Between 1870 and 1905 Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) tried repeatedly, and at long intervals, to write (or dictate) his autobiography, always shelving the manuscript before he had made much progress. By 1905 he had accumulated some thirty or forty of these false starts—manuscripts that were essentially experiments, drafts of episodes and chapters; many of these have survived in the Mark Twain Papers and two other libraries. To some of these manuscripts he went so far as to assign chapter numbers that placed them early or late in a narrative which he never filled in, let alone completed. None dealt with more than brief snatches of his life story.
He broke this pattern in January 1906 when he began almost daily dictations to a stenographer. He soon decided that these Autobiographical Dictations would form the bulk of what he would call the Autobiography of Mark Twain. Within a few months he reviewed his accumulation of false starts and decided which to incorporate into the newer dictation series and which to leave unpublished. By the time he had created more than two hundred and fifty of these almost daily dictations (and written a final chapter in December 1909, about the recent death of his daughter Jean), he had compiled more than half a million words. He declared the work done, but insisted that it should not be published in its entirety until a hundred years after his death, which occurred less than four months later, on 21 April 1910.
This belated success with a project that had resisted completion for thirty-five years can be traced to two new conditions. First, he had at last found a skilled stenographer who was also a responsive audience—Josephine S. Hobby—which encouraged him to embrace dictation as the method of composition, something he had experimented with as early as 1885. Second, and just as important, dictating the text made it easier to follow a style of composition he had been drifting toward for at least twenty years. As he put it in June 1906, he had finally seen that the “right way to do an Autobiography” was to “start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.”1
Combining dictation and discursiveness in this bold way was unexpectedly liberating, in large part because it produced not a conventional narrative marching inexorably toward the grave, but rather a series of spontaneous recollections and comments on the present as well as the past, arranged simply in the order of their creation. The problem of method had been solved. It was also liberating to insist on posthumous publication, but that idea had been around from [page 2] the start and was closely tied to Clemens’s ambition to tell the whole truth, without reservation. As he explained to an interviewer in 1899: “A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way. In these conditions you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his sons or grandsons.” Posthumous publication was also supposed to make it easier for Clemens to confess even shameful parts of his own story, but that goal proved illusory. In that same 1899 interview he admitted that a “man cannot tell the whole truth about himself, even if convinced that what he wrote would never be seen by others.”2
But if delaying publication failed to make him into a confessional autobiographer, it did free him to express unconventional thoughts about religion, politics, and the damned human race, without fear of ostracism. In January 1908 he recalled that he had long had “the common habit, in private conversation with friends, of revealing every private opinion I possessed relating to religion, politics, and men”—adding that he would “never dream of printing one of them.”3 The need to defer publication of subversive ideas seemed obvious to him. “We suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth,” he wrote in 1905. “None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.”4 So having the freedom to speak his mind (if not confess his sins) was still ample justification for delaying publication until after his death.
Seven months after he began the Autobiographical Dictations in 1906, however, Clemens did permit—indeed actively pursued—partial publication of what he had so far accumulated. He supervised the preparation of some twenty-five short extracts from his autobiographical manuscripts and dictations for publication in the North American Review, each selection deliberately tamed for that time and audience, and each prefaced by a notice: “No part of the autobiography will be published in book form during the lifetime of the author.”5 But not long after Clemens died, his instruction to delay publication for a hundred years began to be ignored—first in 1924 by Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain’s official biographer and first literary executor, then in 1940 by Paine’s successor, Bernard DeVoto, and most recently by Charles Neider in 1959.
Each of these editors undertook to publish only a part of the text, and none ventured to do so in the way that Clemens actually wanted it published. Paine began his two-volume edition with all but a handful of the manuscripts and dictations carried out before 1906, as well as several texts that were probably never part of those early experiments. He arranged all of them “in accordance with the author’s wish . . . in the order in which they were written, regardless of the chronology of events.”6 It now seems clear that Paine’s understanding of “the author’s [page 3] wish” was mistaken: Clemens never intended to include all those false starts, let alone in chronological order; he intended only the dictations begun in 1906 to be published that way. But having chosen this course, Paine then had space for only a relative handful of the dictations. And on top of that, he felt obliged to suppress or even alter certain passages without notice to the reader. He eventually acknowledged that he had published only about one-third of what he regarded as the whole text.7
DeVoto was critical of Paine’s acceptance of “the arrangement Mark Twain originally gave” the dictations, “interspersed as they were with trivialities, irrelevancies, newspaper clippings, and unimportant letters—disconnected and without plan.” Instead he chose to print only passages that Paine had left unpublished, drawn from “the typescript in which everything that Mark wanted in his memoirs had been brought together” (that is, the Autobiographical Dictations begun in 1906). DeVoto then arranged the selections by topic, “omitting trivialities and joining together things that belonged together.” And he said with great satisfaction that he had “modernized the punctuation by deleting thousands of commas and dashes, and probably should have deleted hundreds more.” He was confident that he had “given the book a more coherent plan than Mark Twain’s” and he was unapologetic about having “left out” what seemed to him “uninteresting.”8
Neider, too, was unhappy with Paine’s acceptance of Mark Twain’s plan to publish the autobiography “not in chronological order but in the sequence in which it was written and dictated. What an extraordinary idea! As though the stream of composition time were in some mysterious way more revealing than that of autobiographical time!”9 Neider had permission from the Mark Twain Estate to combine some thirty thousand words from the unpublished dictations with what Paine and DeVoto had already published. Like DeVoto, he omitted what he disliked, and was also obliged to exclude portions that Clara Clemens Samossoud (Clemens’s daughter, by then in her eighties) disapproved of publishing. He then (figuratively) cut apart and rearranged the texts he had selected so that they approximated a conventional, chronological narrative—exactly the kind of autobiography Mark Twain had rejected.
The result of these several editorial plans has been that no text of the Autobiography so far published is even remotely complete, much less completely authorial. It is therefore the goal of the present edition to publish the complete text as nearly as possible in the way Mark Twain intended it to be published after his death. That goal has only recently become attainable, for the simple reason that no one knew which parts of the great mass of autobiographical manuscripts and typescripts Mark Twain intended to include. In fact, the assumption had long [page 4] prevailed that Mark Twain did not decide what to put in and what to leave out—that he left the enormous and very complicated manuscript incomplete and unfinished.
That assumption was wrong. Although Mark Twain left no specific instructions (not even documentation for the instructions that Paine professed to follow), hidden within the approximately ten file feet of autobiographical documents are more than enough clues to show that he had in fact decided on the final form of the Autobiography, and which of the preliminary experiments were to be included and which omitted. This newly discovered and unexpected insight into his intentions is itself a story worth telling, and it is told for the first time in this introduction.
Three printed volumes are planned for this edition, which will also be published in full at Mark Twain Project Online (MTPO). Exhaustive documentation of all textual decisions will only be published online.10 This first volume begins with the extant manuscripts and dictations that must now be regarded as Clemens’s preliminary efforts to write the autobiography and that he reviewed and rejected (but did not destroy) in June 1906. They are arranged arbitrarily in the order of their date of composition, solely because Clemens himself never specified any order. Some of these texts he explicitly labeled “autobiography,” and some are judged to be part of his early experiments on other grounds, always explained in the brief headnotes that introduce them. We include those preliminary texts for which the evidence is reasonably strong, without asserting that there were no others.
The Autobiography of Mark Twain proper begins on p. 201 in this volume, starting with the several prefaces Clemens created in June 1906 to frame the preliminary writings he had selected as opening texts, followed by his almost daily Autobiographical Dictations from 9 January through the end of March 1906—all that will fit into this volume. The dictations are arranged in the chronological order of their creation because that is how Clemens instructed his editors to publish them. The remaining volumes in this edition will include all the dictations he created between April 1906 and October 1909, likewise arranged chronologically, the whole concluding with the “Closing Words of My Autobiography,” a manuscript about the death of his youngest daughter, Jean.