Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Day 15: The Autobiography of Mark Twain

It's Day 15 in our 24 Days of Books, and we're talking about a new book from an author who died one hundred years ago. Really. I mean I've heard of posthumous publications and all, but this might be a record. The book is The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One, by, you guessed it, Mark Twain, who died on April 21, 1910, and he is in fact buried in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York. Twain, born Samuel Longhorne Clemens (for a while he wrote under the name Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass), left strict instructions that his autobiography not be published until one hundred years after his death, so that he wouldn't hurt anyone's feelings and so that he could speak his mind frankly (didn't he always do that?).

After many many false starts trying to write his autobiography, Twain finally hit upon two techniques that worked for him. First, rather than write chronologically, he recommended "starting at no particular point in your life and write about whatever interests you and stop when it no longer interests you." Second, he figured out that he needed an audience, so he abandoned his attempts to use a dictation machine and instead hired scribes who would listen to him as he dictated.

So, in essence, this work is an oral biography. Frequently he used items in the newspapers as jumping off points for his dictations, so the book reflects much of what was going on in the world at the time. This stupendous door-stopper of a book (the first volume alone is more than 700 pages!) includes more than 200 pages of explanatory notes intended to "clarify and supplement" the writings by identifying people, places, and incidents and by explaining topical references and literary allusions.

This book is funny, interesting, thought-provoking, and, frankly, timeless. This book is one of the hottest of the holiday season and the volumes fly off our shelves about as fast as they arrive. We just got a handful more in the store today, but I'm sure they won't last long.

Twain published more than thirty books in his lifetime. One of them, Huckleberry Finn, was ranked as the fifth most frequently challenged book in the United States by the American Library Association.

The book just published is the first in a series of three volumes to be published by the University of California Press -- subsequent volumes are due to appear in about five years. Robert Hirst is the Director and General Editor of The Mark Twain Project. Volume One is edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and the other editors of the Mark Twain Project.

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