American Literary History 13.4 (2001) 671-693
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The rise of corporate consumer capitalism in the US coincided with a notable increase in the publication of autobiographies by writers and journalists. Between 1800 and 1880 only 26 autobiographies were published by authors, journalists, or novelists, but in the 40 years between 1880 and 1920, 34 authors, 61 journalists, and 18 novelists published at least one autobiography.1 Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Jack London, Henry James, William Dean Howells, and countless others less well-known felt the need to account for their literary careers through autobiographical reflection. Furthermore, novels themselves, from Little Women (1868–69) to Martin Eden (1909), became more conventionally autobiographical in both form and content, and critics and reviewers began looking for biographical sources and parallels in novels published by well-known authors. As imaginative writing increasingly became understood as expressing the marketable "personality" of the writer, modern authorial autobiography emerged as a generic recognition of this interpretive paradigm.
No American writer more completely and enthusiastically embodied this overlap between the cultural performance of authorial personality and the generic reliance on authorial autobiography than the man known as Mark Twain. More than any other author of the nineteenth century, Twain’s life story was inextricably entangled with his writing, which in turn dictated the popular and critical reception of his texts to this day. As Twain’s friend Howells affirmed, "in one form or another, Mr. Samuel L. Clemens has told the story of his life in his books" ("Mark Twain" 54). From the publication of his hugely popular travel narrative The Innocents Abroad (1869) up through the present day, Twain’s literary output has been understood as fundamentally autobiographical.
And yet, ironically, his actual autobiography was never completed, never fully published, and has received little critical appreciation in comparison to his more well-known work. Albert Bigelow Paine’s two-volume version, published in 1924, was not a critical or popular success, and Paine conceded that the text "was not really autobiography at all" (Mark Twain’s Autobiography [End Page 671] [MTA] 1: xi). Paine’s successor as Twain’s literary editor, Bernard DeVoto, in his introduction to Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages about Men and Events (1940), agreed that although Twain is one "of the most autobiographical of writers, he is least autobiographical when he tries to be" (xiv). Since DeVoto, the editorial approach to the autobiographical dictations has split between those who endorse some version of fidelity to Twain’s intentions, and those who believe that their own editorial intentions should intervene. Thus Charles Neider decided to completely reorganize the autobiographical material into a chronological order that he felt was "the order functional to it, inherent in it, the order which is in harmony with its subject" (xvii), while Michael Kiskis claimed that his republication of excerpts that originally appeared in the North American Review can be treated "as the text of Clemens’s life story" (xxiv). Each of Twain’s editors has felt the need to apologize for his edition, to clarify its problematic relation to Twain’s intentions and to the genre in which Twain himself placed it, and to criticize the version(s) that preceded it.2
The editions also share the copyright of the Mark Twain Company, to which Twain assigned all of his literary property. In this essay, I argue that Twain’s autobiographical project was conceived as and developed quite literally into this incorporation of authorship. First, I show how Twain based the formal innovations of his project in the ostensibly democratic foundations of authorship, and specifically autobiographical authorship, in the US. But these formal innovations, though based in a democratic philosophy of authorship, did not meet with a democratic readership; the unusual form actually impeded the book’s success in the literary marketplace. In order to account for this apparent contradiction, I examine Twain’s peculiar location, late in life, between a restricted field of cultural production that mandates a posthumous reputation and a general field of cultural production that mandates contemporaneous mass cultural celebrity. Part protomodernist genius...