Tarah's Reviews > Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 by Mark Twain
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Feb 05, 2011

liked it

I'm going to have to agree with Garrison Keillor's review in the NYTs: the book is disappointing. And I'm one of the scholars against which Keillor warns us, so I should be part of the boring conspiracy brigade. It's not that the autobiography is unwelcome, or that it's not useful... but the presentation of the autobiography buries any interest value for all but the most dedicated Twain scholar. It is an interesting collection of vignettes--an anecdote about Horace Greeley here, a slam on President (Theodore) Roosevelt there--but these gems are mired in other fundamental problems of this collection, nonetheleast of which is the the overall presentation of the book, which, at a door-stopping 750 million pounds and 750 pages, suffers from an overabundance. What to do with these random scraps of Twain's life? The answer from Cal Press has been to present them as a coherent autobiography, which, of course, was Twain's own intention. But coherent (maybe the word I'm looking for is cohesive) this text is not. It's telling that Twain himself stopped and started the project multiple times, unable to settle on one form, one way of telling his story, one secretary to which to tell it, etc. You get that sense, that this is a patchwork piece, one without a coherent center. Which means that the interesting snap-shots of Twain's life (and many of the boring ones included as well) are left as just that: unconnected snapshots, or moments without a whole lot of meaning.

I need to say, too, that this book fundamentally suffers from its over-intrusive (over-enthusiastic) editors. The actual text of the autobiography pales in comparison to the lengthy (I'm going to go ahead and say it: long-winded) introduction and the mind-bogglingly huge section of explanatory notes. Look, I'm an academic who LOVES explanatory notes beyond all reason. But these notes do little to add, and much to distract. Bad endnote. No biscut.

So, there you go. I think I'll probably forgo numbers 2 and 3, except to flip through the index to see what pops up that might be interesting to read... and that seems to me to be the best way to approach this autobiography--reading select bits in isolation.

I'm giving it three stars for the sheer amount of archival work that went into it. And because those digs at Roosevelt were pretty funny.
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