I like Kevin's response to this query.
He is exactly right to associate Twain with the " 'disorder' and Joycean stream-of-consciousness and cinematic flashbacks [that] perhaps reflect how we all re-experience our own lives from a little distance." I think some readers' surprise and impatience when they encounter this in Twain may reflect the ways in which Twain has been unjustly pigeon-holed as a writer who is rarely if ever associated with modernist efforts to capture how we think.
I also like Kevin's comment that "In some ways it achieves greater truth and intimacy because it isn't matted and framed into rigid chronological episodes excavated out of a diary. Such careful structuring can be used to hide and obscure deeper truths." My favorite example of this is also probably my favorite passage in the book, and gives a taste of why it was such a good idea for the MTP editors to go to the lengths they did to give us what Twain actually wrote. Earlier versions of this material structured along chronological or thematic principles included the first part of the comment that follows, but not the second (which I put in italics): After noting that he couldn't do something because of a previous engagement, Twain writes, "The engagement which I spoke of to Tchaykoffsky was to act as chairman at the first meeting of the association which was formed five months ago in the interest of the adult blind. Joseph H. Choate and I had a very good time there, and I came away with the conviction that that excellent enterprise is going to flourish, and will bear abundant fruit." But earlier versions omitted this, which immediately followed: "It will do for the adult blind what Congress and the several legislatures do so faithfully and with such enthusiasm for our lawless railway corporations, our rotten beef trusts, our vast robber dens of insurance magnates; in a word, for each and all of our multimillionaires and their industries--protect them, take watchful care of them, preserve them from harm like Providence, and secure their prosperity, and increase it." Twain’s scathing and critique of plutocracy and the power of corporations, is, alas, as timely as ever.
Kevin's observation that when he's chatted about the autobiography with people at book fairs, no two people come up with the same favorite passage has made me curious: what are the favorite passages of people on this list?
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Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Joseph S. Atha Professor of Humanities, Professor of English, and Director of American Studies, Stanford University
Mail: Department of English, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305-2087
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On Feb 17, 2012, at 7:19 AM, Kevin Mac Donnell wrote:
>> Why did many readers/ reviewers find it dull, or disappointing? What
> should we make of that phenomenon? In particular, and on the other hand,
>> what should we make of the sheer amount of negative response to MT seen in
>> many reviews? There is a surprising amount of NEGATIVE criticism of MT's
>> meandering memories.... something we are not always used to with the King.
> I very rarely drink (to do so would distract from my far superior vices) so I have nothing to stir into swirls of commentary on Mark Twain cocktail recipes.
> But I'll add my two cents to Hal's query on the Autobiography. A routine part of my business is exhibiting at antiquarian bookfairs, where I always put Mark Twain first editions on prominent display, and this always invites comment from bookish bookfair attendees. Unlike students in a classroom or my professional colleagues, these folks are pretty candid in their comments. Since the publication of Autobiography I've heard a lot of comments about it from general readers, mostly expressing bafflement by readers who expected a conventional chronological biographical treatment. I remind them that Twain was being an autobiographer when he wrote this work, not a biographer. If they want to read Twain the biographer I suggest other works to them. I tell them that this work reflects how Twain recalled his own experiences and the "disorder" and Joycean stream-of-consciousness and cinematic flashbacks perhaps reflect how we all re-experience our own lives from a little distance. In some ways it achieves greater truth and intimacy because it isn't matted and framed into rigid chronological episodes excavated out of a diary. Such careful structuring can be used to hide and obscure deeper truths. Twain's method makes the emotional connections between people and events more visible, and if he had not dictated and scribbled his autobiography in fits and starts over so many years, those connections might have been even more obvious. I sometimes ask people if they recall their own lives in strict chronological order.
> One interesting pattern that I've noticed with readers of the Autobiography is that many of those who bought a copy for themselves also bought a copy to give as a gift. I've also noticed that roughly half of those who tell me that they've read it also mention that they were given a copy as a gift, so it's clear that a lot of readers did not select this book themselves. This could be an important factor in readers' expectations and their reactions to the text. I have not closely tracked the difference in reader opinions between those who bought it for themselves and those who were given a copy to read, but my general impression is that those who were given a copy more often express bafflement at the book's construction. People who bought the book for themselves, especially those who have read some Twain before, are not so often confused.
> When I tell people that the next volume will include more previously unpublished material than the first volume, most, but not all, say they will buy it. Weirdly, about a third of those who say they've read it are surprised to hear there will be more volumes. Nearly everyone who has read it quotes me a line or two that they especially liked --and after several dozen such bookfair encounters, no two people have quoted me the same passage.
> Well, that what readers tell me and what I tell them. As for reviewers, I don't know about them. They're a strange bunch, and most would write better reviews if they swigged an Earthquake or two before writing a review.
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