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'The Autobiography Of Mark Twain': Satire To Spare

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'The Autobiography Of Mark Twain': Satire To Spare

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'The Autobiography Of Mark Twain': Satire To Spare

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Here are some wise words on aging, from a 70-year-old Mark Twain, channeled by the actor Hal Holbrook.

(Soundbite of play, "Mark Twain")

Mr. HAL HOLBROOK (Actor): (as Mark Twain) Oh, I suppose it's a good idea to obey all the rules when you're young, just so you'll have the strength to break them when you're old.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Mark Twain felt he was breaking a lot of rules while he was writing his autobiography. And when he was done, he said: Wait till I'm dead a hundred years, maybe even 500, before you publish some of this stuff.

He died in 1910. Now his autobiography is being published the way Twain himself wished.

John McChesney reports.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: Mark Twain changed the rules of American fiction when, in "Huckleberry Finn," he let a redneck kid tell his story in his own dialect. But he had a hard time figuring out what rules to break as he struggled, for years, to tell his own life story. Early efforts failed he said because he followed the calendar, a plan that, quote, "starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side excursions permitted."

Then, in 1904, he hits upon it a right way.

Unidentified Man: (as Mark Twain) Start at no particular time of your life. Wander at free will all over your life; talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it at the moment its interest starts to pale.

MCCHESNEY: Naturally, he can't resist a comic hyperbole, adding: It's the first time in history such a method has been discovered.

But he wasn't finished. A couple of years later, he wrote his friend William Dean Howells about another eureka.

Unidentified Man: (as Mark Twain) I've struck it and I will give it away to you. You will never know how much enjoyment you've lost until you get to dictating your biography. You'll be astonished at how like talk it is and how real it sounds.

MCCHESNEY: Twain first tried dictating into Thomas Edison's new recording machine, but he didn't like it.

Unidentified Man: (as Mark Twain) It's matter of fact compressive, un-ornamental, and as grave and unsmiling as the Devil. I filled four dozen cylinders in two sittings.

MCCHESNEY: Those recordings, unfortunately, have never been found. But this was a man who strutted stages all over the world, delivering extemporaneous spiels. He needed a live audience, not a bloodless machine. He found that audience in stenographer Josephine Hobby and Albert Bigelow Paine, his first biographer.

Paine says Twain often dictated from bed, clad in a handsome silk dressing gown - a rich Persian pattern - propped against great snowy pillows. But he also got up and paced the floor and waved his arms, as he poured out nearly 2,000 pages of typescript over three years.

Dr. ROBERT HIRST (Director, Mark Twain Project, University of California, Berkeley): So he is actually a talked autobiography.

MCCHESNEY: Robert Hirst leads the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley, where the new edition of the autobiography was put together.

Dr. HIRST: If you think about it, this is really the culmination of something that's been going on for a long time. I mean Mark Twain comes out of an oral tradition of humor. And if you look at any of the books, you'll see this method of digression. I mean even in "Huck Finn," basically it's a trip with digressions, strung off it like beads, beads on a string.

MCCHESNEY: We're in a temperature and humidity-controlled room, a vault that houses the largest collection of Twain papers in the world. Along one wall, a long row of file cabinets contains over 10,000 letters from Twain. And across the aisle, an equal number of cabinets with letters to Twain.

Hirst opens one of the drawers holding the autobiography and he spreads out some pages. They're typed from a stenographer's careful notes of dictations. But Twain, in his own hand, made only minor corrections. This is surprising because the paragraph and sentence architecture are quite complex, more than one would expect from spontaneous speaking.

Dr. HIRST: The evidence is that he's capable of composing an entire paragraph in his head. I have editors that would come in, and they'd say: Listen to this, and they would read it to me. They couldn't believe that someone could dictate that.

MCCHESNEY: On the page in front of us, Hirst reads what Twain says about yet another discovery he's made while spinning out his autobiographical web.

Dr. HIRST: That news is history in its first and best form; its vivid and fascinating form; and that history is the pale and tranquil reflection of it.

MCCHESNEY: Twain goes on, saying he mixes news and history in the autobiography, using something from the Infernal Newspapers, as he called them, as a jumping-off point for his dictation. The American occupation of the Philippines is still going on in 1906. And Twain reads that American troops cornered 600 of the Moro tribe, including women and children, in a volcanic crater. General Leonard Wood, Twain called him Theodore Roosevelt's Fragrant Pet, gave the order to kill or capture the 600.

Unidentified Man: (as Mark Twain) Apparently our little Army considered that the or left them authorized to kill or capture, according to taste. And that their taste had remained what it had been for eight years, in our Army out there - the taste of Christian butchers.

MCCHESNEY: But while the autobiography contains many such bare-knuckle outbursts, you'll find few revelations about Twain's inner moral struggles. Three months into the dictations, he says...

Unidentified Man: (as Mark Twain) I have thought of 1500 or 2,000 incidents in my life which I am ashamed of, but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet.

Dr. HIRST: So he has realized that he's not a confessional autobiographer. That's not what this is.

MCCHESNEY: Even though he wasn't confessional, he did say things that his biographers and his daughter felt were too personal or too scalding, to print in early editions of the autobiography. In spite of these efforts at suppression, most of the autobiography has surfaced over the years.

But the stories of Twain's embargo persist and it continues to help sales.

Dr. HIRST: I would say, you know, can you spell marketing plan? If you say here's a little bit of the autobiography, but you can't see the whole thing for a hundred years, you're gonna sell a book. And Mark Twain knew how to sell a book.

MCCHESNEY: Robert Hirst emphasizes that this new edition follows Twain's own design, while previous editions have been rearranged by editors who thought they had a better idea. The new edition also includes the numerous false starts that Twain made before he settled into the dictation, so the reader might find it a bit of a slog at times.

Dr. HIRST: It is heavy slogging, but I recommend what Mark Twain would recommend: If you're bored with it, skip.

MCCHESNEY: Besides, there's a lot more to come, two more volumes over the next five years.

For NPR News, I'm John McChesney.

MONTAGNE: You'll find a few excerpts from Mark Twain's autobiography at NPR.org.

And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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