Charting the Autobiographies
of Mark Twain

Thesis project for the University of Virginia's American Studies Program
by Hal L. Waller

 

Purpose of the Project

This project catalogs in a hypertextual medium the published autobiographical writings of Mark Twain, organizing them chronologically by date of composition. A description of each autobiographical piece of writing is hyperlinked to the table of contents of each of the four published versions of the autobiography in which the passage appears. This design allows the comparison of the different editors' approaches to the autobiography. The design also serves as an index for the published portion of Twain's autobiography in order of composition, the manner in which Twain meant for his autobiography to be ultimately presented.

Short descriptions containing key words from the passage follow each entry in the chart. Tables of contents for each of the published versions of the autobiography are similarly annotated, in addition to the descriptions/titles provided by the editor. The annotations are designed to make the site electronically searchable, enabling a student of Twain to gain access to all four autobiographies simultaneously.

In his lifetime, Twain composed over 500,000 words of autobiography on subjects as diverse as his childhood, his own familiy, and his attitude about current events in the 20th century. Many biographers have depicted a Mark Twain embittered in the last decade of his life, but when looked upon as a whole, Twain's autobiography does not corroborate this. This project attempts to present Twain's autobiography in the manner most similar to the one that he envisioned, and when his writings are examined in this way, a balance is shown between Twain's humor, criticism, and nostalgia.

 

Background to the Published Autobiographies

As early as 1870, Mark Twain envisioned writing his autobiography. His project went through many stages, including a number of years at the end of his life where Twain dictated his memoirs to a stenographer. Twain never edited or published his autobiography (except for excerpts which appeared in the North American Review during 1906 and 1907) but left the project to be finished after his death.

Since that time, four editors have attempted to construct autobiographies from Twain's papers. The first was edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, Twain's first biographer. In 1924, Paine constructed his book, Mark Twain's Autobiography. Paine organized the book as Twain instructed him, chronologically in order of composition not in the order of the events in Twain's own life. When Bernard DeVoto took over the editorship of Twain's papers, he published the 1940 Mark Twain in Eruption, in which he includes passages not used by Paine. DeVoto claims that Paine used about half of the available typescript and that his own book uses about half of the remainder. In 1959, Charles Neider published The Autobiography of Mark Twain, a chronological editing of Twain's memoirs in which he fashioned something resembling a more conventional autobiography. Neider uses material used earlier by Paine and DeVoto but also adds unpublished material from Twain's "manuscript." The most recent attempt in editing the autobiography was made by Michael J. Kiskis. In 1990, Kiskis published Mark Twain's Own Autobiography, which reprints the selections from Twain's autobiography that Twain himself published in installments in The North American Review.

Currently, the University of California at Berkley is in the process of editing all of the autobiographical memoirs of Mark Twain. Until that definitive edition is published, scholars wishing to examine what Mark Twain had to say about his own life are forced to contend with the versions of the autobiography that are in print.

 

Editors' Approaches to the Autobiography

Twain's biographer and friend, Albert Bigelow Paine, was present for many of the dictated sections of the autobiography. In his introduction to the first volume of Mark Twain's Autobiography, Paine describes the "table conversation" approach favored by Twain which mirrored the "methodless method of the human mind," and Paine voices his approval of the method:

Certainly there is something to be said in favor of this plan, and I often thought it is the best plan for his kind of autobiography, which was really not autobiography at all, in the meaning generally conveyed by that term, but a series of entertaining stories and opinions--dinner-table talks, in fact, such as he had always delivered in his own home and elsewhere, and with about the same latitude and elaboration.

Paine edition employed Twain's form of autobiography by chronology of dictation, although Paine chose the passages to retain and omit.

Bernard DeVoto was charged by the Mark Twain Estate and Harper & Brothers with making selections for publication from the remainder of Twain's papers. In his introduction to Mark Twain in Eruption, DeVoto explains that in the process of his selection:

It soon became clear that unpublished portions of the Autobiography contained many things that should see print. But it was also clear that if the book were to interest more than a small group of students and collectors, some surgery must be done on the text. If I should follow the plan of my predecessor, Mr. Paine, which was to publish selections in the arrangement Mark Twain originally gave them, interspersed as they were with trivialities, irrelevancies, newspaper clippings, and unimportant letters--disconnected and without plan--then I should come out with something as shapeless as the published portion, which had always seemed to me an annoying book. It would be more unsatisfactory, in fact, for Mr. Paine had published most of the longer sequences that would stand on their own feet. On the other hand, by omitting trivialities and joining together things that belonged together, I could make a book which, I thought, would interest many people and add much that was characteristic and something that was new to our picture of Mark Twain.

DeVoto provides for his readers subject headings and titles for many of the autobiography's entries as well as dates of composition.

When Charles Neider was given access to Twain's papers, he took the liberty of taking an approach to Twain's autobiography eschewed by both of the autobiography's earlier editors, arranging the passages chronologically in order of subject material. In his introduction to The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Neider explains that:

To put it briefly, Paine either did not envision the possibility of a true autobiography or did not care to undertake to make one. The same can be said of DeVoto. Both said in their introductions that what they were presenting was not really autobiography but a kind of table-talk. To both men I owe thanks because they gave me the opportunity to do the exciting job which remained to be done.

To accomplish his objective, as he further explains in his introduction, Neider takes a free editorial reign:

Working with the autobiographical manuscript as whole, both published and unpublished parts, I weeded out a variety of material. I did this for several reasons: in order to make a weildy volume which would meet certain requirements of the general reader (for whom this book is designed); in order to unburden the excellent parts of the dated, dull, trivial and journalese sections of the work; and in order to concentrate less on opinion and secondhand recollection and more on the more truly autobiographical, the more purely literary and the more characteristically humorous material. My volume is to a high degree anecdotic, but I believe this to be a virtue rather than a defect, in that it correctly represents the creative slant of Mark Twain's mind.

The latest editorial attempt to assemble Twain's autobiography was undertaken by Michael J. Kiskis in Mark Twain's Own Autobiography. Kiskis uses only the selections of "Chapters from My Autobiography" that were published during Twain's lifetime in the North American Review as the text of Clemens's life story. Kiskis explains in his introduction that:

There are two basic reasons for this decision. First, Clemens was involved in the choices for the installments, had final control over the revisions that were made to the texts, and gave his approval for their publication. In that sense, he did present the public with the text of his autobiography. Second, the twenty-five chapters compressed into a single volume present a unified tale of Clemens' life. Here he mixed material from both the early written attempts and the 1904 and post-1906 dictations. . . . While a great deal of autobiographical material was not used in the North American Review chapters--some because of the subjects covered, some because it had not yet been dictated--these chapters are clearly linked to Clemens' life and his perspectives on and reactions to that life.

Kiskis adds in his first appendix "The Death of Jean," the only one of his selections not to be published prior to Twain's death.

 

Methodology in Assembling the Chart

For my first source in dating the autobiographical writings, I consulted Kiskis's third appendix. For each of the autobiographies, Kiskis lists the passages used by the editor. I collated these by date of composition, noting which author uses each passage.

After the initial collating, I turned to the autobiographies themselves. For Paine's biography, I created a table of contents with Paine's titles/descriptions as well as the dates of composition that he gives. For DeVoto's biography, I copied the existing table of contents, excluding the page numbers. Kiskis provides short descriptions of the contents of each chapter in his table of contents, all of which I include. Neider does not provide a table of contents of chapter titles, so I listed each chapter merely by number. In all of my tables of contents, bolded text represents text composed by the editor, and plain text denotes my annotations.

In Paine's autobiography, many of the earlier passages are titled, but many of the later passages have descriptions/notes of the contents. I annotated more fully the titled passages and augmented the descriptions of the later passages. I provided (in brackets) probable dates of composition for two passages that Paine does not date, "Jane Lampton Clemens" and " Memory of John Hay," and I corrected (again in brackets) the day of the week used in dating the passage from 22 March 1906. Paine lists two separate entries for 1 February 1906, which I assumed to show a break in dictation sessions and listed in my collated chart accordingly.

The second autobiography I annotated was DeVoto's because it provided no overlap with Paine's. I included dates given by DeVoto in his table of contents (bolded in parentheses) and divided my annotations by date of composition rather than by DeVoto's section titles. Especially in DeVoto's section entitled "Miscellany," DeVoto does not provide dates of composition for each entry, but rather separates them with an ellipses-type of symbol. These undated passages were not included in my collated chart, but I did annotate them. A number of passages in the section entitled "Bret Harte," while seemingly composed at a single dictation, are separated by DeVoto with ellipses, and I did not include them in my collated chart.

Most of the passages in Kiskis's autobiography are dated, and I relied upon Kiskis's endnotes for the dates of undated or misdated passages. I retained the chapter descriptions Kiskis gives in his table of contents, but I added (in both non-bolded text and brackets) the dates of composition after his descriptions.

The last autobiography I annotated was Neider's, primarily because the task of dating his mostly-undated passages was facilitated by having the other autobiographies already collated and electronically searchable. In his introduction, Neider lists all of the previously unpublished passages he includes in his text, but I included in my collated chart only those passages that he identifies by date of composition in his footnotes.

 

Using the Chart

In the collated chart of autobiographical writings, the writings are organized by date of composition/dictation. When two editors attribute separate passages to the same date of composition, the date is divided into two entries and arbitrarily numbered them (in parentheses). Each entry is given a short description and hyperlinked through the symbol "x" to the tables of contents of the autobiography or autobiographies that use the material from that day of composition.

Many of the passages exist in variously edited forms in different biographies (especially Neider's) but no attempt has been made to catalog the differences. When parts of a single day's composition are divided among different chapters of an editor's autobiography, hyperlinks to each of the chapters are arranged vertically in a single table cell.

The embedded anchors in Paine's and in DeVoto's tables of contents are labeled by the page numbers in the first editions of each. For Kiskis and Neider, the anchors are labeled by the chapter numbers.

 

Enter the project.