Last Volume Of Twain Autobiography Full Of Domestic Drama, Engrossing Dictations

Special to The Courant

"Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3," edited by Benjamin Griffin, Harriet Elinor Smith and other editors of the Mark Twain Project. The University of California Press, 747 pp, $45.

The third volume of Mark Twain's autobiography is out, and the set is complete.

This essential American document has an eventful history. When he died, Samuel Langhorne Clemens left a mountain of manuscript behind, the records of several years of autobiographical dictations to stenographers, along with other written or typed snippets and chunks. Pieces of it were published through the years.

Then, starting in the early 2000s, systematic and dogged work by editors at the Mark Twain Papers & Project at the University of California, Berkeley, continued — and has now completed — the job that Clemens started when he devised his own system for autobiography in 1906.

That system was to "start it at no particular time in your life; wander at your free will all over your life" — in other words, to jump around in time as much as you like. For Clemens, tales of home life in Hartford might back up into tales of steamboat piloting, and boyhood tales of Hannibal, Mo., might suddenly digress to the latest newspaper story about Theodore Roosevelt, whom he calls "our insane President," then jump back to silver mining days in Nevada.

The best way to approach the book is to start at no particular point and wander at free will all over it, the same way he sought to write it. You'll find Clemens' brilliant way with the language and humor addictive. Describing a famous Roosevelt bear hunt, he says of the president: "He was once a reasonably modest man, but his judgment has been out of focus so long now that he imagines that everything he does, little or big, is colossal. I am sure he honestly thinks it was a bear, but the circumstantial evidence that it was a cow is overwhelming."

You'll also find him writing a long poem about the death of one daughter, and plaintive prose about the death of another. There are word portraits of characters and charlatans great and small. There is a trip to England for an honorary degree at Oxford University, a surprising defense of the Standard Oil Company (an executive was his friend and benefactor) and dissertations on both the use of the pause in platform lectures and the use of watermelon to cure dysentery.

For those interested in his Hartford life, which ran from 1871 to 1891, this volume starts with a bang as Clemens praises Isabella Beecher Hooker, his landlady, neighbor and famed advocate of votes and property for women. Not long afterward, there's domestic dirt: A young man was found to have been sleeping with a housemaid in what is today the Mark Twain House. She was pregnant — or was she? — and Clemens argued the man into marrying her. In this story's literary work-over by Clemens later, which adds some surprising gender-bending, it is not as simple as it sounds.

It's all here. The length of this volume is accounted for in part by copious and helpful explanatory notes, characteristic of its thorough and scrupulous editors. But these editors have also chosen to include in the volume a lengthy document that relates to a controversial incident of Clemens' last year.

By then — March 1909 — the author was in his final home, called Stormfield, in Redding, Conn. His secretary, Isabel Lyon, had been a major force in his life since his wife's death five years before, serving as his secretary, housekeeper and companion. Suddenly, Clemens split with Lyon, calling her a thief, a miscreant and a "salacious slut pining for seduction." He wrote a massive indictment of her alleged crimes, along with those of her husband, Ralph Ashcroft, who had been Clemens' business manager.

This document — "the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript" — has been wrangled over by scholars ever since it surfaced in the 1970s, with some coming down on his side and some on Lyon's.

But its gossipy interest shouldn't distract us from Clemens' engrossing dictations. His deep love for the language, for expression, for telling what is on his mind and in his heart, keeps him talking to us, right up to the very end of the autobiography, when the death of his daughter Jean leads him to close it forever.

Once again we see Clemens pacing the floor of his homes in New York and Connecticut, smoking incessantly, and letting go his opinions on life, politics, the universe and everything. There will be times when you might like to take a break and go to the refrigerator. But then you pause at the kitchen door, and turn around, and listen. This is, after all, Mark Twain.

BOOK LAUNCH EVENT: The Mark Twain House & Museum, 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford, will host a free "Trouble Begins at 5:30 event," a book launch for the "Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3" Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 7 p.m. Editor Ben Griffin will talk, following a 6:30 p.m. reception, discussing the work it took to publish the three-volume autobiography 100 years after Twain's death. Reservations: 860-280-3130 and marktwainhouse.org.

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