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Volume 2 of Mark Twain 'Autobiography' a rewarding read

by Marc Haefele | Off-Ramp®

circa 1885: American humourist and writer Mark Twain (1835 - 1910). Hulton Archive/Getty Images

"There is one thing which fills me with wonder and reverence every time I think of  it-and that is the confident and splendid fight for supremacy which the house-fly makes against the human being. Man, by his inventive ingenuity, has in the course of the ages, by help of diligence and determination, found ways to acquire and establish his mastery over every living creature under the vault of heaven-except the house-fly. With the house-fly he has always failed. The house-fly is as independent of him to-day as he was when Adam made his first grab for one and didn't get him. The house-fly defies all man's inventions for his subjugation or destruction. No creature was ever yet devised that could meet man on his own level and laugh at him and defy him, except the house-fly." 

-- "The Supremacy of the House-Fly" from "Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2"

When’s the last time anyone told you:  “I am saying this as a dead person”?

Well, Mark Twain told us that three years ago, when he posthumously permitted the University of California Press to publish Volume 1 of his prodigiously informative and frustrating so-called “Autobiography.” Touted by dozens of favorable reviews, widely publicized as a publishing coup, the book was a top seller for weeks.

But by then there was some buyer’s remorse.  The chunky Volume 1 contained just 250 pages of actual Twain, entombed among many more pages of notes, introductions, etc. It was like the heart of an artichoke, surrounded by hundreds of gnarly leaves.  

Also, much of what there was of Twain himself was not just rambling, but often random—much as you’d expect of the ruminations of a 70ish sage, self-consciously trying to recall his complex life into the ear of a patient stenographer.

But now we have Volume 2 of what looks to be a 3-volume UC Press project. Happily, it comes minus its predecessor’s surplus hoopla. It’s not likely to sell nearly as well, but it's a far more rewarding book.  


Twain’s finally learned to dictate pretty much as he wrote—in elegant paragraphs that tend to evolve from wild assertions to sly punch lines. The narration still wanders, but it’s now more rambling than random.

Most importantly, this book contains far more — 450 pages — of the essential Twain, a broad, human landscape between the horizons of utter sentimentality and a profound, deeply earned bitterness.

Here are his strongest opinions, on the U.S. Congress (no better then than our own), on his older brother Orion — whose career descended from acting Governor of Nevada to Iowa chicken farmer — of publishers in general (very low; but, in fairness to them, Twain cut himself some terrific royalties).

And of God and Christianity, both of which he utterly despised. He called the Bible “The most damnatory biography that exists in print everywhere,” and said said God “makes Nero an angel of light.”  

From time to time, he calls down himself. A man who never figured out how to read a contract or pick a sound investment, he plunged his family repeatedly into bankruptcy until he was finally rescued by his fabulously wealthy Gilded Age Godfather, Henry Rogers. Twain’s constant cussing out of the rich and mighty of his time contrasts vividly with his occasional fawning dependence on them.

Much of this has been told before, but never as well as he tells it himself. Particularly when it comes to his glancing depictions of his mounting family tragedy, which sundered his lifetime with the deaths of three out his four children and his beloved wife Livy. 

Underlining the sadness is the book’s frequent quotation from the first-ever Twain biography, begun by daughter Suzy as a schoolchild, left unfinished at her death by meningitis at 24.

                (Mark Twain's daughter Suzy Twain. (The Mark Twain House and Museum)

With Volume 2, the loud and lofty promise of the original UC Twain project finally starts to fulfill itself — we’ve not  just shreds and shards of a self-told life, but a unique and goodly part of the entire man in full.  

There may be more accessible biographies than this one, but there is no better avenue to understanding the exultant and terrible life of the greatest humorist in English since Shakespeare.

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