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Even after a hundred years, you can’t beat Mark Twain for originality. After fiddling around with the idea of an autobiography or memoir for a couple of decades, rejecting most of his efforts as too literary, he finally around 1902 hit on the idea of 1) eschewing chronology; and 2) dictating rather than writing the story of his life. Chronology ruined spontaneity, he reasoned, and allowed the writer to distort time and facts and hide behind the need to stick to a time line. The act of writing led to bookmanship which turned a life story into a novel, an artifice. Thus, he sat up in bed in the morning, a stenographer at his service, and began talking about whatever entered his mind. The notes would be typed up and filed. He stipulated that most of what he said would not be published until a hundred years after his death (in 1910, as it turned out) because he intended to tell the unvarnished truth, and it might take a century to assure that his criticisms would harm neither their target (especially if it was himself) or their families unto three generations. I’m glad we finally have this, and thank Jim and Becky for the gift.

The editors at the Mark Twain project of the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, headed by Harriet Elinor Smith, had a prodigious task to track down all the letters, notes, events, and references in the Twain files, which had been worked over by several other editors and transcribers and filers. What they’ve turned out is a weighty (about 5 pounds) tome which says on the cover is volume 1. The page count (736, including index, etc.) tells only part of the story. A more conventional font size would have easily pushed the the book over the thousand mark. Not only that, but the actual autobiography doesn’t begin until over 200 pages into the work, the opening pages being consumed by other writings, mostly heretofore unpublished but not necessarily part of what Twain labeled autobiography. I’m making it sound like this is more of a scholarly treatise than anything else, and that might be an accurate view. However, not far in, I began to view it as a treasure hunt. Lots of gold. You need to be patient and persistent in shoveling the dross, but who would want to miss out on passages like this:

Paige (the inventor of the typesetting machine which famously cost Twain a couple of hundred thousand in lost investment dollars) and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms; yet he knows perfectly well that if I had his nuts in a steel-trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died.

You can see why Twain might want to wait a while before that saw print.

Or this on Thanksgiving:

Thanksgiving day is a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized they really had something to be thankful for –annually, not oftener–if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as all ll on the white man’s side, consequently on the lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the lord for it and extend the usual annual compliment.s The original reason for a Thanksgiving Day has long ago ceased to exits–The Indians have long ago been comprehensively and satisfactorily exterminated and the account closed with heaven with the thanks due.

More along this line, on Twain’s life, and some concluding thoughts of his on turning seventy  (an event which is looming for me and several others in the family this year) in part two.

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