Gems buried in second volume of Mark Twain autobiography
The second volume in Mark Twain’s biography provides languid, though muddled, glimpses into the author’s life.
Special to The Seattle Times
‘The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2’
by Mark Twain
University of California Press, 698 pp., $45
Although Mark Twain wrote a handful of justly celebrated classics, including “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which has a claim as the great American novel, his ouvre includes plenty of less-stellar works — anyone read “The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc” lately?
That is not to say that the 450 or so pages of musings in this second volume of his autobiography don’t yield a few nuggets about the life and times of the man who gave us “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In these spontaneous and unrevised remarks, recorded by a typist in sessions that, in this volume, ran from April 1906 to February 1907, the septuagenarian author settles here and there on moments that are personal and revealing. Although the death of his brother Orion gets only a few lines, we can sense what it must have cost the author to characterize his sibling’s life as “pathetic and unprofitable,” his death as “mercifully swift and painless.”
When Twain dictated his autobiography, he stipulated that it not be published until a hundred years after his death (on April 21, 1910) and that it be presented in the rambling form in which he told it. In this second volume, Twain the firebrand iconoclast appears at long intervals. “The pulpit and the optimist are always talking about the human race’s steady march toward ultimate perfection. As usual, they leave out the statistics,” he says, and just in case we think his disdain is only for the clergy, not for the substance of Christianity in general, he adds, “There has never been a Protestant boy or girl whose mind the Bible has not soiled. No Protestant child ever comes clean from association with the Bible.”
When his own sense of decency and justice is affronted, he can rise to a jeremiad worthy of his younger self. Contemplating Belgium’s depredations, he proclaims, “The royal palace of Belgium is still what it has been for fourteen years – the den of a wild beast – King Leopold II – who for money’s sake mutilates, murders, and starves, half a million of friendless and helpless poor natives in the Congo State every year, and does it by the silent consent of all the Christian powers except England.” This isn’t exactly “autobiography,” but it’s a welcome bolt of lightning in a book illuminated mostly by fireflies.
Just as Orion’s death is covered briefly, so are the deaths of his wife and daughter only glimpsed. Instead, Twain brings in that morning’s mail or newspaper and comments more or less randomly on some tidbit, sometimes making a connection to something from his own past, but just as often not. “As I have several times remarked before, in the course of these dictations, it is the foundation principle of this autobiography that it shall drop a subject, whether it be finished or not, the moment a subject of warmer interest shall intrude itself,” he says. It seems that by “warmer,” however, he means less distressing. Free to indulge himself, he consistently veers away from the trials and losses that we reasonably expect to find in an autobiography.
The result is a narrative as languid and meandering as Twain’s beloved Mississippi River, and often as muddy. Sometimes, though, the current runs strong and the floodwaters are as devastating as ever.
Federal Way writer Richard Wakefield’s latest book is “A Vertical Mile,” a poetry collection published by Able Muse Press.