Mark Twain Autobiography Reveals Tragic Life

'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huck Finn' author lost children, faced financial ruin.

November 20, 2010, 9:33 AM

Nov. 22, 2010— -- 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Twain stipulated that his memoirs would not be published for 100 years, a time that just arrived this year.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.

Other versions of the autobiography were published in 1924, 1940 and 1959, but all with heavy edits and none true to Twain's vision.

Mark Twain's Secretary Once Bought Him a Sex Toy

In addition to sections devoted to his early life in Hannibal, Mo., his travels as a journalist and family years in Elmira, N.Y. and Hartford, Conn., the book contains his strongest political views.

Among his targets was contemporary Cecil Rhodes, who championed racist policies in colonial Africa and for whom the university scholarships were later named.

Twain, whose abolitionist views strengthened over time, writes that he wanted to hang Rhodes with a rope.

He also reflects on his early exposure to slavery on his uncle's farm in Missouri and the model for Jim in his most famous book, "Huckleberry Finn."

"In my schoolboy days, I had no aversion to slavery," writes Twain. "I was not aware there was anything wrong about it."

Twain also lambasts the government for sending soldiers he called "uniformed assassins" off to "imperialist" wars in Cuba and the Philippines.

"Patriotism is usually the refuge of the scoundrel," wrote Twain in 1908. "He is the man who talks the loudest."

Hirst said Philippines could be switched for Iraq.

"People are struck with how similar and applicable it is to today," she said. "All of the criticisms he made still apply."

Twain didn't spare the tycoons of Wall Street either, whom he accused of greed and selfishness.

"The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars," writes Twain. "He pays taxes on two million and a half."

Americans are still fascinated by Twain, even a century later, according to Cindy Lovell, executive director of the nonprofit Mark Twain Museum, which operates out of Twain's boyhood home in Hannibal, Miss., and receives 60,000 visitors a year.

"It's a wonderful read," she said. "All the Twain fans are eating it up like candy and they are reading it more than once."

Twain was the first celebrity who was "famous for being famous," according Lovell. He held court before presidents, artists, industrialists, and even European royalty.

President Ulysses S. Grant, tycoon John D. Rockefeller and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe all were close friends.

But the road to that celebrity took its toll.

Autobiography Shows Twain's Psychological Stress

One bad investment in a typesetting machine created by inventor James Paige nearly devoured his life savings. In the autobiography, Twain lashes out against Paige for the scam in "very strong language," according to Lovell.

"He talks about having his nuts in a vice," she said.

On the verge of bankruptcy in 1893, Twain embarked on a lecture tour throughout the Southern Hemisphere to recoup his losses, writing about his travels in "Following the Equator."

"He had suffered poverty as a boy and near poverty as adult," she said.

"This was a guy who worried about money," she said. "When he died, he was on top, but he knew the stress of having his back against the wall. He wrote with one eye on the market -- if he signed his name on a grocery list, someone would have bought it."

Just after the tour ended in 1896, Twain and his wife Olivia and their second-born daughter Clara -- the only one to live into adulthood -- went to England to rent a house in Guildford, where costs were lower than in the United States.

The two other daughters were to join them until they received a cablegram that the youngest, 22-year-old Susy, was ill. She died of meningitis before her family could return.

"It was a real tragedy," Lovell said. "Life was never the same."

Twain had lost a 19-month-old son to diptheria and Jean would drown in 1909 during an epileptic fit in the bathtub after her sister Clara insisted she return home.

Twain adored his wife Olivia, who was 10 years his junior.

"These two really got each other," Lovell said. "She was very intelligent and well read and up to speed on world events. She was his intellectual equal and edited him."

The passages Twain writes at her death in 1904 are "fresh and raw."

"He writes in real time," she said. "You feel as though you are talking to a man who lost his best friend."

But the autobiography reveals another haunting love, 14-year-old Laura Wright, whom he met decades earlier on a Mississippi pier while working as a steamboat captain. So smitten was he with her that he consulted a fortune teller.

Twain was as mystical as he was pragmatic and worldly.

He convinced his brother Henry to work with him on that steamboat, which exploded in 1858, killing his brother. Twain insisted he had foreseen the tragedy in a dream a month earlier. Twain was also an early member of the Society for Psychical Research.

The autobiography is grounded in America's narrative: from the Southern slavery to the 1849 Gold Rush and expansion of the West to the Civil War and the Guilded Age.

"Whether by design or by accident or by dumb good luck," Lovell said. "This man was at the front in center at every major historical event during his lifetime."

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