"Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody."
I caught a blurb in Entertainment Weekly that said a memoir was coming out this November: "The University of California Press will publish Volume I of Mark Twain’s autobiography (volumes II and III are to come at later dates).Twain himself gave the university some 5,000 pages but stipulated that the work had to remain unpublished until the 100th anniversary of his death, so the manuscript has been languishing in the vault all this time — available to scholars (who have been able to use the work for their own Twain biographies) but no one else. On its' website, UCP says that “the strict instruction that these texts remain unpublished for 100 years meant that when they came out, he would be "dead, and unaware, and indifferent’ and therefore free to speak his ‘whole frank mind."
Oddly enough, I had been thinking of re-reading Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn just in the past weeks: both books not read by me in quite some time. On my regular trip to the library I went into the children's section with it's reduced shelves and tiny tables and minute chairs and while there was no Tom Sawyer (off whitewashing a fence, I reckon,) they did have a recently published Huckleberry with some interesting illustrations, so I checked it out, thinking, "A lazy summer read meandering down the river on a raft." I settled into bed. In the introduction, there was what I would call a "disclaimer" about the dialect (Read: "Don't take offense that he has black people talking this way,") and another disclaimer about the use of the "N" word. Lawdy.
I begin. Chapter One. Wait. I have to ask. Have any of you returned to these books in oh...the past twenty years? Hep me Jebus. I was....floored. The dialogue? Not just Jim the runaway slave, but everyone. I suppose this regional dialect writing passed for humor in 1885. I read on Wikipedia that when the novel came out, there was controversy over the "coarse language," (that would be the swearing,) which is minor to what more modern eyes now see. I also Wiki read, "...it became even more controversial in the 20th century because of its perceived use of racial stereotypes and because of its frequent use of the racial slur _____." If I say "racial slur used every five words," I think I would be understating it.
When I was checking the library shelves for the book, and picked it up, I noted that it seemed remarkably "clean," as in "children haven't been chewing, doodling, or dripping their Creamsicles down the pages." I think a modern child would find it impossible to read what William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, and many other noted authors have labeled "The Great American Novel." Thematically? Perhaps. But the written word? I'm going to be honest. I have read some really dreadful stuff in my time and stuck with it to the bitter end. I couldn't finish Huckleberry Finn. Finn did me in. I swirled in the currents of the Mississippi and sank.
That same day in the library, I stumbled on a tiny book entitled Who is Mark Twain? by "Mark Twain Himself," Never Before Published. What this book consists of is a lot of essays that never saw the light of day, and I might add, Twain was a shrewd editor in leaving them unpublished. To his credit, I do believe that Twain, like many a writer, felt that if you had a calling for writing, then you did it, come what may and let it fall for posterity.
In an 1865 letter to his brother, Twain wrote, "You had better shove this in the stove, for I don't want any absurd "literary remains and unpublished letters of "Mark Twain" published after I am planted." Obviously his brother didn't obey him, nor did many others who received similar requests over the years. Considering that he wrote his brother those words before he had his first big publishing success, and two years before his first book, it was a remarkably prescient thing to say, even jokingly.
When Twain died in 1910, he left behind the largest cache (over half a million pages,) of personal papers of any 19th-century author. How did he really feel about posterity poking through his stuff? I think it is clear that, unlike many writers, Twain wasn't embarrassed by his "literary remains even if they were failures." It is very unusual for a writer to expose his efforts that might caste ill on his posterity, or even something as simple as an unwillingness to let the world see how he worked. Many a time I have read "The letters of...." or..."The journal of..." and it is obvious that every line was carefully written, or correspondence saved, which did not reflect poorly on the deceased.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, a woman who had a heightened perception of her own role in history, and knowing she was dying, called her former school chum (and social secretary) and they sat in front of the fireplace, re-reading and laughing, but burning and destroying page after page of personal papers. Let the walls of Camelot remain sound.
When social commentator and judicial investigator Dominick Dunne died, in his last novel his protagonist (himself,) revealed that he was bi-sexual and had been involved with other men. Mr. Dunne said, just a short time before his death. "You have got to tell the truth at the end. No lies. You have got to tell the truth." I am also of the school, "Let the truth prevail. For better or worse." There's something profoundly sad in someone wanting to control what their life seemingly was--when it wasn't. I say there is more to be gained in telling the truth, because we are all part of this process. Another way of saying, "Be prideful of your scars with your successes," I suppose.
Referring back to these memoirs on Twain that will be coming out (and the delay in their release,) I want to mention that this subject crops up in this book of essays, quoting from Twain's autobiography of 1906 (four years before his death) that the full publication of his life would not occur until 100 years after his death. He makes this precondition explicit, and then explains why he thought he was taking no real risk in the matter:
"I can speak more frankly from the grave than most historians would be able to do, for the reason that whereas they would not be able to feel dead, however hard they might try, I myself am able to do that. They would be making believe to be dead. With me, it is not make-believe. They would all the time be feeling, in a tolerably definite way, that that things in the grave which represents them is a conscious entity; conscious of what was saying about people, an entity capable of feeling shame; an entity capable of shrinking from full and frank expression, for they believe in immortality. They believe that death is only a sleep, followed by an immediate waking, and that their spirits are conscious of what is going on here below and take a deep and continuous interest in the joys and sorrows of the survivors whom they love and don't."
"But I have long ago lost my belief in immortality--also my interest in it. I can say, now, what I could not say while alive--things which would shock people to hear; things which I could not say when alive because I should be aware of that shock and would certainly spare myself the personal pain of inflicting it."
...in other words, Twain was perfectly willing to let us read his most intimate manuscripts precisely because he knew that when we did so, he would no longer exist. Think for a moment, about "...things which would shock people to hear." A world and society where there were still checks and boundaries that prohibited laying it all out there. Is it silly to long for the day when we weren't blasted by the minute with every burp, blat and blather on Twitter? Gee. Should I really write that I have a wart on my labia? Oh...go ahead. Be honest. Tell us what you are really thinking. What would Mark Twain tweet? "My moustache is yellow from smoking these dang nabbit ceegars." The problem is, there are no qualifiers on what is worth reporting. Have you read Courtney Love's Facebook page? Be still my heart. Code blue.
The book wasn't a total waste of rejects. I found an amusing essay about standards Twain set "Whenever I Am About To Publish A Book." His means of jumping the critics by using the verdict of the general public. He states he always showed his manuscripts to a private group of friends composed as follows:
1. Man and woman with no sense of humor.
2. Man and woman with medium sense of humor.
3. Man and woman with prodigious sense of humor.
4. An intensely practical person.
5. A sentimental person.
6. Person who must have a moral in, and a purpose.
7. Hypercritical person--natural flaw-picker and fault-finder.
8. Enthusiast. Person who enjoys anything and everything, almost.
9. Person who watches the others, and applauds or condemns with the majority.
10. Half a dozen bright young girls and boys, unclassified.
11. Person who relishes slang and familiar flippancy.
12. Person who detests them.
13. Person of evenly balanced judicial mind.
14. Man who always goes to sleep.
...and for those who didn't agree with him on any of this?.....
Labels: dc blogs, dc blogs live, history, immortality, literary critics, mark twain, memoirs, technorati, writing