“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 flint with 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, and the narrative must interest the average human being because these episodes are of a sort which he is familiar with in his own life, and in which he sees his own life reflected and set down in print.” (Autobiography of Mark Twain)
There is no telling the fire that was lit in my mind when I first heard of this feat of immortality. To write an autobiography and feel confident enough to know, without a smidgeon of doubt, that it would be widely read when published a hundred years after one’s death is absolutely mind boggling. Furthermore, the fact that nothing else like this has been attempted, that a century later the method is brand-new, absolutely revolutionary, and, on top of that, a pleasure to read staggers the imagination. Simply being able ask the question: ‘are you going to read the new Mark Twain?’ carried with it such a lovely state of seeming contradiction that I asked everyone – whether friend, foe, or random passerby.
If you have heard of the book, however, you already know all that. What you don’t know is that to read this autobiography is to meet Mark Twain in all of his humor, his opinionated self-confidence, and his wide subtlety of emotion. It is to be a friend sitting in the room with him every morning, while he lounges on the bed and talks freely about himself and his life, yes, but also about events current in the beginning of the 20th century, about politics and about anything at all that held his interest (which means, of course, that it will hold yours).
He won my heart in its entirety when he stated with vehemence that correct spelling is over-rated: “the ability to spell is a natural gift. The person not born with it can never become perfect in it.” My spelling has been the butt of family jokes my whole life long, and the red line in Word is my unvanquished enemy – but in a few sentences Mark Twain turned my failing into a virtue: “before the spelling book came with its arbitrary forms, men unconsciously revealed shades of their characters, and also added enlightening shades of expression to what they wrote by their spelling, and so it is possible that the spelling book has been a doubtful benevolence to us.” Never having lived in a time without spelling tests and dictionaries, I could not have compared standardized spelling to un-standardized times, but Mark Twain has shaken me out of my 21st century assumptions and shown me a different way to look at the matter.
What really brought this book into focus for me, and perhaps even for its author, was the account of his daughter Susy, who died at the age of twenty-four. In her adolescence she started a biography of her papa, and Mark Twain takes fragments of it to keep him on course and remind him of what is important; the reader gets the feeling that Susy performed this service for him in life, too. Mark Twain immortalizes himself in this book, but he also commits to posterity a tribute to his daughter, who had no children or grandchildren through which to be remembered. It is impossible to read about her and not feel that the world at large lost something important when she died, and lucky that we at least get to know her through the lens of this printed book. I don’t think that it would be assuming too much about her importance in his life to say that this was the real reason Samuel Clemens dictated his autobiography at all.
If the fundamental question of this blog is should the average person read this book, and why? Then the resounding, untarnished, and emphatic answer here is: Yes – because it is unbearably good.
Beverage: Mark Twain describes a scene from his childhood where they drink coffee with brown sugar, it seems to have been a common occurrence, but I’ve never heard of it and can’t wait to experiment.