation, playing a con game. The humor derives from Twain's stature.

Throughout his autobiography, Twain's humor makes light of his character; it turns upon—by turning against—his personage. He presents himself through remarks and through anecdotes as other than what his readers expect him to be, other than what most segments of the autobiography show him to be. Thus he comically contests his prestige, his morality, his social standing, his power, and his eminence—the very conditions of achievement and character that authorize the autobiography in the first place. Such humor at the expense of the very proprieties and attainments he cares so much about does not subvert them, however. We continue to believe in the proper Twain even as he proclaims and reveals his improprieties. His revelations of questionable self are just jokes, made funny to the degree that they are improbable. Ironically, then, the more he uses humor to display an improper self, the more he actually evokes the presence of the proper one. To put it another way, Mark Twain actually flaunts his propriety by comically declaring his impropriety.

Source: Leland Krauth, "Personage," in Proper Mark Twain, University of Georgia Press, 1999, pp. 219-50.

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Critical Overview


Essays and Criticism (Nonfiction Classics for Students)