Mark Twain ruined the autobiography for me. In retrospect, I guess I should be grateful. You don’t hear much about the autobiography any more, as it has more or less morphed into the modern memoir, a genre of the lowest ranking on my read-o-meter. So, thank you Samuel, you have doubtless spared me untold hours struggling through less than worthy tomes of personal anguish, drug and parental abuse, endless self-reflection and navel gazing. I should not, I know, be so harsh, but didn’t all that stuff, the abuse and the drink and all the rest, didn’t that used to be the material which, processed into fiction, we recognized as literary art? Or if not fiction, at least something more, well, more worthy shall I say, than a memoir? I am not sure in the least why I feel a memoir to be such a step-child, and I know my premise to be on shaky ground. But ultimately, I think the problem started with Mark Twain.

I was reflecting on this recently, prodded by the hoopla over the pending release of the century-old, never-released 500,000-word The Autobiography of Mark Twain. Worried about his reputation, Twain directed that this work be held from publication for one-hundred years. “There is no hurry,” he said. There has been an Autobiography of Mark Twain out for some time, since 1917, in fact. The new autobiography is to be released in November and I do not know how or in what fashion it relates to the known autobiography. I can tell you, however, that I read the 1917 version years ago and it had an almost traumatic literary effect on me. I remember some details vividly.

I was in grade school, 6th grade, which would make me eleven years old (I think), and we were to read a book of our choosing, followed up with a book report. Beyond that, the particulars escape me. I liked book reports, and still do, though now, I call them reviews, counting on all the highfalutin nuance that implies. I choose, of all books, The Autobiography of Mark Twain. I was on a serious Mark Twain kick as a youngster. Somewhere along the line I’d read Huckleberry Finn and the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Twain got under my skin. I suspect that is not an unusual happenstance for a bookish young man. My parents encouraged my nascent literary buddings. There was the family vacation to Clemens’ birthplace, Hannibal, Missouri–a pure indulgence to this single child. We visited the Clemens house and most excitingly, the cave where Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher got lost, now called, appropriately, The Mark Twain Cave. At the gift store, I purchased a desk-size bust of my literary hero which stayed in my possession for many years. Only now, like so many things, do I realize the import of its lost value. Too, I recall sitting as a family, mom, dad and buck-toothed me, watching Hal Holbrook impersonate Twain giving some of his public lectures. My eighty-eight year old father still talks about that show.

I no doubt chose the autobiography because I wanted to know more about the creator of these exciting and, for me, very cool characters, Tom, Huck and the gang–though I am unsure if the word cool had entered the common vernacular at that time. It would have been, I think, 1966, a year of great import, a cool but tragic year from this current perspective, forty and four years later. (Yes, that is right, 44 years later–which of course leads me to think, 44 years from now I will be, should I be alive, 98–sadly, an unlikely age to survive to. What does it mean when we can remember backward but know it beyond our reasonable experience to project forward to the same measure? I will tell you what it means: it means annihilation.)

Where was I? Oh, my book report. The Twain Autobiography is 560 pages. What was I thinking? I was eleven years old, for christ’s sake. What was my teacher, Miss What’s-her-name, thinking approving my choice? (I have no idea who my sixth grade teacher was. Her name completely escapes me. I’m amazed by people who remember details like that, like who their elementary school teachers where.) I like to imagine she saw something in me, something of promise and signed off on the book as a result. That might not be just retrospective wish-fullness on my part. I think she might have held me in high literary sixth-grade regard because I won a writing contest that year with the little ditty, “Before you go/Look to and fro.” I don’t recall the guidelines to the contest, but guess it was to be a safety-related composition. (So many neural pathways are shutdown!) I submitted my entry with a poster-board sketch of a crossing guard protecting a cluster of kids on a street corner, arms extended. Now, with the comfort of lapsed time, I have a confession to make: My father helped me with the rhyme. No, to be completely honest, he wrote it. I was his literary pawn. There I said. After all these years, it feels pretty darn good, getting that off my chest.

Back to my book report and how Twain killed the genre for me. I’m a slow reader. A really slow reader by some measures. To this day, when I look at my library, it amazes me that I’ve been able to plow through even a third of those books in the years I’ve been reading. When I picked Twain’s autobiography for my book report, I was in for a really long five-hundred-sixty-page haul. It was, I am certain, my first grown-up book. Long after all the other kids had turned in their reports, I was still grinding through my book at a glacial crawl. I recall vividly, Miss What’s-her-name standing over my left shoulder and asking me when I was going to be finished. (In my memory she had a countenance not unlike Mrs. Clever, the Beaver’s mom.) She had cut me some slack and given me an extension due to the nature of my book, but she was growing exasperated, as was I, and it was time to produce. (That singular experience put in me a fear of editorial authority which holds to this day.) Here was the real problem. Beside being a slow reader, I was so terribly put-off by Twain’s idiosyncratic self-singular account that I wanted to put the book down and start fresh with another read, ideally The Young Person’s Life of Daniel Boone. (Did you know that Daniel Boone would clear a parcel of land and set up housekeeping, only to move west when his first neighbors moved into the neighborhood? To this day, there is trail of Boonevilles stretched across Appalachia tracing his xenophobic path.) Twain appeared so conceited to a young man taught, in proper Midwest fashion, to distance himself from the subject of attention, as to be repugnant. At one point I counted all the first-person pronouns on one page. It was, if memory serves, a number close to 60. What is to be made of a person who refers to himself sixty times on a single page? He is terribly egocentric–that’s what you think. And egocentricity to a youngster growing up in Ft. Wayne Indiana, a land of stoic self-effacement, is a foreign and bitter pill to swallow. (Thankfully, I moved to the east thirty years ago and now am completely comfortable being ego-centric, in fact, not only comfortable, but an accomplished practitioner thereof.) I had no appreciation for the form of the autobiography and I understand that, as autobiographies go, his is a pretty good one. But I was put off and the die was cast. I was tired of the book, tired of Twain, and tired of making excuses to the Beaver’s mom.

Ultimately, time passes, pages are turned and book reports get written. I wrote my report and only wish it existed to this day. How interesting it would be to read it now. I would have thought my mother to have saved it, though it didn’t turn up in her things after she died. Perhaps she had an eye for posterity and thought it best if lost to history. Moms are sometimes keen that way, Mrs. Clever certainly was.
I’ve made peace with Twain. I’ve re-read much of him, though not, understandably, the Autobiography. Nor do I anticipate reading the three new volumes, soon to be released. I’ve made peace with the genre, sort of, though a pure autobiography reading experience is not within reach of my recollection. There is Nabokov’s Speak Memory, for instance, being more art and less first-person pronoun. There must be others, but they escape me.

One of the reasons I read is to learn how to live. It’s as simple as that. Perhaps that is why the biography–the anti-autobiography–so appeals to me, it being a vivid depiction of a life, as told by someone other than the person who lived it. The autobiography seems too often a self-portraiture of convenience, the artist Photo-shopping the profile. Regardless, Twain taught me that works of art are the manifestations of an singular human effort of the highest degree. So what if he referred to himself sixty times on one page? Damn straight!

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DOUG BRUNS: Husband, father, son, thinker, reader, writer, Mainer (application pending), photographer, walker, traveler, recluse, gadfly & cook. He confesses: to having problems with details; needing more quiet time than most; confusing wisdom and knowledge; missing the summer lakes of his youth and loving the smell of a pine grove. He flosses every night. He is currently at work on a book tracing the history of the idea that the unexamined life is not worth living. His blog can be found at: "...the house I live in..."

7 responses to “The Death of a Genre”

  1. Mary Richert says:

    “Beside being a slow reader, I was so terribly put-off by Twain’s idiosyncratic self-singular account that I wanted to put the book down and start fresh with another read, ideally The Young Person’s Life of Daniel Boone. ”

    I felt similarly when trying to read the autobiography of Joseph Campbell. The man’s theories are stellar, but his writing about himself is the pits.

    Really interesting piece. I loved all the asides. Not to sound too much like a New Yorker Wannabe, but I’d venture to call this essay “companionable.”

  2. Doug Bruns says:

    Thanks, Mary. I’m glad you liked it.

  3. Matt says:

    By all accounts, the coming Twain autobiography is supposed to be very engaging. That previous version was a collected (and according to some, heavily edited) series of chapters Twain published in The North American Review from 1906-1907. This new book is the real deal, with about 70% of it seeing publication for the first time.

    I haven’t read that many autobiographies/memoirs, I think because the few I have read could all basically be summed up as “my life was shit.” Last one I read was Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. While her prose style is fantastic – even harrowing at times – I found that the book just got repetitive after a while. Each chapter was more or less “Life wasn’t bad for a while. Then Mom got drunk again, and everything went to hell.” Repeat.

  4. Gloria says:

    What is to be made of a person who refers to himself sixty times on a single page? Well, it’s an autobiography, isn’t it? I mean, was he supposed to talk about his cat the whole time?

    For fun, I counted the number of times you used “I” in this essay: 71. 🙂

    I get what you’re saying, I guess. I mean, when you’re that young, your expectations of the world are colored by ideology and so many shoulds. I can’t wait to read Twain’s biography, though. I hope he does talk about himself a whole lot. And I want to see the world through his eyes and I want to juxtapose that world with the one that I live in now – which is what any good autobiography should make you do.

    Interesting piece!

    • Doug Bruns says:

      Thanks, Gloria. Yes, 71 self-references! As I said in the piece, I’m a comfortable practitioner of such ego indulgences now. No, I doubt his cat was nearly so interesting. It just sat hard on the kid I was back then. Thanks for reading and your comment.

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