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Mark Twain on Mark Twain

100 years after his death, as stipulated by the man himself, The first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography was released this week.  NPR has an excellent story on the background behind it’s release, as well as several clever passages in Twain’s familiar cadence. 

Mark Twain, real name Samuel Clemens, is considered one of the great innovators of American writing.  He broke all the rules he could find while he was alive, and clearly continued to do so after he died.  While not a perfect man, Twain and his writing helped form a substantial chunk of our national identity.

Twain dictated his autobiography, trying and rejecting a recording device invented by Thomas Edison before settling on a human stenographer, Josephine Hobby.  In spite of his wishes for his (and his daughter’s) wish for the book to remain unreleased for “100 or 500” years (depending on the legend), most of it has made it out into the world already.  The recent release is untouched by meddling editors, including all of Twain’s signature diversions from the topic and his false starts.

Twain was a clever man, and his ability to turn a phrase is unparalleled.  He was also a man who knew how to brand and market himself, the fact that I’m unsure if his legacy as Mark Twain, National Treasure was expertly planned by Twain himself only makes me respect him more.

Twain, like many other brilliant individuals, was also a complicated man.  His life was marked with unspeakably sad events (he outlived his wife and three of his children) and moments of guilt he carried with him like a 19th century Greek tragic hero.   In The General and the Maid: Mark Twain on Ulysses S. Grant and Joan of Arc (Forrest G. Robinson, The Arizona Quarterly. Volume: 61. Issue: 1, 2005, via Questia) Robinson examines Twain’s fascination with Union general Ulysses Grant as both a hero and a villain and speculates that Twain’s frequent mentions stem from his own guilt at retreating from battle as a confederate soldier.

Twain is at once enchanted and stupefied because in the very act of celebrating Grant’s triumph as a man and warrior he feels the sting of an inward self-accusation. Grant excels where he is himself notably deficient. “Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men,” Twain observes in an autobiographical dictation taken in 1909: “We admire them, we envy them, for great qualities which we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that. Our heroes are men who do the things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes.”

While Twain’s life was obviously not without its demons, he carefully chose not to make his autobiography a confessional one, stating, “I have thought of 1,500 or 2,000 incidents in my life which I am ashamed of, but I have not gotten one of them to consent to go on paper yet.”

By [E] Selena MacIntosh*

Selena MacIntosh is the owner and editor of Persephone Magazine. She also fixes it when it breaks. She is fueled by Diet Coke, coffee with a lot of cream in it, and cat hair.

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