The Autobiography of Mark Twain
New York: Harper & Brothers. 1924. 8vo. 2 vols. $10.00.
THOSE who read the considerable portions of Mark Twain’s Autobiography published in the North American Review a number of years ago will look with extreme interest for the amplification contained in these volumes, though I am not sure that the most important sections did not appear in the earlier form.
Mark insists that his method of autobiography is wholly new. Perhaps it is not quite so new as he imagined nor quite so commendable for imitation. But it is undeniably effective. Instead of following a definite scheme of composition, chronological or other, he just talks, takes up one subject and pours out his memory upon it, then takes another and treats it in the same anecdotic fashion. The process much recalls the vast and leisurely development of Whitman’s Traubel conversations, nor do we wholly miss the suggestion of Whitman’s vanity or of Whitman’s garrulousness. Only there is always the humor which Whitman so entirely lacked.
But if Mark’s narrative is unique in form, it is largely, commonly human in substance, and this makes the attraction of it. Rousseau begins the Confessions with the declaration that there never was another man like himself. Mark asserts and reiterates that all men are alike, that
such virtues and such vices as he has are common to all men, and that his story is interesting because in its fundamentals it is the story of the human heart since Adam. And this is why biography and autobiography have an inexhaustible charm: biography fascinates us because men are different; it touches us and helps us because they are all the same.
And in Mark’s case, as presented in the Autobiography, all the passions and experiences of life are transfigured by that elfish, infectious, sometimes a trifle dry and mirthless, but always irresistible laughter. The fund of stories, the endless vein of shrewd turns and touches, and the mocking exaggeration and understatement would give zest and spice to the dullest life in the world. Read and enjoy among a hundred the story of the peppery major, the interrupted benediction, and the dog who was clerically damned.
No doubt Mr. Van Wyck Brooks will find here much material for the development of his thesis, that Mark’s original genius was warped and blighted by gentle matrimonial pressure. Recent study of Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln has set me to wondering what Mr. Brooks would make of the relation in that case and the query emphasizes the resemblance between Lincoln and Mark Twain. Certainly both were most typically American. Both were intimately near the common people, loved them, felt that God must love them because he made so many of them. Both tempered a keen instinctive skeptical analysis of life and humanity by the tenderest sympathetic comprehension. Both made the tragedy of life bearable by the subtle and constant application of a dissolving, illuminating laughter. Only it seemed to me before reading this Autobiography, and it still seems to me, that Lincoln had access to depths of spiritual experience that Mark could never quite penetrate.