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BOOK REVIEW | Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1: The Complete and Authoritative Edition Thumbnail

Good things come to those who wait, the old adage goes, and the world has waited a century for Mark Twain’s autobiography, which, in Twain’s words, is a “complete and purposed jumble.” But this 760 page jumble is a good thing. And well worth the wait.

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1: The Complete and Authoritative EditionTwain, or Samuel L. Clemens, compiled this autobiography over the course of 35 years. The manuscript began in fits and starts. Twain, while establishing his legacy as a beloved humorist and man of letters, dashed off brief episodes here and there, assigning chapter numbers to some and simply shelving others. In 1906, he began making efforts to turn these cobbled-together passages into a coherent narrative. He even met daily with a stenographer to dictate various reflections and then to compile them into a single, albeit muddled, document. The result was a 5,000 page, unedited stack of papers that, per Twain’s strict handwritten instructions, could not be published until 100 years after his death.

To say that we’ve waited a century to view this manuscript is only partially accurate because pieces of the manuscript appeared in 1924, 1940, and 1959. But this edition, handsomely bound by the University of California Press, and edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and others of the Mark Twain Project, is the first full compilation of the autobiographical dictations and extracts to reach print. The editors, noting that “the goal of the present edition [is] to publish the complete text as nearly as possible in the way Mark Twain intended it to be published before his death,” explain that “no text of the Autobiography so far published is even remotely complete, much less completely authorial.” The contents of this much-awaited beast of a book, then, are virtually priceless, and no doubt many of the previously unread or unconsidered Twain passages will become part of the American canon.

Stark photographs of the manuscript drafts and of Twain and his subjects — including family members and residences — accompany this fragmentary work. The lively and at times comical prose is in keeping with the rambling style of this rambling man whom readers have come to know and appreciate for generations. Would we have expected any less?

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