Autobiography of Mark Twain. Volume 1

by Mark Twain

Hardcover, 2010




Berkeley, CA : University of California Press, 2010.


Presents Mark Twain's authentic and unsuppressed voice, brimming with humor, ideas, and opinions, and speaking clearly from the grave as he intended.

Media reviews

That century has passed now and here it is, Volume 1 of “The Complete Authentic Unexpurgated Edition, Nothing Has Been Omitted, Not Even Scandalous Passages Likely to Cause Grown Men to Gasp and Women to Collapse in Tears — No Children Under 7 Allowed to Read This Book Under Any Circumstance,” which made Sam front-page news when all three volumes of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain” were announced last spring. The book turns out to be a wonderful fraud on the order of the Duke and the Dauphin in their Shakespearean romp, and bravo to Samuel Clemens, still able to catch the public’s attention a century after he expired.

He speaks from the grave, he writes, so that he can speak freely — “as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter” — but there’s precious little frankness and freedom here and plenty of proof that Mark Twain, in the hands of academics, can be just as tedious as anybody else when he is under the burden of his own reputation. Here, sandwiched between a 58-page barrage of an introduction and 180 pages of footnotes, is a ragbag of scraps, some of interest, most of them not....
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Occasionally, maybe once in 50 pages, the old man will go on a little too long. His dreams, dietary problems and complaints about stock-market reversals are as boring as yours and mine. Many of the news stories he fixates on seem dated now. On the whole, however, this volume is hard to stop reading. Twain's prosody is so sure, and his powers of observation and selection so great, that he can take the most unpromising material—a real-estate deed, a letter from a would-be author—and make it glitter, like dull stone that turns out to be quartz or even diamond. Like Nabokov, he knew how to "caress the details, the divine details."
Publishers Weekly
Mark Twain is his own greatest character in this brilliant self-portrait, the first of three volumes collected by the Mark Twain Project on the centenary of the author's death. It is published complete and unexpurgated for the first time. (Twain wanted his more scalding opinions suppressed until long after his death.) Eschewing chronology and organization, Twain simply meanders from observation to anecdote and between past and present. There are gorgeous reminiscences from his youth of landscapes, rural idylls, and Tom Sawyeresque japes; acid-etched profiles of friends and enemies, from his 'fiendish' Florentine landlady to the fatuous and 'grotesque' Rockefellers; a searing polemic on a 1906 American massacre of Filipino insurgents; a hilarious screed against a hapless editor who dared tweak his prose; and countless tales of the author's own bamboozlement, unto bankruptcy, by publishers, business partners, doctors, miscellaneous moochers; he was even outsmarted by a wild turkey. Laced with Twain's unique blend of humor and vitriol, the haphazard narrative is engrossing, hugely funny, and deeply revealing of its author's mind. His is a world where every piety conceals fraud and every arcadia a trace of violence; he relishes the human comedy and reveres true nobility, yet as he tolls the bell for friends and family--most tenderly in an elegy for his daughter Susy, who died in her early 20s of meningitis--he feels that life is a pointless charade. Twain's memoirs are a pointillist masterpiece from which his vision of America--half paradise, half swindle--emerges with indelible force.
Library Journal
Before his death in 1910, Mark Twain left instructions that his autobiography, on which he'd been working by fits and starts, be left unpublished for 100 years. Now, at the century mark, from the army of Twain scholars at the University of California's Mark Twain Project, comes the dazzling first volume of the ultimate, authoritative three-volume 'Autobiography of Mark Twain' With no fear of reprisals, always in the center of mid-19th-century America's political, social, and cultural life, and acquainted with everyone of note, Twain wrote briskly and both favorably and fiercely on how he felt about people and events. Twain's writing here is electric, alternately moving and hilarious. He couldn't write a ho-hum sentence. Disappointed with other systems of organization, Twain settled on writing on a topic that interested him before switching to another when it so moved him. To read this volume is to be introduced to Twain as if, thrillingly, for the first time. A 58-page introduction, 138 pages of 'Preliminary Manuscripts and Dictations,' 176 pages of 'Explanatory Notes,' and a section of 'Family Biographies' (all freshly fascinating) round out the volume. VERDICT: Enthusiastically recommended. This may overwhelm Twain newcomers, but it is essential for specialists.

User reviews

LibraryThing member JeffV
Perhaps I need to take a break from autobiographies -- only one of the last three I read was truly good.

Mark Twain wrote the basis for this volume in his late years, with orders given that it was not to be published until a century after his death. This was done to avoid harming those living or their immediate heirs. I think having him "speak from the grave" all these years later was somewhat appealing to him as well.

This volume was put together by a group of people compiling not only Twain's final autobiographical manuscript, but content from several other starts, as well as content from other Twain contemporaries. It is not by any means a "cradle to the grave" narrative, and most of it isn't even about Twain himself! It begins with summary of General Grant's final years and financial problems, and often strays to tell the stories of others -- some whose names still resonate in history (including some presidents, such as Cleveland), and some that were completely inconsequential, resembling the reminiscing of a doddering old man.

There are moment of revelation and interest. When he was young and penniless, Twain took a riverboat from Cincinnati to New Orleans with the intent of booking passage to the Amazon and becoming a coke dealer. However, he neglected to check and see if there was any shipping from that port which traveled that way (there was not!) so he undertook training to be a riverboat captain instead. There are numerous passages quoted from Twain's daughter's biography of him -- a work in progress when she died at age 24. The deaths of children, his own and others, seemed to have the most emotional impact upon him. That and editors. He hated them with a passion -- recounted in amusing detail a dressing-down he gave to one who dared to presume to know better, and then afterward congratulated himself on his restraint because the "toad-brained fool" simply didn't know any better.

Not all of his anecdotes are amusing or even significant, however. The group that published this book has a lot of original source material available on their website, and it seems this volume could have withstood a fair amount more editing, with the outtakes consigned to the web for those who can't get enough. I suppose I'd probably enjoy a biography culled from this source material. Jumping the time line was too much of a distraction. In the final passages. he spoke of Helen Keller (with an epitaph that she would be remembered as one of the great names in History); the Russian Revolution (he thought Teddy Roosevelt set it back centuries or killed it permanently and lamented this in a conversation with Tchaikovsky); and he lambasted US policy and the atrocities committed in the Philippines. But then he spoke of his early years when as a teenager he worked in a small printing house where they were rarely paid in cash, just barter. I'm not sure what Volume 2 will contain, but I would guess more about his childhood, and perhaps more surrounding the creation of some of his greatest works.
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LibraryThing member photoeditor51
I was excited about this book, hoping to read more of the witty humor from Twain. I was one of the first to order it. I am extremely disappointed in the fact that the type is about 6 points with excerpts even smaller (4 pt?). The book is over 700 pages and this is only Vol. 1. This wonderful man would have been better served if the publisher had assigned some editors to edit this massive amount of information about Twain's life. This book is better left to the literary scholars of Twain. Like many my age, I need reading glasses to read and this presents an impossible task. I hope I can return it to Amazon!… (more)
LibraryThing member SamSattler
Mark Twain had a mouth on him, no doubt about it – and that is why it is still so much fun to read the man’s writing today. But even Twain knew that the world was not quite ready for the unexpurgated version of his thoughts that comprises the first two volumes (a third volume is yet to follow) of his autobiography, so he stipulated that the complete biography was not to be published until 100 years after his death – which occurred on April 21, 1910. For those of us lucky enough to be around for the unveiling of the uncensored version of the manuscripts, it was well worth the wait.

Close to half of the material contained in the autobiography has never been published before, and readers have the Mark Twain Project (of the University of California, Berkeley) to thank for making it available now. The previously published material has been published several times in the past, but always in an abridged form guaranteed not to offend. But even the unrestricted version of Twain’s manuscripts is not what readers have come to expect from an autobiography.

Rather than tell the story of his life in chronological order, Twain decided early on that he would dictate his thoughts to a stenographer as they occurred to him – regardless of where they might fit into the story of his life. And, because he wanted them published in the order that he dictated them, reading the two books is more like having a conversation with Twain than anything else. It is as if the man were sitting across the room and telling random stories from his life as they cross his mind.

And what stories they are! They range all the way from his thoughts on rather trivial newspaper stories that may have caught his eye over breakfast to wonderful remembrances of things that happened in the first decade or two of his life. We learn of the villains in Twain’s world, some of whom personally crippled him with huge financial losses and scams, and others who were simply the villains of their times, men like Jay Gould and Belgium’s King Leopold II. We learn much about his brother, a man full of dreams but without the ability to make any of them come true. And most touchingly, Twain shares his deep love for Susy, the daughter who was snatched from the family so suddenly, by quoting liberally from the biography she wrote about her father. (My own favorite sections of the book deal with Twain’s relationship with the U.S. Grant family and publication of the former president’s memoirs.)

Twain, though, never passes up the opportunity for a little personal vengeance. As he often reminds his readers, he is speaking from the grave now, so what does he care about offending anyone? He just wants to set the record straight – at least as he sees that record. So rather unfortunately, the reader will have to wade through what seems like countless pages about the copyright laws of the day and biting commentary about an Italian landlady who drove Twain nuts for several months.

Intimidating as the two books may first appear, the author’s charm and rascality make reading them a pleasure that Twain fans will not want to miss.
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LibraryThing member AshRyan
"Whenever a man preferred being fed by any other man to starving in independence he ought to be shot."

Mark Twain dictated his autobiography with the stated intention that it wouldn't be published for 100 years after his death. Accordingly, the first volume (of three) of the first complete edition just came out about a year ago.

Not a chronological autobiography, but more a free association of (mostly humorous) stories, it still somehow manages to add up to an integrated picture of the man. Early on he relates the death of his middle daughter Suzie at the age of 25, and from that point on quotes from a biography of him she had written about ten years earlier. This provides some structure, as he quotes passages and then elaborates on them or tells a story they remind him of, but it also provides a sort of emotional line, regularly reminding us of Twain's family life besides his professional life.

It does jump around a lot, ranging from recollections of his boyhood, to his early attempts at making a living, to becoming a successful writer, to his middle age as a family man, to his old age. The effect is a picture of a whole life, even if it is only in snapshots.

And of course, Twain is often very funny, sometimes poignant, and uses language beautifully. Definitely worth reading. And Grover Gardner's narration of this audio edition is quite good (though his reading of Sinclair Lewis's Dodsworth is even better)---straightforward to let the material speak for itself, rather than over-the-top comedic as most readers tend to interpret Twain. Four and a half stars.
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LibraryThing member Vianna
The material suggests S. Clements might have created the first unofficial social network system to promote himself; always finding ways to tell "his" story regardless if the truth was verifiable; using many modalities to advance his writings, mostly as a speaker. I wish the auto was chronological rather than a display of thoughts as they came to him. I'm only half way through the book, but so far the material up to the "official" auto is more interesting than the auto itself.… (more)
LibraryThing member dclxvispqr
This was my only chance to own a first edition of Mark Twain. Kidding aside, this was highly entertaining and the rather buckshot-pattern narrative was charming.
LibraryThing member 2wonderY
I would sincerely have loved to read or listen to just Mark Twain. Having to sit throught 20 minutes of acknowledgements and then hours of commentary, I finally gave it up. I'll wait for the less-documentary version.
LibraryThing member Fledgist
Twain was a curmudgeon's curmudgeon, an author's author, and certainly one of the finest writers of English prose that the United States has produced. His account of his life is a work worth reading.
LibraryThing member EricKibler
I've gotten halfway, and have read as much of this as I'm going to right now. Don't get me wrong, a lot of the material here is first rate Twain (mostly the bits and pieces in the beginning). But then you have long, long deserts of mind-numbingly boring ramblings. I just don't have the energy to sort the wheat from the chaff any more. Maybe after all three volumes come out, someone will do that sorting and produce an abridged edition. Until then, I remain kind of disappointed.… (more)
LibraryThing member steadfastreader
This book was pure Mark Twain. I made me long for childhood summers past, living abroad, and a time I never knew. His wit and sense of humor are completely wonderful. It's really REALLY good.

I bump it down to four stars for the editors long winded notes and prologue. The work speaks for itself, there's no need to beat it to death before it even begins. There were about 2.5 discs of this. Perhaps it wouldn't have bothered me as much if I'd actually read the book instead of listening to it.… (more)
LibraryThing member anneearney
I should I find very little nonfiction all that interesting, and biographies and autobiographies are at the bottom of my reading list. I found the print version of Twain's book difficult to get into, so I switched to audio. Twain dictated the autobiography so I thought the audio might be better, and it was. But there were still so many stretches I just wasn't interested in, mostly having to do with Twain's peers. I didn't know who many of the people were and I couldn't get into those parts. But the sections about Twain's family were very interesting and I could have listened to that all day. I'll probably read or listen to each volume as it comes out, because I'm so curious about his life. I'm still fascinated by the idea of an autobiography done in Twain's way of doing it (hopping from the past to current events to whatever he was interested in at the time).… (more)
LibraryThing member exitfish
I'd give it six stars, if possible.
LibraryThing member matthew7874
Brilliant! Twain had good reason to request that the publication of his autobiography wait until 100 years after his death. He speaks with great candor about many of his contemporaries and in doing so, gives us a wonderfully unvarnished view of many historical figures. This is a must read. Also, due to the heft of this massive tome, it might remain useful to the reader as a weapon for home defense.… (more)
LibraryThing member kwkslvr
Haven't had a chance to read all of this yet. The forenotes are lengthy, the typeface is about 6 point but will plow thru it sometime...
LibraryThing member bness2
If you like Mark Twain's writing then you should like this. I have found it a fun read and picked up some great quotes along the way.
LibraryThing member jimmaclachlan
I tried skipping through this to get to the autobiography. I kept running into an amazingly boring & repetitive account of HOW this was written, who published what before, & why. Never did find the actual autobiography. Finally got frustrated & quit after 1.5 or 2 hours.

Not what I was hoping for at all. I expected Twain to be interesting. This wasn't, but then it wasn't Twain's writing, just some boring guy talking about Twain's writing. Worse, this is just 1 of 3 volumes. I can't take it.… (more)
LibraryThing member jimocracy
I just wasn't feeling it...
LibraryThing member annbury
This is an interesting exercise. Apparently Twain never wanted to write and publish an autobiography as long as he was alive. So because he wrote so many great books and could make some money by writing of his life, he put together some bits that could be interesting. The main issues are the side issues of what do we think of US Grant (Twain thought very highly of him) and Helen Keller, whom he met at a lunch.
But there is not enough to make the entire book worthwhile. I have purchased volume 2 and I hope it is better.
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LibraryThing member annbury
This is an interesting exercise. Apparently Twain never wanted to write and publish an autobiography as long as he was alive. So because he wrote so many great books and could make some money by writing of his life, he put together some bits that could be interesting. The main issues are the side issues of what do we think of US Grant (Twain thought very highly of him) and Helen Keller, whom he met at a lunch.
But there is not enough to make the entire book worthwhile. I have purchased volume 2 and I hope it is better.
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LibraryThing member oraclejenn
I love Mark Twain's stories. He has a very engaging way of writing. His autobiography took a bit to get through however. He jumped around from topic to topic (he'd start talking about one thing, mention it reminded him of something else and go off on a tangent). That took some getting used to.

Seeing the correspondence he had with his contemporaries was really interesting. When he started talking about his daughter Suzy and the biography she had written about him when she was younger, you could feel the love and adoration he had for her.… (more)
LibraryThing member Iambookish
This is a great book, but just too large to consume in a 2 week library check out! I was so enjoying Twain's description of his visits with U.S.Grant, that I didn't even dip into the autobiography section. Don't let the doorstop quality of the book intimidate you, it is very readable.
LibraryThing member jjaylynny
Mark Twain is too wonderful a writer for me, a simple reader, to find tedious, but guess what? I found him tedious. An autobiography written this way, in anecdotal spurts, I found strange and often off-putting. Some sections were hilarious (the servant nicknamed "Wuthering Heights", the observation about German compound words), some were heartbreaking (how he did miss his wife after her death and his daughter), and others were petty and mean-spirited. An interesting glimpse into a icon's life, but I won't be reading parts 2 and 3.… (more)
LibraryThing member JVioland
Twain shows his other side: a disenchanted, bitter cynic. There is much that is humorous, but for the most part, this book caused me to take him off the pedestal on which I had placed him. He was, after all, a human being with moods, biases and some cruelty. But what a true American man.
LibraryThing member dasam
In many ways, it's like sitting by the fire and listening to your amazing grandfather talk about his amazing life.
LibraryThing member rynk
CTA commuters will prefer to the hardcover doorstop, especially since the scholarly version is best taken in small doses. It's said to honor Twain's 100-year ban on publication, taken so he can write frankly. Clemens indeed can be droll even as he lets 'er rip, as in a "helpful" flame to a pompous editor. But three executors have published the best of this material, including charming annotations to a biography by Clemens' daughter Susy. The rest easily could have fit another Twain scheme to republish existing works with ephemera just to extend his copyrights. But fans still will appreciate the editors' biographical notes and insight into his writing process.… (more)



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