Monday, May 24, 2010

Twainspotting

The recent trend for celebrities to hit the bookstores with their memoirs sixteen minutes after they’ve made it big — I hear they’re already lining up for Speak, Puberty by Justin Bieber — makes this news all the more exciting.

Exactly a century after rumours of his death turned out to be entirely accurate, one of Mark Twain’s dying wishes is at last coming true: an extensive, outspoken and revelatory autobiography which he devoted the last decade of his life to writing is finally going to be published.

The creator of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and some of the most frequently misquoted catchphrases in the English language left behind 5,000 unedited pages of memoirs when he died in 1910, together with handwritten notes saying that he did not want them to hit bookshops for at least a century.

That milestone has now been reached, and in November the University of California, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography. The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words, and shed new light on the quintessentially American novelist.

Speculation abounds as to why Samuel Langhorne Clemens put the 100-year restriction on the release of his memoirs, ranging from avoiding the discomfort of alienating friends and family to insuring that a century later he’d still be a celebrity.

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.

I can’t wait to read it and find out more about the man behind some of the best writing in American literature. And I’m sure that Hal Holbrook will be delighted, too; he’s got a lot of new material for Mark Twain Tonight!.

HT to Melissa.