Mirror of the Heart and Mind of a Great American
Two Volumes of an Intimate Autobiography Published Fourteen Years After Mark Twain's Death
A Review by
H. I. Brock
MARK TWAIN'S AUTOBIOGRAPHY.
With an Introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine. Two volumes. New York: Harper & Brothers.
It should be observed in the first place that the thing to do with Mark Twain's autobiography is to read it, not to write about it. All the commentary really needed has been furnished by Samuel M. [sic] Clemens himself speaking, as he says, from the grave - distilling an enriched and ennobled essence of himself in which his virtues and his faults are equally preserved and mellowed. "I intend," he writes, "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 a 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 and steel. Moreover, this autobiography of mine does not select from my life its showy episodes, but deals merely in the common experiences which go to make up the life of the average human being."
So, indeed, it does - even while it presents the autobiographer as an extraordinary human being both in himself and in the presentation of those common experiences.
"It is a deliberate system," he adds, "and the law of the system is that 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."
The application of the system - more or less unconscious at first, one suspects - covers with considerable gaps and intervals forty active years, the years from 1870 to the death of the autobiographer in 1910. The first jotting relate to this father's aspirations as a landed proprietor of 75,000 acres of Tennessee lands, bought for $400 down. Ten years are allowed to elapse and then come memorabilia of General Grant, with who, as the publisher of the General's memoirs, Mark Twain had close personal relations in 1885. In 1897 and for two years thereafter, writing far overseas in Vienna, he is chiefly concerned with vivid recollections of his boyhood in Missouri. In 1904 he is residing in the vicinity of Florence for Mrs. Clemens's health's sake. He writes, therefore, autobiographically about Florentine villas. In 1906 he undertakes, with the aid of a stenographer furnished by his biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, the systematic application by dictation of his unsystematic system. His text or starting point for any particular day's dictation is often taken from that morning's newspaper. But, true to his autobiographical creed, he doesn't always stick to the text. To quote from his editor:
It was his custom to stay in bed until noon, and he remained there during most of the earlier dictations, clad in a handsome dressing gown, propped against great snowy pillows. He loved this loose luxury and ease and found it conducive to thought. On a little table beside him, where lay his cigars, papers, pipes and various knickknacks, shone a reading lamp, making more brilliant his rich coloring and the gleam of his shining hair.
There you have the stage setting. But it was only so in his Fifth Avenue house. In the country in New Hampshire, and afterward at his own place, Stormfield, in Connecticut, the autobiography was dictated while he paced the veranda "clad in creamy white flannels and loose morocco slippers." Whatever the setting, the autobiographical "system" was essentially the same.
One result of the system in practice is that the interest of the reader is rarely if ever exhausted. Another is an extraordinarily complete and rounded picture of the writer in spite of the "purposed jumble" of his recollections, following a "course which begins nowhere, follows no specified route an can never reach an end while I am alive." This model, which is to serve as beacon to all future autobiographers, certainly owes something to earlier models, particularly to that masterpiece of imaginary autobiography, "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman." It is yet a vehicle admirably adapted to be the mirror of Mark Twain and of the generation of which Mark Twain was sublimate cynic-sentimentalist, blaspheming and loving with all his might, living with every keen sense of him and talking prodigiously.
The keynote of Twain's extraordinary character and essential Americanism may be discovered in his vaunting price of ancestry and transparent pretense of making light of that pride.
"Back of the Virginian Clemenses is a dim procession of ancestors stretching back to Noah's time. According to tradition, some of them were pirates," writes Mark, and confesses that in his time he has desired himself to be a pirate. But chiefest matter of pride is Geoffrey Clement, who helped to sentence Charles I to death. As a regicide he was greater than a king. And thereby has Mark been made vain. But for most of this ancestral pride (which may no more than Pooh-Bah's be denied) he takes refuge behind the lovely frail figure of his mother and her "slender, small body and her heart so large that everybody's grief and everybody's joys found welcome in it and hospitable accommodation." She it was who "to the day of her death felt a strong interest in the whole world and everything and everybody in it" and "in all her life never knew such a thing as half-hearted interest in affairs and people, or an interest which drew a line and left certain affairs and was indifferent to certain people."
This friend of Satan [it is written from the grave (for is the Arch Fiend not a sinner like the rest, she said, yet nobody prays for him)], this friend of Satan was a most gentle spirit and an unstudied and unconscious pathos was her native speech. But one day in our village I saw a vicious devil of a Corsican, a common terror in the town, chasing his grown daughter past cautious male citizens with a heavy rope in his hands and declaring he would wear it out on her. My mother spread her door wide to the refugee, and then, instead of closing and locking it after her, stood in it, and stretched her arms across it, barring the way. The man swore, cursed, threatened her with the rope, but she did not flinch or show any sign of fear; she only stood straight and fine and lashed him, shamed him, derided him, defied him in tones not audible to the middle of the street but audible to the man's conscience and dormant manhood; and he asked her pardon and gave her his rope, and said with a most great and blasphemous oath that she was the bravest woman he ever saw; and so went his way without another word and troubled her no more.
Yet privately this gentle, bravest woman was no better than an aristocrat. She who had been named Jane Lampton came from Kentucky and was married in the Kentucky City of Lexington: "was proud that the Lambtons, now Earls of Durham, had occupied the family lands for 900 years, that they were feudal lords of Lambton Castle and holding the high position of ancestors of hers when the Norman Conqueror came over to divert the Englishry." Son Mark pretended to jeer at this maternal pride in holding land 900 years. He said it was done with "the friendly assistance of an entail," that she was "merely descended from an entail," and "might as well be proud of being descended from a mortgage." But, nevertheless, is son Mark perpetually recalling these Lambtons and rolling under his tongue their estate of belted earls. And he will never have done with the story of the 100,000 acres of Tennessee lands which his father held to found the family fortune. This Tennessee land intrudes into the "purposed jumble" of the model autobiography like King Charles's head in Mr. Dick's calligraphic memorials - which, incidentally, brings in again that pride-begetting regicide. Here is palpable pretext of the inner and spiritual grace of democracy. Nevertheless the subject conducts to an excellent admission.
In the small town of Hannibal, Mo., when I was a boy, everybody was poor, but didn't know it, and everybody was comfortable, and did know it. And there were grades of society - people of good family, people of unclassified family, people of no family. Everybody knew everybody and was affable to everybody, and nobody put on any visible airs; yet class lines were quite clearly drawn and the familiar social life of each class was restricted to that class. It was a little democracy which was full of liberty, equality and the Fourth of July and sincerely so, too; yet you perceived that the aristocratic taint was there.
Mark connects the taint with the peculiar institution of slavery and the fact that the town's population had come from the slave States. But, after all, the proud Lambtons of Lambton Castle did not come from slave States - nor did Geoffrey Clement, the regicide, proceed out of Barbary.
Incidentally, hereabouts is introduced the original of Colonel Mulberry Sellers, who was in fact a Lampton of Kentucky, and very proud of the Lambtons of Durham. James, he was named, a cousin of the elder Mrs. Clemens and "floated all his days in a tinted mist of magnificent dreams." And here also (and cropping up anywhere in the narration) are vivid boyhood recollections. As of the night when Mark was 14 and was to play bear at a costume party of his younger elders. He practiced "everything a bear could do and many things no bear could ever do with dignity," without his bear's disguise - and with no disguise whatever, in fact - all innocent that two young ladies behind a screen were eagerly observing. "A smothered burst of feminine snickers" betrayed the audience and during several weeks thereafter Mark "could not look any young lady in the face" - not any at all - because the two behind the screen remained unidentified. It was only in Calcutta, forty-seven years later, that one of the culprits, "old and gray-haired, but very handsome," gleefully confessed.
Then there was Uncle John's farm, four miles from the village of Florida, where Mark was born in 1835 - "It was a heavenly place for a boy."
The house was a double-log one, with a spacious floor (roofed in) connecting it with the kitchen. In the Summer the table was set in the middle of that shady and breezy floor, and the sumptuous meals - well, it makes me cry to think of them. Fried chicken, roast pig, wild and tame turkeys, ducks and geese; venison just killed, squirrels, rabbits, pheasants, partridges, prairie chickens; "wheat bread," hot rolls, hot corn pone; fresh corn boiled on the ear, succotash, butter beans, string beans, tomatoes, peas, Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, buttermilk, sweet milk, "clabber"; watermelons, muskmelons, cantaloupes - all fresh from the garden; apple pie, peach pie, pumpkin pie, apple dumplings, peach cobbler - I can't remember the rest.
What has been remembered is enough to indicate that folks on Uncle John's farm were at least comfortably fed and amply provided with those delectable varieties of hot bread of which Europe has remained so persistently ignorant and which the North (because of not knowing how to make it properly) pretends to regard as bad for the insides.
I can see the farm yet, with perfect clearness. I can see all its belongings, all its details; the family room of the house, with a "trundle" bed in one corner and a spinning wheel in another - a wheel whose rising and falling wail, heard from a distance, was the mournfulest of all sounds to me, and made me homesick and low-spirited, and filled my atmosphere with the wandering spirits of the dead;the vast fireplace, piled high on Winter nights with flaming hickory logs from whose ends a sugary sap bubbled out, but did not go to waste, for we scraped it off and ate it; the lazy cat spread out on the rough hearthstones, the drowsy dogs braced against the jambs and blinking; my aunt in one chimney corner, knitting; my uncle in the other, smoking his corn-cob pipe; the slick and carpetless oak floor faintly mirroring the dancing flame tongues and freckled with black indentations where fire coals had popped out and died a leisurely death; half a dozen children romping in the background twilight; "split"-bottomed chairs here and there, some with rockers; a cradle - out of service, but waiting, with confidence; in the early cold mornings a snuggle of children, in shirts and chemises, occupying the hearthstones and procrastinating - they could not bear to leave that comfortable place and go out on the windswept floor space between the house and kitchen where the general tin basin stood, and wash.
Along outside of the front fence ran the country road, dusty in the Summertime, and a good place for snakes - they liked to lie in it and sun themselves; when they were rattlesnakes or puff adders we killed them; when they were black snakes or races, or belonged to the fabled "hoop" breed we fled, without shame; when they were "house snakes" or "garters" we carried them home and put them in Aunt Patsy's work basket for a surprise; for she was prejudiced against snakes, and always when she took the basket in her lap and they began to climb out of it, it disordered her mind. She never could seem to get used to them; her opportunities went for nothing. And she was always cold toward bats, too, and could not bear them; and yet I think a bat is as friendly a bird as there is. My mother was Aunt Patsy's sister and had the same wild superstitions. A bat is beautifully soft and silky; I do not know any creature that is pleasanter to the touch or is more grateful for caressings, if offered in the right spirit. I know all about these coleoptera, because our great cave, three miles below Hannibal, was multitudinously stocked with them, and often I brought them home to amuse my mother with. It was easy to manage if it was a school-day, because then I had ostensibly been to school and hadn't any bats. She was not a suspicious person, but full of trust and confidence; and when I said, "There's something in my coat pocket for you," she would put her hand in. But she always took it out again herself; I didn't have to tell her. It was remarkable the way she couldn't learn to like private bats. The more experience she had, the more she could not change her views.
There were swings made of bark stripped from hickory saplings. "They usually broke when a child was forty feet in the air, and this was why so many bones had to be mended each year. I had no ill luck myself, but none of my cousins escaped. There were eight of them, and at one time or another they broke fourteen arms among them. But it cost next to nothing, for the doctor worked by the year, $25 for the whole family." Not to count that, "every old woman was a doctor and gathered her own medicines in the woods, and know how to compound doses that would stir the vitals of a cast-iron dog."
The country schoolhouse stood in a clearing in the woods and was more or less regularly attended. Mark's first visit was at the age of 7. "A strapping girl of 15 in the customary sunbonnet and calico dress asked me if I 'used tobacco' - meaning did I chew it. I said 'no.' It roused her scorn." Mark confesses that he never could learn to chew tobacco, though in the matter of smokes his capacity for evil varieties of the weed was notorious. Wheeling "long nines" were his favorite because he had "acquired an affection for them" when he was "a cub pilot on the Mississippi." He said, "When a cigar costs 4 1/4 or 5 cents I smoke it with confidence."
Not without profit one might stray from this point to Clemens's description of a villa he knew near Florence, a house built 400 years ago for Cosmo I and containing uncounted rooms, not omitting a salon forty feet in each of three dimensions, called the Great Sahara. But it just as well to skip to John Hay, who, even before he was Secretary of State, was not afraid of Horace Greeley, yet was not altogether brave. For Hay and Twain being discovered together on a Sunday morning chatting as freely and gayly as if it had been a week day, by Mrs. Hay, it was easily perceived that the bottom had fallen out of his valor no less than his vocabulary. At the door he did not invite Twain to call again, but "said pathetically and apologetically, 'she is very strict about Sunday' " - thus proving that "no courage is absolutely perfect."
With his manner of speaking his mind (and writing it) and with his record as editor of The Virginia City Enterprise out in Nevada at a time when the habit of the duello was strong with Western editors, it is surprising that Mark confesses to but one duel - and that only arranged, not consummated. There was a challenge, some pistol practice, and not every effective fire by Editor Clemens. But a second's neat job in shooting off the head of a sparrow so terrified the rival faction that they declined to fight on any terms. Nevertheless, Clemens had to flee the state as a duelist. "When I laid down my editorial pen," he records, "I had four horsewhippings and two duels coming to me."
As an editor, retired, and an autobiographer - which is a kind of historian - in active practice, Mark Twain makes a discovery - "the discovery of the wide difference in interest between 'news' and 'history'; that news is history in its first and best form, its vivid and fascinating form, and that history is the pale and tranquil reflection of it." He observes that in his autobiography (as at that stage it was being written by daily dictation) he is "mixing these two forms together all the time." He is "hoping by this method of procedure to secure the values of both," because the autobiographical dictation, dealing always with the thing that immediately interests him, that thing is infallibly either something he has got by "reading the infernal newspapers" or by talking to somebody. So he gets a fresh start from news every day wherever his history lands him. In his own case, at least, the plan works.
For instance, General Daniel E. Sickles arrives at eighty-one years, Jan. 16, 1906. Sickles lost a leg at Gettysburg, which suggest the reflection that soldiers who have lost a leg in battle "value the lost leg above the one that is left." And Twain recalls walking across from his Fifth Avenue house (down toward the Square) to Sickles's house, where the drawing room, floors, walls and ceilings are "cluttered up and overlaid with lion skins, tiger skins, leopard skins, elephant skins, more animals, more skins, here and there and everywhere more and more skins. It was as if a menagerie had undressed in the place."
At an earlier date "on a bench in Washington Square" Twain saw the most of Louis Stevenson. "R.L.S." was "most scantily furnished with flesh, his clothes seemed to fall into hollows as if there were nothing inside but the frame of a sculptor's statue." Between them they coined a new name, "submerged renown," for the sort of author whose fame lives:
down in the deep water; for what the reviewer says never finds its way down into those placid deeps, nor the newspaper sneers, nor any breath of the winds of slander blowing above. Down there the never hear of these things. Their idol may be painted clay, up there at the surface, and fade and crumble and blow away, there being much weather there, but down below he is gold and adamant and indestructible.
The conversation arose because a bookseller had just told Stevenson that a man named Davis (never heard of by the author of "Treasure Island") was the most read author in America - "down in the sunless region of eternal drudgery and starvation wages, he found his readers by the millions."
Henry H. Rogers, Standard Oil and steel magnate had been figuring as a witness in Boston. That reminded Mark of how this "closest and most valued friend" had saved his copyrights from being "swallowed up in the wreck and ruin" early in the '90's of Mark's publishing firm, Charles L. Webster & Co. It was a failure on a grand scale and it is familiar history that Mark went to work and paid his creditors cent for cent. But it took time. Rogers contrived the delay. Of ninety-six creditors, only three or four insisted on their immediate pound of flesh. "I have never," writes Mark, "resented their animosity except in my autobiography. And even there not in spite, not in malice, but frankly and in only a brief chapter - a chapter which can never wound them. For I have confidence that they will be in hell before it is printed." Here Mark records his opinion that whatever lofty and charming and lovable thing it is to be a gentleman. "Henry H. Rogers could have sat for the portrait."
It was as his publisher chiefly that Twain knew Ulysses S. Grant. There is much about General Grant in the autobiography - especially during the time when the General was dying slowly and bravely of cancer. One day Twain brought a young sculptor, Gerhardt, to the General's house to correct from life a bust he had made from a photograph. Gerhardt was admitted to the sick room:
The General was stretched out in a reclining chair, with his feet supported upon an ordinary chair. He was muffled up in dressing gowns and afghans with his black woolen skull cap on his head.
The ladies [one was the General's wife] took the skull cap off and began to discuss his nose and his forehead, and they made him turn this way and that way and the other way, to get different views and profiles of his features. He took it all patiently and made no complaint.
Twain is a hero worshipper of Grant in spite of having been his publisher. A clergyman (disguised as Mr. N.) reported that Grant in his last hours "pressed his hand (Mr. N.'s) and delivered himself of this astounding remark: 'Thrice have I been in the shadow of the valley of death and thrice I have come out again.' "
Says Mark, succinctly: "General Grant never used flowers of speech and, dead or alive, he never could have uttered anything like that, either as a quotation or otherwise." But when Mark asked the General who originated the idea of the famous March to the Sea - whether it was himself or Sherman - Grant said, "Neither. The enemy did it." That time, Mark had called upon the General (who was not yet very ill) with his little daughter, Susy, whose death in her early twenties supplies a moving chapter in the book and whose childish diary furnishes the text for many another chapter - becomes the news peg upon which is lovingly hung the father's excursion into history.
Susy's spelling "is frequently desperate," but Mark, who was the prize speller of that school of his back in Hannibal, Mo., lets Susy's spelling stand. "I cannot bring myself to change any line or word of Susy's sketch of me," Clemens writes, for the child's diary set out to be (and pretty fairly was) a biography of her father. At this point it is noted that in homes frequented by literary people, lawyers, judges, professors - the talk of the children is "a curious and funny musketry clatter of little words, interrupted at intervals by the heavy-artillery crash of a word of such imposing sound and size that it seems to shake the ground and rattle the windows." And the father adds proudly, "As a child Susy had good fortune with her large words and employed many of them."
The Clemens children - but not Susy - seem to have sworn vigorously upon occasion also - but not in the language of their father, whose supply of brimstone for utterance was not surprising in an ex-pilot of the Mississippi. They borrowed their "misplaced pieties" from a little German maid who had to do the young things' hair and when she was done "exploded her thanks toward the sky in this form. 'Gott sei dank! Ich bin schon fertig mit'm Gott verdammtes Haar.' " Mark says he is not quite brave enough to translate this, but he does not shrink from setting down in cold type this:
I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades and that it has no real value, certainly no large value.
Mark is thus by his words as by his deeds abundantly proclaimed a man of courage. When Blaine was nominated against Cleveland, he dared, though a resident of Hartford at the time, to announce his intention of voting for Cleveland. "On election day we went to the polls and consummated our hellish design." One of the "we" was his friend, the Rev. Joe Twichell, who by that act "most seriously damaged himself with his congregation." Though he had been their pastor ever since the Civil War they were near dismissing Twichell from his pulpit for his political heresy. They didn't do it, but it was a close call. Since then, says Mark, he became persistent in voting "right." Mark is then struck by the fact that "in this country there are perhaps 80,000 preachers. Not more than twenty of them are politically independent - the rest cannot be politically independent. They must vote the ticket of their congregation. They do it and are justified."
The subject might be pursued - followed into the green pastures with the sheep-like folk that we are - but, as was broadly hinted in the beginning, the only satisfactory way to deal with Mark Twain's autobiography is to read it.
When that is done, what he has written about his wife, Lavinia [sic] Langdon, is worthy to set beside what he has written about his mother. Mrs. Clemens is eloquently acknowledged a perfect character and helpmeet, but Mark's heedlessness, his easy way with the social proprieties, distressed her. He might any time wear his arctics right into the East Room at the White House. After a polite dinner party he had always to be "dusted off" for social errors. Mrs. Clemens and the children undertook to edit his manners as they did his manuscript. It seems he endured the ordeal in each case cheerfully.
But this is a serious autobiography even if it has not been too seriously selected from in this place. Elder people who read it will be reminded of much that they have forgotten. Younger people will learn a lot about their elders - including some quite famous and important persons and many that are neither.
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