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Book review: 'Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1'

The American literary lion roars back onto the publishing scene 100 years after his death with the first volume of his mammoth autobiography, and he's got quite a story to tell.

November 14, 2010|By Laura Skandera Trombley | Special to the Los Angeles Times

In making this arrangement, Twain added another extraordinary achievement to his already very full basket: He has become the only writer in history to have a new work come out a hundred years after passing away. This is not to say that this is the first time the "Autobiography" has seen the light of day. Indeed, 95% of "Volume 1" has been previously published in a number of other editions that were published after Twain's death and with only one exception, they all violated his dictate that entries not be chronologically organized or divided into groupings. The only edition true to Twain's wishes was scholar Michael Kiskis' 1990 "Mark Twain's Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the North American Review." The bulk of the previously unpublished material will be available in Smith's volumes 2 and 3, to appear over the next five years, resulting in approximately half of the contents of the original reaching the public for the first time.

In the "Autobiography," Twain generously provides the 21st century aficionado a marvelous read. His crystalline humor and expansive range are a continuous source of delight and awe. What about the accuracy of his accounts? The proto-blogger was forming his world, what he thought his existence and accomplishments should be, not necessarily what objective observers might detail as actually having taken place. Indeed, Twain deliberately tweaked his earnest audience members who desired the truth: "I have not professionally dealt in truth. Many when they come to die have spent all the truth that was in them, and enter the next world as paupers. I have saved up enough to make an astonishment there."

This was his version of reality, and what an entertaining record it is. Twain has given us "an astonishment" in his autobiography with his final, beautifully unorganized genius and intemperate thoughts. Pull up a chair and revel.

Trombley is president of Pitzer College and the author of "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years."

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