“You will never know, how much enjoyment you’ve lost until you get to dictating your biography.” Mark Twain
One of the great masters of American literature, Mark Twain changed the rules of American fiction: in Huckleberry Finn, he let a redneck kid tell his story in his own dialect. But the brilliant satirist had a hard time to tell his own life story. He was trying to follow a chronological calendar; a plan that, he wrote, “starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side excursions permitted.”
A few years later he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells about another eureka: “You will never know how much enjoyment you’ve lost until you get to dictating your biography,” he wrote. “You’ll be astonished at how like talk it is and how real it sounds.”
Now, 100 years after his death, Mark Twain’s autobiography is being published the way the author himself wished — from dictated stories collected by the University of California, Berkeley’s Mark Twain Project. The three-tome work is one of the literary events of the decade and the first volume – already riding high in the US best-seller lists – went on sale in Britain.
“Not bad for a book written 100 years ago and wrapped up in canny posthumous mythmaking ever since,” – writes the Times in this week’s “Inside the List” column.
Still, despite his lack of emotional confessions, “Twain did say things in the first draft that his biographers and his daughter felt were too personal or too scalding to print in the early editions of the autobiography. As legend has it, Twain and his cohorts wanted people to wait 100, or even 500 years until after his death to see specific passages.
In spite of these efforts at suppression, however, most of the autobiography has surfaced over the years, and the supposed “embargo” has only led to increased interest in and sales for the book.” Such a great marketing plan!
One of the parts of memories is a 429-page manuscript, where Twain claims that he was “hypnotised” by Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, his once trusted secretary, personal assistant and confidante. What about it?
Short story: the greatest bile of Twain – the pen name of Samuel Clemens, born in Missouri in 1835, – was reserved for Miss Lyon, a woman in whom he had so much confidence in 1907 that he granted her power of attorney. Just two years later, driven on by his daughter Clara, he accused her of putting him under a hypnotic trance for “two or three years”, hence denying responsibility for the arrangement.
“She was a wonderful woman who called Twain ‘the king’ and never had a bad word for him, so it was very shocking when we learned what he said about her in the manuscript,” her great-nephew David Moore said.
Robert Hirst, director of the Mark Twain Project, emphasizes that this new edition follows Twain’s own design, while previous editions have been rearranged by editors who thought they had a better idea. The new edition also includes the numerous false starts Twain made before he settled into the dictation, so the reader might find it a bit of a slow read at times.
“It is heavy slogging,” Hirst says. “But I would recommend what Mark Twain would recommend: If you’re bored with it, SKIP.”