My dear cousin Maria gave me The Autobiography of Mark Twain for Christmas. His life story is fascinating, and so is the history of his autobiography.
He started writing it in 1870- which was 40 years before he died. And before he began, he decided that he didn’t want it to be published until after he was dead. But, he was ambivalent about how many years after, ranging from as few as 50 to as many as 500. Yes, he actually contemplated having his autobiography held for half a millennium before being published. But, he wound up stipulating a 100 year wait. Yet, somehow, the first edition came out in 1958, which was 48 years after he died. Go figure.
Anyway, I think it’s pretty darn arrogant to assume that 100 years after you’re dead that people will want to read about your life- let alone 500 years. And all the more so when you consider that in 1870 when he started, he hadn’t even completed Tom Sawyer yet. So, he was very far from the pinnacle of his fame. However, on the other hand, he turned out to be correct in his prediction.
Another weird thing about the autobiography is that it was not written in chronological order. Randomly, he wrote about different times in his life, as the mood struck him, and he expected the book to be published that way, in this “stream of consciousness” style. But, the version that Maria got for me, which was edited by Charles Neider, is arranged mostly, although not completely, chronologically.
Mark Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, was born in Florida, Missouri in 1835. Florida, by the way, means “land of flowers.” But, at age 8, his family moved to the larger town of Hannibal, Missouri to live with his uncle who owned a large farm there. And, since it was before the Civil War, the work on this farm was done by slaves. He told a very touching story about a slave boy named Sandy. Sandy liked to sing and hum. He did it all day long while he was working. But, Samuel didn’t like it, and he asked his mother to make Sandy stop. But fervently, his mother explained to him that Sandy had been torn away from his family in Virginia, and he was never going to see them again- all the people he loved. And if singing and humming provides him some relief from his sorrow, then she is glad for it, and she hopes he will continue, and Samuel should too. That had a huge effect on Samuel, and it changed his attitude towards Sandy and towards black people in general. He was never again bothered by Sandy’s singing. And, he wound up including Sandy as a character in Tom Sawyer. You recall the famous scene in which Tom finagles the other boys to paint the fence for him. Well, Sandy was one of the other boys, except that he doesn’t fall for it.
Both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were based on Mark Twain’s childhood experiences in Missouri. And, another character from Tom Sawyer who was real is the second-most important character in the book: Injun Joe. There really was an Injun Joe; except that in the book, Injun Joe got trapped in a cave and starved to death, whereas in real life, Injun Joe got trapped in a cave but didn’t starve; after many weeks, he was rescued, having survived all that time on the flesh of bats.
Mark Twain had very little education. He never went to college. He just attended a little country school in Missouri, and it was 3 miles from his home. Year-round, he had to walk to school, and remember, they get some pretty serious winter in Missouri. Can you imagine a little kid having to wake up in the morning and then trudge through snow for 3 miles to get to school? And return home the same way? I’m thinking that there wasn’t too much childhood obesity back then.
Oh, and that reminds me: he wrote a lot about the food they ate on the farm, and he raved about it, all the incredible edibles they had. And he began by listing all the animals that they ate, including a lot of uncommon ones for our time, such as squirrels, possums, rabbits, ducks, geese, wild turkeys, wild hogs, deer, elk, even bears. It seems that the modern meat supply has contracted quite a lot in variety compared to back then, although being a vegetarian, I am unaffected.
I got the impression that Mark Twain was a real epicurean; he enjoyed his food and drink. He wrote this in the book:
“There are people who strictly deprive themselves of each and every eatable, drinkable, and smokable, which has in any way acquired a shady reputation. They pay this price for health. And health is all they get for it. How strange it is! It is like paying out your whole fortune for a cow that has gone dry.”
Now, that’s what I call a bad attitude about healthy living. Personally, I think there can be plenty of enjoyment in life even when one tries to live it healthily.
But, speaking of smoking, Mark Twain really loved his tobacco. He smoked like a fiend. Tobacco is what his uncle raised on the farm. Samuel started smoking at the age of 9. He became famous for brandishing his pipe, but he also smoked cigarettes and cigars. He also chewed tobacco. So, the fact that he lived to the age of 74, dying in 1910 of a heart attack, is quite amazing when you consider that average lifespan for men in 1910 was 50.
If you are wondering how Mark Twain got started writing, it’s simple. His older brother Orion had bought the local newspaper in Hannibal, and he got Samuel to come work for him. So, Samuel learned the ins and outs of newspaper printing, including typesetting and everything else. But, sometimes, they would be laying out the paper and realize that they needed another third of a page to fill it up. So, his brother would say, “write something” and Samuel did. And that is how he got started writing.
Eventually, the newspaper failed, not because it wasn’t popular but because his brother Orion was a lousy businessman who couldn’t balance the books and turn a profit. So, he sold it and moved to Iowa, and that’s when Samuel moved to St. Louis and got a job as a reporter for a newspaper. And that became his bread and butter, being a newspaper reporter.
But, very much like my cousin Gary, Mark Twain decided early in life that he wanted to travel; he wanted to see the world. And he did; he traveled to every continent except Antarctica. And often he got newspapers and magazines to pay for his trips with the understanding that he would write about it, and they would get to publish it. He told an interesting story about something that happened to him in India.
But first, let me say that he wrote a lot about all these girls and young ladies that he pined for in his youth. And from reading it, you get the impression that he wasn’t too successful with them, overall. There was this one, whom he called Mary although he admitted that it was not her real name, who was gorgeous, a real siren. She was a little older than he was, but he fell head over heels for her. She did not return the sentiment. But, decades later, when he was traveling in India, he was at a hotel, and he saw her. Well, he thought he saw her. He knew he couldn’t be seeing her because this was an attractive young girl he saw, probably in her teens. And he was in his mid-40s at the time. But, he thought there had to be a connection. So, he approached this girl and asked her about the girl he knew. Well, it turned out that this young girl was the granddaughter of the girl he knew, and that her grandmother was there, staying at the hotel. So, he went to see the grandmother, now a grey-haired old woman in her 50s, and they had a wonderful reunion. What were the chances of that?
He didn’t get married until 1870 at the age of 35. His wife, Olivia Langdon, was 22. Yet, he outlived her. He said that she was frail and beautiful. Their first child, a son named Langdon, lived just 22 months. Mark Twain held himself responsible for the boy’s death. It was winter, and he took him out for a carriage ride, but the boy was inadequately dressed for the cold, and he got sick and died. Actually, according to Mark Twain, the boy's leg actually froze. So, maybe he died of sepsis. Perhaps the boy needed an amputation.
Mark Twain never forgave himself, and he suffered a severe depression. And I had read elsewhere that he had long bouts of depression in his life. Don’t you find it ironic that a humorist should suffer with depression? Shades of Robin Williams? Or perhaps I should say that Robin Williams was a shade of Mark Twain. And I think the following passage is evidence of his depression. He was talking about the “maddening repetition of the stock incidents of our race’s fleeting sojourn here, which has oppressed human minds from the beginning.”
“A myriad of men are born; they labor and sweat and struggle for bread; they squabble and scold and fight; they scramble for little mean advantages over each other. Age creeps upon them; infirmities follow; shames and humiliations bring down their prides and their vanities. Those they love are taken from them. Misery grows heavier, year by year. At length, ambition is dead; pride is dead; vanity is dead; longing for release is in their place. It comes at least- the only unpoisoned gift Earth ever had for them- and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing; where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness; where they have left no sign that they have existed- a world that will lament them for one day and then forget them forever. Then, another myriad takes their place and copies all they did and goes along the same profitless road and vanishes as they vanished- to make room for another and another, and a million other myriads to follow the same arid path through the same desert and accomplish what the first myriad and all the myriads that came after it accomplished- nothing!”
Now, that’s what I call depressed.
His wife Olivia went on to bear three more children, all daughters, the first of whom was Suzy. Oh, did he love Suzy. He wrote so much about her and practically nothing about his wife. He would just mention that his wife went with him somewhere, but he had little to say about her otherwise, and little to say about his other two daughters either. But, he went on and on about Suzy. She was bright, observant, and sharp as a tack. At the age of 15, she took to writing her own biography of her father, and he included an excerpt of it in the book. And, it was very good writing too, and I mean for anybody, let alone a 15 year old.
Oh, but tragedy struck again. While he and his wife were in England where he was receiving some award, they got word by telegraph that Suzy had fallen ill. Then, meningitis set it. And remember: there were no antibiotics in those days. And at the tender age of 22, Suzy gave up the mortal coil. He and his wife weren’t even there to be with her, though her sisters were and other relatives. Mark Twain really turned a phrase when he wrote of Suzy: “She was our wonder and our worship.”
There is a lot in the book about his friendships with famous people, including General Ulysses S. Grant. He explained that even after he was President, that Grant preferred the title of “General” to “President.” And, I learned an interesting fact: that Mark Twain handled the publication of Grant’s memoirs. Grant was racing to finish them before he died, and he knew he was dying. He had all kinds of ailments- he was such an alcoholic. And, he actually finished it barely in time and promptly died. But, Mark Twain got it published, and he delivered the royalties to Grant’s widow, which came to half a million dollars. Now try to think about what half a million was worth in 1870s dollars. How many millions would it be today? I'm thinking maybe ten million.
It’s ironic that Twain and Grant should have become close friends when you consider that Mark Twain fought briefly for the Confederate Army in the Civil War. But actually, he was never in battle, and actually, he only served briefly. He essentially deserted- although he didn't use that term. And what he did was head west, first to Virginia City, Nevada, where he got a job as a reporter, and then on to San Francisco, where he did the same thing. And that’s where he came up with one of his most famous lines, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.”
He also had close friendships with other prominent authors, such as Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson.
Another close friendship was with the Serbian electrical genius and inventor, Nikola Tesla. Twain was fascinated with science and technology, and he spent much time with Tesla in his laboratory.
Twain’s wife Olivia died in Florence, Italy in 1904, and again, he blamed himself because he was the one who was dragging this delicate woman of frail constitution all around the world because of his yen to travel.
And then, in 1909, the year before he died, his youngest daughter Jean died of typhoid fever. Therefore, his wife and all his children except for one, his daughter Clara, died before he did. Oh, the grief that that man must have suffered.
And towards the end of 1909, he announced to his remaining family and friends that he would be dying himself the next year, in 1910. But, he made an amusing story out of it. He said that he was born in 1835, which was the year of Haley’s Comet. And astronomers were predicting that Haley’s Comet would revisit Earth’s skies again in 1910, and they were right. So, Mark Twain said that it’s fitting for two freaks of Nature to come and go together. He died of a fatal heart attack on April 21, 1910.
Mark Twain is considered the greatest American humorist of the 19th century, but William Faulkner took it further. He said that Twain was “the father of American literature.” His best-loved books are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
It is quite amazing that he made it to 74, considering how heavily he smoked. But, I don’t think he had any regrets about that.