Mark Twain's Own Autobiography
The Chapters from the North American Review
Publication Year: 2009
More than the story of a literary career, this memoir is anchored in the writer’s relation to his family—what they meant to him as a husband, father, and artist. It also brims with many of Twain’s best comic anecdotes about his rambunctious boyhood in Hannibal, his misadventures in the Nevada territory, his notorious Whittier birthday speech, his travels abroad, and more.
Twain published twenty-five “Chapters from My Autobiography” in the North American Review in 1906 and 1907. “I intend that this autobiography . . . shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method—form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along, like contact of flint with steel.”
For this second edition, Michael Kiskis’s introduction references a wealth of critical work done on Twain since 1990. He also adds a discussion of literary domesticity, locating the autobiography within the history of Twain’s literary work and within Twain’s own understanding and experience of domestic concerns.
Published by: University of Wisconsin Press
I began reading and writing about Samuel Clemens almost thirty years ago while a graduate student at the State University of New York at Albany. I studied with John Gerber. When John died, I managed to obtain a vintage poster of Mark Twain that hung in John's office-it's a distinctive pencil drawing with a detailed face and eyes. It now hangs over my desk, a daily reminder of my beginnings with Mark Twain that resonates with the debt I owe to those whose work I have come to respect and admire.
Foreword to the Second Edition
I feel a special satisfaction and gratitude in publishing this new edition of Mark Twain's autobiography to mark the hundredth anniversary of his death in 1910. Satisfaction and gratitude because, through his will, Samuel Clemens left a legacy that lifted my own forebears out of poverty and servitude and gave them a chance at higher education.
Introduction to the Second Edition
The autobiography Samuel Clemens constructed is held together not by facts, nor plot, nor sequence, nor point of view, nor even by editorial fiat. The material is unified by Clemens' singular voice as it vibrates between rage and reverence, affection and hatred, joy and sorrow. It is held together by a voice at once truthful and fraudulent, but always genuine. And Clemens' honesty remains intact because this is the way he thinks about, sees, and interprets his past.
I. Introduction to method and form – Clemens family ancestry
I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies when it is published, after my death, and I also intend that it shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method - a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along, like contact of Hint with steel. 3
II. Early literary career – "Jumping Frog" – The Innocents Abroad – Playing "Bear" – Louis Stevenson – Mark Twain letter sold
My experiences as an author began early in 1867. I came to New York from San Francisco in the first month of that year and presently Charles H. Webb, 1 whom I had known in San Francisco as a reporter on The Bulletin, and afterward editor of The Californian, suggested that I publish a volume of sketches. I had but a slender reputation to publish it on, but I was charmed and excited by the suggestion and quite willing to venture it if some industrious person would save me the trouble of gathering the sketches together.
III. Meets Olivia Langdon – Thirty-sixth wedding anniversary – Marriage and move to Buffalo – Susy's Death – Susy as a child
I saw her first in the form of an ivory miniature in her brother Charley's4 stateroom in the steamer "Quaker City," in the Bay of Smyrna, in the summer of 1867, when she was in her twenty-second year. I saw her in the flesh for the first time in New York in the following December.5 She was slender and beautiful and girlish - and she was both girl and woman. She remained both girl and woman to the last day of her life.
IV. Susy's biography – Reviewers and reviews – The Gilded Age – Mark Twain's dullness and temper – Cats – Language – Talk
When Susy was thirteen,1 and was a slender little maid with plaited tails of copper-tinged brown hair down her back, and was perhaps the busiest bee in the household hive, by reason of the manifold studies, health exercises and recreations she had to attend to, she secretly, and of her own motion, and out of love, added another task to her labors - the writing of a biography of me. She did this work in her bedroom at night, and kept her record hidden.
V. Language and Temper – Susy on The Prince and the Pauper – The family editing of manuscripts – Mark Twain's early life in Hannibal – Cats – Church – Tom Nash and the Mississippi
Susy's remark about my strong language troubles me, and I must go back to it.1 All through the first ten years of my married life I kept a constant and discreet watch upon my tongue while in the house, and went outside and to a distance when circumstances were too much for me and I was obliged to seek relief. I prized my wife's respect and approval above all the rest of the human race's respect and approval.
VI. Susy's biography – Mark Twain's visit to U. S. Grant – John Hay – A Visit to Vassar College – Langdon's death – England trip
Papa1 made arrangements to read at Vassar College the 1st of May, and I went with him.2 We went by way of New York City. Mamma went with us to New York and stayed two days to do some shopping. We started Tuesday, at 1/2 past two o'clock in the afternoon, and reached New York about 1/4 past six. Papa went right up to General Grants from the station and mamma and I went to the Everett House. Aunt Clara3 came to supper with us up in our room ....
VII. Olivia's watchful eye – Mugwumps – An appeal to Ruth Cleveland – A meeting with Grover Cleveland in Albany – Memories of H. B. Stowe
I was always heedless.1 l was born heedless; and therefore I was constantly, and quite unconsciously, committing breaches of the minor proprieties, which brought upon me humiliations which ought to have humiliated me but didn't, because I didn't know anything had happened. But Livy knew; and so the humiliations fell to her share, poor child, who had not earned them and did not deserve them.
VIII. Nevada experiences – An aborted duel
At that time I had been serving as city editor on Mr. Goodman's Virginia City "Enterprise"2 for a matter of two years. I was twenty-nine years old. I was ambitious in several ways, but I had entirely escaped the seductions of that particular craze. I had had no desire to fight a duel; I had no intention of provoking one. I did not feel respectable, but I got a certain amount of satisfaction out of feeling safe.
IX. The American monarchy – Influence of circumstances – The mesmerizer
Mr. Root then got up and in the most quiet and orderly manner touched off the successor to the San Francisco earthquake. As a result, the several State governments were well shaken up and considerably weakened. Mr. Root was prophesying. He was prophesying, and it seems to me that no shrewder and surer forecasting has been done in this country for a good many years.
X. Family history – Orion Clemens – Young Sam's apprenticeship
Orion's boyhood was spent in that wee little log hamlet of Jamestown up there among the "knobs"- so called - of East Tennessee. The family migrated to Florida, Missouri, then moved to Hannibal, Missouri, when Orion was twelve and a half years old. When he was fifteen or sixteen he was sent to St. Louis and there he learned the printer's trade. One of his characteristics was eagerness.
XI. Orion and the Hannibal Journal – Sam leaves Hannibal for New York – Return to Keokuk – Finding the $50 bill – Plan to visit the Amazon – A fortune from coca – Meeting Horace Bixby – Trip to Nevada
He borrowed the cash at ten per cent. interest, from an old farmer named Johnson who lived five miles out of town. Then he reduced the subscription price of the paper from two dollars to one dollar. He reduced the rates for advertising in about the same proportion, and thus he created one absolute and unassailable certainty - to wit: that the business would never pay him a single cent of profit.
XII. Nevada experiences – Orion's political experiences – San Francisco – The Tennessee land – Orion in New York and Hartford – Orion's projects – Orion's autobiography – A conversation with John Hay
But he was hit with one of his spasms of virtue on the very day that the Republican party was to make its nominations in the Convention, and refused to go near the Convention. He was urged, but all persuasions failed. He said his presence there would be an unfair and improper influence and that if he was to be nominated the compliment must come to him as a free and unspotted gift.
XIII. The Tennessee land – Sam's birth – The Quarles farm
If any penny of cash ever came out of my father's wise investment but that, I have no recollection of it. No, I am overlooking a detail. It furnished me a field for Sellers and a book.3 Out of my half of the book I got $15,000 or $20,000; out of the play I got $75,000 or $80,000 - just about a dollar an acre.4 It is curious: I was not alive when my father made the investment, therefore he was not intending any partiality; yet I was the only member of the family that ever profited by it.
XIV. Susy's biography – Dinner with Emperor Wilhelm II – A German "porter" – More experiences in Germany – Adventures of Rev. Joseph Harris
Clara's pious remark is the main detail, and Susy has accurately remembered its phrasing. The three-year-older's wound was of a formidable sort, and not one which the mother's surgery would have been equal to. The flesh of the finger had been burst by a cruel accident. It was the doctor that sewed it up, and to all appearances it was he, and the other independent witnesses, that did the main part of the suffering; each stitch that he took made Clara wince slightly, but it shrivelled the others.
XV. Susy's biography – Cats – The privilege of age – Billiards
I did, in truth, think a great deal of that old tortoise-shell harlot; but I haven't a doubt that in order to impress Susy I was pretending agonies of solicitude which I didn't honestly feel. Sour Mash never gave me any real anxiety; she was always able to take care of herself, and she was ostentatiously vain of the fact; vain of it to a degree which often made me ashamed of her, much as I esteemed her.
XVI. The truth in Twain's remarks – Jane Clemens' formula for divining truth – Monday Evening Club – Embroidery – Dream of Henry's death
[Dictated January 12th, 1905)1 ... But I am used to having my statements discounted. My mother began it before I was seven years old. Yet all through my life my facts have had a substratum of truth, and therefore they were not without preciousness. Any person who is familiar with me knows how to strike my average, and therefore knows how to get at the jewel of any 'fact of mine and dig it out of its blue-clay matrix. My mother knew that art.
XVII. Susy's biography – Soap bubbles and life – Bicycle riding – "Jim Wolf and the Cats"
[Monday, October 15, 1906.] Sour Mash's presence indicates that this adventure occurred at Quarry Farm. Susy's Biography interests itself pretty exclusively with historical facts; where they happen is not a matter of much concern to her. When other historians refer to the Bunker Hill Monument they know it is not necessary to mention that that monument is in Boston. Susy recognizes that when she mentions Sour Mash it is not necessary to localize her. To Susy, Sour Mash is the Bunker Hill Monument of Quarry Farm.
XVIII. Susy's biography – Punishing children – A letter to the Christian Union – Thoughts of Susy – Mental telegraphy – Mind cure – More than a humorist
[Dictated December 21, 1906] I wish to insert here some pages of Susy's Biography of me in which the biographer does not scatter, according to her custom, but sticks pretty steadily to a single subject until she has fought it to a finish:
XIX. Susy's biography – George Washington Cable – Livy's editing – Idea of Providence – The children's record – Susy's bout with lying
Susy's spelling has defeated me, this time. I cannot make out what "honyssneeze" stands for. Impromptu charades were almost a nightly pastime of ours, from the children's earliest days - they played in them with me when they were only five or six years old. As they increased in years and practice their love for the sport almost amounted to a passion, and they acted their parts with a steadily increasing ability. At first they required much drilling; but later they were generally ready as soon as the parts were assigned, and they acted them according to their own devices.
XX. The Innocents Abroad – Plagiarizing the "Preface" to The Innocents Abroad – Bowing in San Francisco – Billiards – Playing "Quaker" in Elmira
I made a careless and inconsequential answer, for I supposed he was joking. But he assured me that he was in earnest. He said: ''I'm not discussing the question of whether you stole it or didn't - for that is a question that can be settled in the first bookstore we come to - I am only asking you how you came to steal it, for that is where my curiosity is focalized."
XXI. Susy's biography - Difficulty recalling faces - Written out at 50- Strangers and their "memories" of the past - The real Huckleberry Finn Repenting in the night-Catalog of old acquaintances-MemoryRailway deaths
[Dictated, November 8, 1906] I have a defect of a sort which I think is not common; certainly I hope it isn't: it is rare that I can call before my mind's eye the form and face of either friend or enemy. If I should make a list, now, of persons whom I know in America and abroad - say to the number of even an entire thousand-it is quite unlikely that I could reproduce five of them in my mind's eye. Of my dearest and most intimate friends, I could name eight whom I have seen and talked with four days ago, but when I try to call them before me they are formless shadows.
XXII. Onteora and Mary Mapes Dodge – Dean Sage – European duelling – Captain Osborne and Bret Harte
We arrived at nightfall, dreary from a tiresome journey; but the dreariness did not last. Mrs. Dodge had provided a home-made banquet, and the happy company sat down to it, twenty strong, or more. Then the thing happened which always happens at large dinners, and is always exasperating: everybody talked to his elbow-mates and all talked at once, and gradually raised their voices higher, and higher, and higher, in the desperate effort to be heard. It was like a riot, an insurrection; it was an intolerable volume of noise.
XXIII. Schoolmates – Early loves – First telling of "Jim Wolf and the Cats" – Good boys and girls in fiction – "What is it all for?" – Measles – The Oxford degree ceremonies – A medieval fair
I catch glimpses of George Robards, the Latin pupil- slender, pale, studious, bending over his book and absorbed in it, his long straight black hair hanging down below his jaws like a pair of curtains on the sides of his face. I can see him give his head a toss and flirt one of the curtains back around his head - to get it out of his way, apparently; really to show off. In that day it was a great thing among the boys to have hair of so flexible a sort that it could be flung back in that way, with a flirt of the head. George Robards was the envy of us all.
XXIV. Susy's biography – Onteora – Catalog of dead and living – Jim Wolf and the wasps – More of Susy's biography – James Redpath – Studying the race in himself – Billiards – Bowling
[Dictated October 9,1906] Onteora was situated high up in the Catskill Mountains, in the centre of a far-reaching solitude. 1 do not mean that the region was wholly uninhabited; there were farmhouses here and there, at generous distances apart. Their occupants were descendants of ancestors who had built the houses in Rip Van Winkle's time, or earlier; and those ancestors were not more primitive than were this posterity of theirs.
XXV. Whittier birthday speech – Days in Washington – Newspaper syndicate – Selling a dog to General Nelson Miles
January 11, 1906. Answer to a letter received this morning: Dear Mrs. H.,- I am forever your debtor for reminding me of that curious passage in my life.1 During the first year or two after it happened, I could not bear to think of it. My pain and shame were so intense, and my sense of having been an imbecile so settled, established and confirmed, that I drove the episode entirely from my mind-and so all these twenty-eight or twenty-nine years I have lived in the conviction that my performance of that time was coarse, vulgar and destitute of humor.