_Mark Twain: Autobiographical Writings_. Edited with an Introduction by R.
Kent Rasmussen. Penguin Books, 2012. Paperback. Pp. xlviii + 493. ISBN
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Almost from the beginning, Mark Twain seemed to place a monetary value on
every episode that occurred in his life. He became so fiercely proprietary
about each detail that he refused to give other writers permission to quote
from his letters, speeches, and writings in any form. His possessiveness
about the incidents that had shaped his career even extended to reporters
seeking to produce brief summaries of his experiences. As he bragged to his
brother Orion in 1887, "I have never yet allowed an interviewer or
biography-sketcher to get out of me any circumstance of my history which I
thought might be worth putting some day into my autobiography. . . . They
never got anything that was worth the printing." His clear intention was to
mine these promising veins of ore solely for himself. A headnote describing
Mark Twain that he either wrote or approved for _Mark Twain's Library of
Humor_ (1888) cited his river-piloting days and his _Quaker City_ cruise,
and then assured readers that "his succeeding books continue the story of
his own life, with more or less fullness and exactness." To an importunate
author (Will Clemens) seeking to write his biography in 1900, Twain objected
emphatically: "Such books as you propose are not proper to publish during my
lifetime. A man's history is his own property until the grave extinguishes
his ownership in it."
The recently retired and ingeniously resourceful R. Kent Rasmussen now
retrieves and assembles those autobiographical snippets that Mark Twain
treasured and scattered through his literary works. Although the publisher's
advertising flier tries to connect this volume to the Mark Twain Project's
_Autobiography of Mark Twain_ ("more compact than the University of
California's best-seller"), in point of fact _Mark Twain: Autobiographical
Writings_ does not include the previously unpublished materials in _Volume
1_of the recent California edition. What Rasmussen has done--and it is
another one of his shrewd feats that will leave more than a few Twain
scholars saying to themselves, "Well, I could have edited a book like
Rasmussen's myself (if I had only thought of it)"--is to gather the portions
of Twain's _Autobiography_ that appeared in the _North American Review_ in
1906 and 1907 (previously reprinted by Michael Kiskis, as Rasmussen duly
notes). To those pieces Rasmussen adds selected passages of an
autobiographical nature from _The Innocents Abroad_ (1869), _Mark Twain's
Sketches New & Old_ (1875), _A Tramp Abroad_ (1880), the cub piloting and
Hannibal chapters in _Life on the Mississippi_ (1883), _Following the
Equator_ (1897), "Hunting the Deceitful Turkey" (1906), "My Boyhood Dreams"
(1900), _Is Shakespeare Dead?_ (1909), "The Turning-Point of My Life"
(1910), and Albert Bigelow Paine's "Unpublished Chapters from the
Autobiography of Mark Twain" (1922).
Rasmussen is scrupulous about explaining his process and his sources. Most
important, the resulting compendium is truly entertaining and often
illuminating. When the purely autobiographical reminiscences embedded in
Twain's travel narratives are extracted from their surrounding contexts of
journeys and sights, they form a comprehensive picture of what the author
remembered about his life, especially his early years. We are reminded that
young Sam Clemens saw his father repeatedly cuff "our harmless slave boy"
(_Following the Equator_ Chapter 38), witnessed his mother confront a St.
Louis cartman who was "beating his horse over the head with the butt of his
heavy whip" ("Jane Lampton Clemens," written 1890-91), and was horribly
embarrassed when as a ten year old he dreamed a steamboat was on fire and
shouted out a mistaken alarm ("I crept humbly away," he related in _A Tramp
To these fascinating recollections Rasmussen contributes an informative
Introduction that courageously takes up the issue of Samuel Clemens's
veracity, a fuller-than-usual chronology of Clemens's life, an up-to-date
bibliography of scholarship devoted to his autobiographical writings, and a
surprisingly ample "Glossary" that identifies everyone and everything from
Susan Crane to John Hay to the Monday Evening Club to the starboard side of
a river vessel.
The revealing contents, reasonable price, and attractive format of this
paperbound collection make it ideally suitable as a college textbook.
Students can find much here to enlighten them about Mark Twain's remembered
world. Scholars engaged in research will find themselves hampered--as they
are in most of Twain's writings--by the lack of an index that might sort out
of his works. All the same, Rasmussen, who already has half a dozen
excellent Mark Twain books to his credit, has again produced a highly usable
and deeply enjoyable compilation of some of Twain's very best prose.