In 1904, Mark Twain wrote that he had "hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography."
What he had discovered, says historian Robert Hirst, was the art of dictation. Instead of writing down his autobiography, Twain wanted to tell stories to another human being. And instead of telling his life story in chronological order, Twain wanted to talk about what interested him at that moment — and to allow himself to change the subject as soon as his interest flagged.
Hirst, the director of the Mark Twain Project, joins Fresh Air contributor David Bianculli for a discussion about the recent publication of Mark Twain's autobiography — in the structure the author himself wished — from dictated stories collected by the University of California, Berkley's Mark Twain Project.
Hirst explains that Twain dictated nearly 2,000 pages to stenographer Josephine Hobby and author Albert Bigelow Paine, his first biographer. But the autobiography was never published, partially because Twain felt some passages were too personal or inflammatory to appear in early editions. Even after scholars had access to the autobiography, Hirst says, editors weren't initially sure whether Twain had finished writing his life story.
"For the longest time, we thought Mark Twain had left a series of drafts, that he had never completed it and that we were going to be forced to publish it in some kind of arbitrary way, like everything chronologically," says Hirst. "But the last three years, the editors I've worked with for 40 years figured out that he had finished it, he knew exactly what he wanted in it and exactly what he didn't want in it — and how he wanted it ended and how he wanted it structured. So all of a sudden, out of what seemed to be a kind of chaos, emerged what seems to be Mark Twain's last major literary work."
Tuesday is the 175th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Clemens, the writer we know as Mark Twain. This year also marks the 125th anniversary of the publication of his masterpiece Huckleberry Finn. And last month, 100 years after Twain's death, the world saw the publication of his official autobiography, a tome that has become so popular in recent weeks that bookstores cannot keep it in stock.
Fans of Twain may be surprised to learn that the author wrote Huck Finn — along with his other classic works about life on the Mississippi — in upstate New York, in a small writing cottage at his sister-in-law's summer home in Elmira. NPR made a pilgrimage to the site of Twain's brilliant writing life — and to the place that the author is buried — to learn the stories behind one of the satirist's favorite places.
The Writing Study — Full Of Cats And Cigars
Quarry Farm overlooks the dairy country of the Chemung River Valley in the Finger Lakes District of western New York. In his letters, Twain called the Farm "the quietest of all quiet places." He described the view as "an elevation that commands leagues of valley and city and retreating ranges of distant blue hills." It was looking at this view that Twain wrote some of the most beloved works in American literature, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi and The Prince and the Pauper.
But when Twain arrived in the sleepy New York town in 1868, he had not yet begun to write novels. He was already the well-known author of a book of travel writing (The Innocents Abroad) and had come to Elmira to court Olivia Langdon, the daughter of the richest man in town. When Twain and Langdon were married in 1870, they settled in Hartford, Conn., with their four children, but Twain continued to do most of his writing when he returned to Elmira to visit family every summer.
While in Elmira, Twain began writing his great works in a small study — 12 feet across, with eight sides and a large window in each face — built to mimic the pilot house of a riverboat. His tiny writing room was moved from Quarry Farm to the Elmira College campus for preservation in 1952. NPR observed the space with Twain scholar Michael Kiskis. "On this side and the other side, you'll see these little holes with grates over them," Kiskis described. "Those are the cat doors. He absolutely loved cats, and their company when he was writing in this building. You probably know he smoked a lot. He averaged between 30 and 40 cigars a day. So you gotta think of smoke, and cats and lots of paper, and breezes coming through."
'A Real Chance To Put Down Roots'
Twain was not a solitary man when he stayed in Elmira — although he had traveled across the country after leaving his rural Missouri hometown and gone to such far-flung places as Hawaii, Europe and the Middle East, the attraction to Elmira was the stable family environment and many personal connections.
"He'd been such a vagabond in the years between 17 and 30 — this gave him a real chance to put down roots," says Kiskis. "To be kind of hugged by a big family. And I think he really appreciated that. If you look at the major novels that frame his career, look how many of them deal with questions of family."
Twain's Resting Place
Elmira provided Twain with such strong ties that the town also represented the end of his family. The author is buried on a hill at Woodlawn Cemetery there, along with his wife, all of his children and his only grandchild, who had no children. The gravestones tell a sad story — his son Langdon died as an infant. His daughter Suzy died when she was 24 of spinal meningitis; his wife died when she was 58; and his daughter Jean, an epileptic, died at age 29, when she drowned in her bathtub on Christmas Eve.
It was this family sadness that ultimately drew Twain away from Elmira — he could not return after Suzy's death in 1896. His final summer homecoming to the town where he composed so many masterpieces came when he was laid to rest, 100 years ago.
It was a beloved place for the writer who captured America so clearly. In writing about the Chemung River, which he would view from his rocking chair each summer night, Twain summed up his feelings about Elmira: "Once or twice each night, we'd see a Steamboat slipping along in the dark. And every now and again, she'd belch a whole world of sparks up out of her chimney. And they would rain down in the river. And look awful pretty."
Mark Twain changed the rules of American fiction when, in Huckleberry Finn, he let a redneck kid tell his story in his own dialect. But the brilliant satirist had a hard time figuring out what rules to break as he struggled for years to tell his own life story. Now, 100 years after his death, Mark Twain's autobiography is being published the way the author himself wished — from dictated stories collected by the University of California, Berkeley's Mark Twain Project. The first volume (of three) is out now, and the long-anticipated release is drawing attention from Twain-lovers around the world.
'Wander At Your Free Will All Over Your Life'
Twain knew early on that he wanted to write an autobiography, but his first efforts to put his story on paper failed. He attributed his troubles to trying to follow a chronological calendar; a plan that, he wrote, "starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side excursions permitted."
Then, in 1904, Twain hit upon the right way to tell his story. "Start at no particular time of your life," he wrote. "Wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it at the moment its interest starts to pale." Naturally, he couldn't resist a comic hyperbole, adding, "It's the first time in history such a method has been discovered."
But Twain still couldn't wrap his head around how to tell the tale of his life — that is, until a few years later, when he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells about another eureka: dictation. "You will never know how much enjoyment you've lost until you get to dictating your biography," he wrote. "You'll be astonished at how like talk it is and how real it sounds."
Twain first tried dictating into Thomas Edison's new recording machine but didn't like it — he was a man who strutted stages all over the world, delivering extemporaneous spiels. Twain needed a live audience to speak to, not a bloodless machine. He eventually found that audience in stenographer Josephine Hobby and author Albert Bigelow Paine, his first biographer. Paine says Twain often dictated from his bed, clad in a handsome silk dressing gown of rich Persian pattern, propped against great snowy pillows. He also got up, paced the floor and waved his arms as he poured out nearly 2,000 pages of typescript over three years.
'He Was Capable Of Composing Entire Paragraphs In His Head'
Robert Hirst, director of the Mark Twain Project, spoke about the resulting "talked" autobiography, which follows a less linear path than a more traditional written work. "If you think about it, this is really the culmination — Mark Twain comes out of an oral tradition of humor," says Hirst. "And if you look at any of the books, you'll see this method of digression, even in Huck Finn — basically it's a trip with digressions, strung off it like beads, beads on a string."
Inside the temperature-controlled room that houses the largest collection of Twain papers in the world, Hirst explains that Twain made only minor corrections on the stenographer's dictated notes. The elegant structure of Twain's autobiographical dictations shows that the writer was able to translate complex ideas into spontaneous speech. "The evidence is that he's capable of composing entire paragraphs in his head," says Hirst. " I have editors who would come in and say, 'Listen to this,' and they would read it to me. They couldn't believe that somebody could dictate that."
More Hard News Than Raw Confessions
In the autobiography itself, Twain mixes news and history, using something from the "infernal newspapers" as a jumping-off point for his dictation. For example, the American war in the Philippines was still going on in 1906, and Twain read that American troops cornered 600 of the Moro tribe, including women and children, in a volcanic crater. Leonard Wood — Twain called him Theodore Roosevelt's "fragrant pet" — gave the order to "kill or capture" the 600.
"Apparently our little Army considered that the 'or' left them authorized to kill or capture according to taste," Twain dictated. "And that their taste had remained what it had been for eight years, in our army out there ... the taste of Christian butchers."
But while the autobiography contains many such bare-knuckle outbursts, you won't find many revelations about Twain's inner moral struggles. Three months into the dictations, he says, "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."
"So he has realized that he's not a confessional autobiographer," says Hirst. "That's not what this is."
'You Can't See The Whole Thing For A Hundred Years'
Still, despite his lack of emotional confessions, Twain did say things in the first draft that his biographers and his daughter felt were too personal or too scalding to print in the early editions of the autobiography. As legend has it, Twain wanted people to wait 100, or even 500 years until after his death to see specific passages.
In spite of these efforts at suppression, however, most of the autobiography has surfaced over the years, and the supposed "embargo" has only led to increased interest in and sales for the book.
"I would say, can you spell marketing plan?" jokes Hirst. "If you say here's a little bit of the autobiography, but you can't see the whole thing for a hundred years, you're gonna sell a book. Mark Twain knew how to sell a book."
Hirst also emphasizes that this new edition follows Twain's own design, while previous editions have been rearranged by editors who thought they had a better idea. The new edition also includes the numerous false starts Twain made before he settled into the dictation, so the reader might find it a bit of a slow read at times.
"It is heavy slogging," Hirst says. "But I would recommend what Mark Twain would recommend: If you're bored with it, SKIP."