John Hudson at The Atlantic:
After writing his 5,000 page autobiography, Mark Twain made a solemn request for it not to be published until 100 years after his death. Those hundred years are up now, and the University of California, Berkeley will release the first of three volumes this November. Previously, only scholars, biographers and those willing to travel to the university had access to the complete manuscripts. Why did Twain want it concealed? Some, who have read the autobiography say the author feared that details about his politics and personal relationships would embroil his career in scandal.
Guy Adams at The Independent:
One thing’s for sure: by delaying publication, the author, who was fond of his celebrity status, has ensured that he’ll be gossiped about during the 21st century. A section of the memoir will detail his little-known but scandalous relationship with Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, who became his secretary after the death of his wife Olivia in 1904. Twain was so close to Lyon that she once bought him an electric vibrating sex toy. But she was abruptly sacked in 1909, after the author claimed she had “hypnotised” him into giving her power of attorney over his estate.
Their ill-fated relationship will be recounted in full in a 400-page addendum, which Twain wrote during the last year of his life. It provides a remarkable account of how the dying novelist’s final months were overshadowed by personal upheavals.
“Most people think Mark Twain was a sort of genteel Victorian. Well, in this document he calls her a slut and says she tried to seduce him. It’s completely at odds with the impression most people have of him,” says the historian Laura Trombley, who this year published a book about Lyon called Mark Twain’s Other Woman.
“There is a perception that Twain spent his final years basking in the adoration of fans. The autobiography will perhaps show that it wasn’t such a happy time. He spent six months of the last year of his life writing a manuscript full of vitriol, saying things that he’d never said about anyone in print before. It really is 400 pages of bile.”
Twain, who was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, had made several attempts to start work on autobiography, beginning in 1870, but only really hit his stride with the work in 1906, when he appointed a stenographer to transcribe his dictated reminiscences.
Another potential motivation for leaving the book to be posthumously published concerns Twain’s legacy as a Great American. Michael Shelden, who this year published Man in White, an account of Twain’s final years, says that some of his privately held views could have hurt his public image.
“He had doubts about God, and in the autobiography, he questions the imperial mission of the US in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. He’s also critical of [Theodore] Roosevelt, and takes the view that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. Twain also disliked sending Christian missionaries to Africa. He said they had enough business to be getting on with at home: with lynching going on in the South, he thought they should try to convert the heathens down there.”
In other sections of the autobiography, Twain makes cruel observations about his supposed friends, acquaintances and one of his landladies.
Parts of the book have already seen the light of day in other publications. Small excerpts were run by US magazines before Twain’s death (since he needed the money). His estate has allowed parts of it to be adapted for publication in three previous books described as “autobiographies”.
However, Robert Hirst, who is leading the team at Berkeley editing the complete text, says that more than half of it has still never appeared in print. Only academics, biographers, and members of the public prepared to travel to the university’s Bancroft research library have previously been able to read it in full. “When people ask me ‘did Mark Twain really mean it to take 100 years for this to come out’, I say ‘he was certainly a man who knew how to make people want to buy a book’,” Dr Hirst said.
Willa Paskin at New York Magazine:
Of course, bile that has been simmering for 100 years is less potent than the fresh stuff, and Twain knew this: Scholars think he wanted a century-long cooling-off period so as not to offend friends with his oversharing or readers with his politically incorrect views. (Another scholar tells The Independent that in the manuscript Twain “[has] doubts about God … questions the imperial mission of the US … and takes the view that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel.”) The downside of this kind of waiting period is the possibility that no one will care about your memoir when it’s done: Twain, rightfully, was not much concerned about this. If he had been, he still would have caught our attention with the vibrator bit. Looking forward to the whole, long thing, Mr. Clemens!
Joe Carter at First Things
Mark Twain famously said, “Don’t tell fish stories where the people know you; but particularly, don’t tell them where they know the fish,” which may be why his memoirs are going to be released now, 100 years after his death. Pretty much all the fish he could tell about are long gone, and any whoppers he’s told have a great chance of going unchallenged, making the king of American satire perhaps also the king of book release timing.
It may change the way you view him, from a clever and jovial Southern gentleman to an angry questioner who makes “cruel observations about his supposed friends, acquaintances and one of his landladies.” Those who have read the autobiographies have found them full of observations about religion — including missionary work — and the government. And there is a good chance that publishing such observations during his life could have affected Twain’s public image and his place in American literary history.
While Twain may have asked for 100 years to pass to have his autobiography published in what he hoped would be a more open-minded era (he had unpopular feelings about events of the time), a stronger reason may have been this: Even if he was telling the absolute truth, with no fish stories that could be challenged, Twain may have felt uncomfortable being his true self and speaking openly about people who had a chance to read about themselves in print.
Jen Carlson at The Gothamist:
Will he discuss that time in 1867 when he was tossed in the New York City slammer for disorderly conduct? Find out this November, when the University of California releases the first volume. Until then, visit his former residence at 10th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in the West Village—where you may even run in to his ghost!
This should definitely make for some interesting reading. I’ve been a fan of Twain for awhile now–though actually mostly his nonfiction, rather than his fiction. So reading this is something I’m looking forward to.
UPDATE: Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs