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Bookmarks Issue: 
50-Jan-Feb-2011
By: 
Mark Twain
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A-Autobiography of Mark TwainBorn in 1835, Mark Twain (aka Samuel Clemens) went on to become one of America's most celebrated authors and humorists. He was a prolific writer, best remembered for the classic novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, as well as the nonfiction travelogue Innocents Abroad. Mark Twain died in 1910.

The Topic: An autobiography, Mark Twain writes, "... inevitably consists mainly of extinctions of the truth, shirkings of the truth, partial revealments of the truth, with hardly an instance of plain straight truth," but, he adds, "[T]he remorseless truth is there, between the lines." Before his death at age 74, Twain completed an autobiography consisting of half a million words. His one stipulation was that the work remain unpublished until 100 years after his death. Now, in this highly anticipated first volume (volumes two and three are scheduled for publication within the next five years), Twain touches on a wide range of topics--from his early life in Missouri to his relationship with his father and the death of his young daughter Susy to his dubious opinions of newspaper editors, landladies, and President Theodore Roosevelt. Eschewing chronology in favor of memory, Twain intended that his autobiography "shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method."
University of California Press. 760 pages. $34.95. ISBN: 9780520267190

Entertainment Weekly 4.5 of 5 Stars
"[H]is domestic essays are standouts, especially one about a servant who talked too much (and whom Twain loved for it). ... His ‘whole frank mind,' sharp and funny, is seared onto every page." Mallika Rao

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"While it is clearly a product of the 19th century, the book anticipates the contemporary memoir in form and in its attitude toward objectivity. ... [D]espite its daunting heft, the work provides distinct pleasures for even the casual Twain fan." Laura Skandera Trombley

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[I]t is worth dodging the phalanx of editors to get at Twain's prose and off-the-cuff observations. ... He is a marvel of observation and verbal assassination." David Holahan

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"For anyone interested in the discovery of the true voice of the man behind two or three of the most important books of the American canon, it's a treasure trove. ... Scattered among these fragmentary and sometimes uneven dictations and commentaries are fascinating portraits of significant people of Twain's world." Clay Reynolds

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"What comes through is the unmistakable voice of a great author musing not only on his own life but on the process of recollecting it. ... [A] rich, true self-portrait of a great heart that lives again whenever we hear that immortal voice." Richard Wakefield

Critical Summary

Critics found Autobiography of Mark Twain delightful reading and a particular boon for Mark Twain enthusiasts. The unorthodox format is presented just as Twain preferred, with little chronological organization and a narrative that relies more on the whims of memory than on strict factual data. Though much of the information within the autobiography has been leaked over the century, Twain continues to entertain with his trademark wit and skewering observations. A few questioned whether casual readers would be willing to wade through the rambling (and hefty) tome, but most agreed with the Christian Science Monitor critic, who wrote, "Yes, this autobiography is worth the effort, and the arm strain."