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Michael J. Kiskis, ed. Mark Twain's Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the "North American Review".

Michael J. Kiskis, ed. Mark Twain's Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the "North American Review" (U of Wisconsin P, 1990), 301 pp., $25.00 cloth; $12.95 paper.

Mark Twain worked on his autobiography by fits and starts from 1870 until just a few months before his death in April of 1910. He amassed over half a million words and created a chaos of fragments. Aggrandizing himself out of habitual insecurity and arrogance, he imagined that in telling his life story he would have things to say too strong for the public to bear. He insisted that his autobiography should not be published during his life and left a series of instructions for future editors: "From the first, second, third, & fourth editions all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be kept out" (Kiskis xviii). With aplomb he then violated his own strictures by publishing extracts amounting to twenty-five chapters in the North American Review from September 1906 to December 1907. This is the text that Michael J. Kiskis has recovered, and it is arguably the definitive form of Twain's autobiography.

There have been three earlier versions of the autobiography. In 1924 Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain's authorized biographer, brought out in two volumes Mark Twain's Autobiography. In 1940 Bernard DeVoto, then executor of the Mark Twain Papers, issued Mark Twain in Eruption: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events. And finally in 1959 the indefatigable popularizer of Twain, Charles Neider, brought out The Autobiography of Mark Twain. None of these editions is authoritative. All violate Twain's original design--Paine by omitting factual material, DeVoto by imposing a thematic arrangement, Neider by using a chronological organization. Further, in making selections from the vast mass of manuscript Twain piled up through his dictations, Paine genteelizes Twain; DeVoto radicalizes him; and Neider conventionalizes him.

There may in fact never be a reliable, complete edition of the autobiography (the California-Iowa is still a-borning). Twain's theory of--or rather feeling for--autobiography evolved through the many years he toyed with the form, but it finally came to rest on two principles: Free associations should replace chronology'; narrative should be augmented by extraneous factual material. Operating along these lines, Twain created chaos for his future editors to order. Thus while Henry Adams could recommend the autobiographical act to Henry James as a means of conclusion (ominously he would tell James, "take your own life"), Twain seems to have hit on autobiography as a way to make his life inconclusive, indeed almost unending as editor after editor struggles with the puzzle of prohibition and compilation he designed.

Kiskis's edition provides the only version of the autobiography ever printed with Twain's sanction. Kiskis surrounds the text with useful but unobtrusive annotations, with appendixes that detail Twain's efforts at autobiography and compare the published versions, and with an introduction that quietly but perceptively outlines the nature and significance of Twain's book. The fact that Colonel George Harvey, publisher of the North American Review, selected and edited Twain's dictations (with an occasional nod from Clara Clemens) makes this text even more representative of Mark Twain, for Harvey functioned for this final Twain project very much as Livy and Howells had for so many earlier ones. Further, as James Cox long ago pointed out, since Twain was unable to bring his late writings into coherent form for publication, leaving instead fragments, the "extract" may be seen as Twain's final form (James M. Cox, Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1966], pp. 285-310). These extracts from a formless autobiography, one more putative than realized, may thus actually constitute the definitive autobiography of Mark Twain.

The selections from his autobiography that Twain published in 1906-1907 are the last major work that Mark Twain saw into print. Coming when his fame was at a peak, his finances secure, but his emotional and family life disordered, the autobiography is fascinating for what it both reveals and conceals. It presents the image that Twain, always aware of his public, wanted to leave for posterity. While a full analysis awaits extended treatment, it is dear that Twain mutes his savage humor and parades his genial, that he hides his sexual interests, and that he skirts any hint of his psychic distress. Not surprisingly, he emphasizes his success, his roles as husband and father, and his general respectability. Perhaps intending to alert his readers to his own game, he ends the excerpts with the beguiling statement: "Now, then, that is the tale. Some of it is true" (Kiskis 242).

Mark Twain's Own Autobiography should become a central work in the Twain canon. Kiskis has given Twain scholars a new major text to interpret. But it will be of interest to others as well, from the specialists in autobiography who will find its form provocative, to general readers who will enjoy its well told story. The text is a multifaceted wonder for scholars of nineteenth-century culture, containing, as it does, a conflict of styles, an opposition of social mores, a confusion of attitudes toward life, a clash of basic values, a dialectic of world views, a welter of moral reflections, a self composed of multiple identities, an ultimate epistemological uncertainty about existence, and, always, a cacophony of tones sounding from the humorous through the sentimental to the anguished. If all this is indicative of Mark Twain, one of the world's distinctively idiosyncratic personalities, much of it is also suggestive of the nineteenth century. Mark Twain's Own Autobiography is illuminating as his life-story and the story of his era.

Leland Krauth

University of Colorado at Boulder
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Author:Krauth, Leland
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 1992
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