Move Over James Frey, Mark Twain Writes a MemoirBy Jason Chambers, Jonathan Evison, Dennis Haritou, & Jason Rice
November 10, 2010
DH: It’s like having Sam Clemens back with us again, resurfacing after 100 years to give us the once-over. I think he would have loved that idea and love the idea of creating such a stir with his avant garde Autobiography, the first part having just been released by theUniversity of California Press. And it’s amazing that a writer 100 years ago can plan a century-delayed release with every confidence that it will come to pass and with the full support of his publisher who is willing to wait 100 years for the release date. That kind of cultural confidence is missing nowadays!
I loaded the bulky volume onto my Kindle since I can hardly carry it around otherwise. It was the president of Harper and Brothers, Twain’s publisher, George Harvey, in 1900, who proposed the terms that “the agreement would, of course, provide for publication in whatever modes should then be prevalent, that is, by printing as at present, or by the use of phonographic cylinders, or by electrical method…” So the president of Harper’s in 1900 anticipates the electronic reader. By God, they had publishers in those days…and writers!
The Autobiography is the most distinguished release in American letters in many decades. I’ve just read the scholarly introduction, an account of how the edition was put together, and that’s what this post is about.
The intro is like listening to an account of how a thousand piece puzzle was assembled. It was probably much more absorbing to do the puzzle than talk about doing it.
I remember seeing a YouTube video of JE’s writing desk, hundreds of papers it seemed, scattered over the floor by his chair. How does JE work like that? But being a writer involves a toleration of chaos.
Twain struggled for decades over form. He sliced and diced articles, essays, character portraits in a struggle to come up with a fresh, non-narrative way to construct his biography. He wanted to lay down an account of his life as he felt it, as it came to him, in a kind of non-linear time, a storytelling that jumped and perched, like William James description of consciousness, leaping from point to meaningful point. “…start it at no particular time of your life, wander at you free will all over your life, talk only about the thing that interests you at the moment…”
I go to my keyboard knowing the topic that I want to write about but having no idea how the post, like this one, is going to be constructed. Then the writing seems to sprout like a plant, or maybe a weed.
I can do that for a 900 word post. JE can do it for a 600 page novel, like West of Here. Twain did it for 250,000 words, his Autobiography. It’s tolerating chaos with the faith that the chaos will clear, that you will find a way to put in the last piece of the thousand piece puzzle and see the whole picture at last.
There’s a veracity crisis in American culture. Looking for role models for his bio, Twain greatly admired Casanova’s and Benvenuto Cellini’s. I’ve read Cellini’s and it’s great. BC may have an ego as extended as the Renaissance Italy that he lived in but it’s refreshing to read about someone who thinks so well of themselves.
Twain admired the candor of both writers but found he couldn’t emulate it. When he prepared excerpts of the bio for magazine publication, he soft-soaped, removing harsh judgments of contemporaries. His more trenchant remarks on politics and religion weren’t excerpted at all. That would have to wait until the full Autobiography release, which is what we get to read.
Twain hoped that delaying publication would mean that he could be brutally honest about himself and others. But it didn’t work out that way. Even a delay of a century in publication was not enough personal space for him to reveal his darker side. He settled for complete honesty being practiced only between the lines. But this crisis of veracity occurred within the genius of the writer. He struggled with the revelations he felt unable to deliver. I think at least part of him wanted to be the beloved Mark Twain, American folk hero. Part of him wanted to be Disney-like.
Reading the introduction to the Autobiography, Volume One, I grew to love Sam Clemens. I loved him for this honest crisis about his own honesty, the internal struggle for the integrity of an American writer, perhaps our greatest, our most daring. “You cannot lay bare your private soul and look at it. You are too much ashamed of yourself.”
But Sam, if you’re in heaven now, lookin’ down at all the fuss you’re still making in American letters, I have to try to be honest as well. I love you now more than ever. I love you no matter how caustic, how bitter you can get sometimes. I love you especially for not being “nice”. But I have to break it to you Sam, you’re no James Frey.