Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mark Twain’s Riverboat Ramblings


New York Times: Sunday Book Review, December 19, 2010


Volume 1
Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith
Illustrated. 736 pp. University of California Press. $34.95

Samuel L. Clemens was a cheerful promoter of himself, and even after he’d retired from the lecture circuit, the old man liked to dress up as Mark Twain in a fresh white suit and take a Sunday morning stroll up Fifth Avenue just as churches were letting out and see the heads turn and hear his name murmured, the crowds of Presbyterians and Episcopalians standing awe-struck as the most beloved mustache in America passed by, tipping his silk hat to the ladies. Mr. Twain’s autobiography was meant to be a last stroll around the block, and to build up suspense and improve sales, Sam told everybody that he was writing one and that it contained material so explosive it would need to be embargoed for a hundred years.
That century has passed now and here it is, Volume 1 of “The Complete Authentic Unexpurgated Edition, Nothing Has Been Omitted, Not Even Scandalous Passages Likely to Cause Grown Men to Gasp and Women to Collapse in Tears — No Children Under 7 Allowed to Read This Book Under Any Circumstance,” which made Sam front-page news when all three volumes of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain” were announced last spring. The book turns out to be a wonderful fraud on the order of the Duke and the Dauphin in their Shakespearean romp, and bravo to Samuel Clemens, still able to catch the public’s attention a century after he expired.

He speaks from the grave, he writes, so that he can speak freely — “as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter” — but there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation. Here, sandwiched between a 58-page barrage of an introduction and 180 pages of footnotes, is a ragbag of scraps, some of interest, most of them not: travel notes, the dictated reminiscences of an old man in a dithery voice (“Shortly after my marriage, in 1870, I received a letter from a young man in St. Louis who was possibly a distant relative of mine — I don’t remember now about that” begins one story that goes nowhere), various false starts, anecdotes that must have been amusing at one time, a rough essay (with the author’s revisions carefully delineated) on Joan of Arc, a critique of the lecture performance of Petroleum V. Nasby, a recap of the clipper ship Hornet’s ill-fated voyage that ended in Hawaii in 1866, a piece about German compound words, an account of medicine on the frontier, well-worn passages from lectures, a fair amount of self-congratulation (“I expected the speech to go off well — and it did”), a detailed report on the testimony of Henry H. Rogers in a lawsuit in Boston, newspaper clippings, generous quotations from his daughter Susy’s writing about her father (“He always walks up and down the room while thinking and between each course at meals”), ruminations on his methodology of autobiographicizing (“I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted; . . . a complete and purposed jumble”), recollections of Reuel Gridley and other Hannibal classmates, and there is precious little that could be considered scandalous — maybe a rant against James W. Paige, the inventor of a typesetting machine that Sam lost $170,000 on: “If I had his nuts in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died” — but you have to wade through 18 pages of mind-numbing inventory of the Countess Massiglia’s Villa di Quarto, which he leased in Florence (“I shall go into the details of this house, not because I imagine it differs much from any other old-time palace or new-time palace on the continent of Europe, but because ­every one of its crazy details interests me, and therefore may be expected to interest others of the human race, particularly women”), the only point of which is that the man can afford to rent a palace that is fancier than anything you’d find in Missouri. His wife is dying, and he compiles an inventory of furniture.

Read Kellor's full piece at the New York Times Sunday Book review.

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