The Autobiography of Mark Twain

by Mark Twain

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In The Autobiography of Mark Twain, the famous American author Twain presents young readers with biographical information about his life, insight into how an author thinks and writes, and a description of a young and optimistic United States. The book uses anecdotic forms of recollections to document Twain’s life and shows the influence of a developing nation on this author as well as his influence on the nation. Editor Charles Neider’s 1959 revised edition of Twain’s autobiography contains seventy-nine chapters written by Twain during his earlier years and dictated during his later years. Although the first part of the book begins with his birth and the last tells of the end of his life, The Autobiography of Mark Twain presents events as Twain recollects them, rather than in a chronological format.

While Twain primarily focuses on his own life, he also deals with the lives of friends and relatives as he shows how they affected him and his work. In the preface and in several other places, Twain reminds readers that by speaking “from the grave” he is allowed to write freely when describing the private moments of his life. Twain, claiming his work to be free and frank, tells young readers about his friendships with famous American figures such as Ulysses S. Grant, Bret Harte, and William Dean Howells. Likewise, he discusses the members of his family: his mother and father, brother, wife and children, and even a nephew with whom he began a publishing business. Twain develops a feeling of closeness and rapport with the reader as he tells of the death of his son and his interactions with authors and publishers and as he shares his feelings about people whom he liked and did not like.

Twain provides interesting commentaries concerning the fairness of life, his theological beliefs, and his political opinions. For example, Twain believed that “people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination, from authorities who have not themselves examined the questions at issue.” Near the end of the book, Twain, mixing humor and philosophy, comments on the human race and the way in which people hold on to superstitions.

In the revised edition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Neider provides a fourteen-page introduction that gives vital information about Twain’s life, other editions of the autobiography, and the use of anecdotal recollections to tell a life story, as well as an explanation of the reasons for the inclusion or omission of certain material. Twain’s use of his recollections provides some highly interesting information and some that perceptive readers might justifiably question; Neider argues that the book as a whole is an entertaining autobiography. The revised edition also contains fourteen pages of illustrations of Twain, his family, and his friends. Other illustrations reveal two pages from one of Twain’s manuscripts that show corrections and revisions in his own handwriting.

Historical Context

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One of the reasons The Autobiography of Mark Twain continues to engage readers is its detailed, first-person account of the historical events of the time. Twain lived during formative years in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when America was experiencing growing pains and defining its national identity.

It is no surprise that Twain and his brother Orion were able to find work in the newspaper industry, which experienced rapid growth in the nineteenth century. This growth was due to a number of developments, including the increased use of advertising to subsidize printing costs, an increase in the number of news correspondents using the telegraph to wire in the latest national news, and...

(This entire section contains 533 words.)

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the establishment of the Associated Press. The importance of newspapers and other forms of rapid communication increased with the advent of the Civil War, when existing newspapers on both sides of the conflict promoted their cause in print.

The Civil War was the single, bloodiest fight that America has ever experienced. From 1861 to 1865, more than six hundred thousand Americans died in this war which pitted brother against brother— sometimes literally, as some families were divided in their loyalties to North and South. Although the secession of the southern states from the Union started the war, divided views over slavery caused the South to secede. The South viewed the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 as a threat to its way of life—most notably the institution of slavery, which provided the massive labor force that fueled the lucrative southern cotton trade.

The majority of casualties in the war came from disease, which thrived among the troops on both sides. Second to disease as a cause of death in the war were battlefield injuries and a lack of medical knowledge, experience, and preparation. Medicine in the nineteenth century was largely undeveloped, and medical education was not yet regulated. American physicians had, at this time, little knowledge of the cause and prevention of disease and infection.

Even in cities, away from the crude setting of the battlefront, medicine was largely guesswork and people easily succumbed to many fatal and crippling illnesses. In this autobiography, Twain gives some examples from his own experiences. His father gets caught out in a storm on a trip home and dies from pleurisy, an inflammation in the pleura due to a prolonged lung infection. Twain's wife falls on the ice when she is a teenager, and as a result is an invalid for the rest of her life. His brother, Henry, is given an overdose of morphine, which kills him.

In one of the most heart-wrenching passages of the book, Twain recalls his responsibility for the death of his first-born child, Langdon. Twain took his son out for a drive on a cold morning and forgot to check on him. "The furs fell away and exposed his bare legs,'' Twain recalls. He and the coachman wrap up the child again, but the effects of the cold proved fatal. As Resa Willis notes in her book, Mark and Livy, Langdon's death was "caused by diphtheria, the disease that took so many children in the nineteenth century and for which no antitoxin would be developed until 1890.’’

Literary Style

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Organization Although Charles Neider' s version of the The Autobiography of Mark Twain is organized chronologically, the material within each chapter still reflects Twain's original intent to impose no structure on the material other than that which was created by his freeform dictations. This lack of formal organization forces the reader to pay greater attention to details, since the details are not neatly packaged. The lack of formal organization also creates links between subjects that might not be there in a truly chronological autobiography, and thus provides an insight into the author's thought patterns.

For example, in the chapter where Twain first talks about his mother, he describes her extreme compassion, writing, ' 'my mother would not have allowed a rat to be restrained of its liberty.’’ In the next paragraph he abruptly switches gears, and talks about how, when he was a boy in Missouri,' 'everybody was poor but didn't know it.''

What is the purpose of this abrupt switch in narrative? One imagines Twain dictating this passage, with an image of the rat his mother would try to save. It could be at this point that he starts to think about rats in general, and how rats are usually associated with poor conditions. This would provide the link to the paragraph about poverty.

In any case, analyzing the text in this manner, especially at points where Twain abruptly switches topics, helps the reader to get inside Twain's head and understand his intentions better. If all of the recollections of Twain's mother were included in one chapter and all of the recollections of his poverty were kept in a separate chapter, the book would have an entirely different feel.

Humor Twain was known as a humorist and demonstrated a playful quality in most of his writings. This is evident throughout the book, in which he uses humorous phrases to describe situations, such as when wasps are crawling up the leg of a boy so stricken with shyness by some girls in the room that he cannot move. Twain describes the wasps as ''prospecting around,'' and says that' 'one group of excursionists after another climbed up Jim's legs and resented even the slightest wince or squirm that he indulged himself with in his misery.’’ By employing interesting words like "excursionists" in obviously unconventional ways, Twain elicits a laugh from his readers.

But Twain's humor also has a sharp edge to it when it is aimed at somebody else. He does this when he wants to vilify someone whom he feels has wronged him. For example, when explaining that Webster's business manager at the publishing company came from the same town as Webster and his lawyer, Twain says, ‘‘We got all our talents from that stud farm at Dunkirk.’’ A stud farm is a place where quality horses are bred. By referring to the three young men who sink the business as ' 'talents’’ who came from a ' 'stud farm,'' Twain is suggesting just the opposite—that the men have no talent and they come from low stock.

Compare and Contrast

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1860s: The United States engages in the Civil War, a ground battle that divides the country and claims the lives of more than six hundred thousand Americans.

Today: Americans unite in their support of the war on international terrorism, instigated by a terrorist act on September 11,2001, that claimed the lives of several thousand Americans. This new kind of war relies heavily on behind-the-scenes intelligence efforts, and the use of military ground forces and air strikes.

1860s: America experiences an increase in leisure travel, due in large part to the expanding railroad network which triggers a decline in domestic travel by slower, steam-powered river boats.

Today: Many Americans travel to all parts of the world for both work and pleasure. The fastest form of commercial air travel, the supersonic Concorde, can travel at more than two thousand miles per hour.

1860s: James Redpath establishes the first official lecture management agency in America, capitalizing on the increase in popularity of lectures by major and minor celebrities.

Today: Many celebrities find a wide audience for their ideas on television talk shows, and most have an agent or manager who books engagements for them.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Gay, Robert M., ‘‘The Two Mark Twains,’’ in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 166, December 1940, pp. 724-26.

Kaplan, Justin, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1983, pp. 233-34, 272, 292, 378.

Kiskis, Michael, ‘‘Mark Twain and the Collaborative Autobiography,’’ in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 29, Fall 1996, pp. 27–40.

Krauth, Leland, "Mark Twain Fights Sam Clemens' Duel,’’ in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 33, Spring 1980, pp. 144-53.

Long, E. Hudson, Mark Twain Handbook, Hendricks House, 1957, p. 23.

Neider, Charles, "Introduction," in The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Perennial Classics, 1959, pp. ix—xxviii.

Rexroth, Kenneth, ‘‘Humor in a Tough Age,’’ in Nation, Vol. 188, March 7, 1959, pp. 211-13.

Sanoff, Alvin P., ‘‘Autobiography and the Craft of Embellishment," in U.S. News and World Report, Vol. 107, No. 16, October 23, 1989, p. 64.

Willis, Resa, Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who (Almost) Tamed Him, TV Books Inc., 2000, p. 73.

Further Reading Budd, Louis J., Critical Essays on Mark Twain, 1867—1910, G. K. Hall & Co., 1982. This collection features a number of the key criticisms of Twain's works during his lifetime.

Davis, David Brion, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Oxford University Press, 1988. This classic, Pulitzer Prize—winning study examines slavery from historical and sociological perspectives.

DeVoto, Bernard, Mark Twain's America, The Riverside Press, 1951. This informative book, by the editor of the second version of Twain's autobiography, discusses Twain within the context of the times in which he lived, and answers some of the critical attacks on Twain.

Gandy, Joan W., and Thomas H. Gandy, The Mississippi Steamboat Era in Historic Photographs: Natchez to New Orleans 1870-1920, Dover Publications, 1989. This book chronicles the culture of steamboats through photos and essays from the Civil War until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Meinig, D. W., The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Vol. 3, Transcontinental America, 1850-1915, Yale University Press, 2000. This book contains a detailed account about the country's geographical development from the mid-nineteenth century until the beginning of World War I.

Powers, Ron, Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, Basic Books, 1999. This biography by a fellow Missouri native discusses the real-life Clemens in context with the Twain pseudonym and icon, which the author says helped launch Twain as the first American media superstar.

Turner, Frederick Jackson, The Frontier in American History, Dover Publications, 1996. Originally published in 1920, this classic book on the American frontier explains how and why the United States became the country that it is.


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Burns, Ken, Dayton Duncan, and Geoffrey C. Ward. Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.

Camfield, Gregg. The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Emerson, Everett. Mark Twain: A Literary Life. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Lighting Out for the Territory: Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher, ed. A Historical Guide to Mark Twain. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Horn, Jason Gary. Mark Twain: A Descriptive Guide to Biographical Sources. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1999.

Kaplan, Fred. The Singular Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Doubleday, 2003.

Kaplan, Justin. Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1966.

LeMaster, J. R., and James D. Wilson, eds. The Mark Twain Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993.

Ober, K. Patrick. Mark Twain and Medicine: “Any Mummery Will Cure.” Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003.

Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A to Z. New York: Facts On File, 1995.




Critical Essays