Mark Twain Autobiography Reveals Tragic Life

VIDEO: Mark Twains uncensored and authorized autobiography hits stores.

A century after his death, Mark Twain's wry, curmudgeonly voice is back with the publication of a three-volume autobiography, revealing a complex man whose life was filled with celebrity, financial struggle and intense tragedy.

The creator of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn," Twain was quintessentially American, the author of some of the most famous catch phrases of all time, including the 1897 quote, "The report of my death was an exaggeration."

Maybe so.

When he died in 1910 at the age of 74, he had left behind 5,000 edited pages of memoirs that stacked 10-feet tall -- a half million words in all.

"When you read them out loud, you cannot believe the man dictated this and didn't go in and polish them up and revisit them," said Robert Hirst, curator of the Mark Twain Papers. "You have the man speaking like most of us would like to write."

Twain stipulated that his memoirs would not be published for 100 years, a time that just arrived this year. Now, the University of California Press has just released the first of three projected volumes -- 737 pages long.

But beyond the wry man of letters, who courted presidents and world figures, the book gives a psychological glimpse into a tumultuous life.

Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Twain was forced to work as a typesetter from the age of 12 when his father died of pneumonia. He worked his way up to journalist, educating himself in public libraries in the cities where he worked.

A brother was killed before his eyes on a steamboat explosion, and three of his four children never lived to adulthood. He was scammed by an inventor and faced near bankruptcy.

Within the pages of the book, Twain is at once the grief-stricken father and the angry iconoclast, eager to settle personal grievances.

"There is a notion that he was two different people," Hirst said. "He is a very complicated person, an intelligent person. You never get all of his sides in any given literary work, but here you see him one-on-one."

"He is bold and playful," he said. "The curmudgeon image is there, but he is stepping back from it."

Twain called a countess who owned a villa where the family lived in Italy, "excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward."

He devotes a 400-page addendum to the secretary who transcribed his autobiography, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, a gold-digger who banished his epileptic daughter Jean to a sanatorium.

Lyon was so obsessed with Twain that she once bought him an electric vibrating sex toy. He fired her in 1909, later writing that she had "hypnotized" him into giving her power of attorney over his estate.

Scholars say Twain kept the autobiography under wraps for a century, because he did not want his family to suffer the consequences of his vitriol. But others suggest he wanted to be the center of attention decades after his death.

"This is a man with a healthy ego," Hirst said. "This is a guy with enormous confidence that it will be read in 100 years."

And read it has been, as the first volume of the autobiography soared to the top of the bestseller list on the day of its release, Nov. 15, 2010.

Twain pegged his thoughts to events of the day in no chronological order, calling them "a complete and purposed jumble."

He argued that his memories and opinions were more natural and candid if spoken, rather than written down.

  • 1
  • |
  • 2
  • |
  • 3
Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...