What we should take from the second volume of Mark Twain’s cantankerous autobiography

The Twain who steps out of the Autobiography is more sceptical and negative than the Twain of the novels but still very much the same character.

Though renowned for his aphoristic wit, Mark Twain could be mightily long-winded. At over 700 pages, the second volume of his Autobiography (University of California Press, £29.95) shows him at his most discursive. Newspaper clippings, passing remarks, casual stimulus from letters or visitors – anything could get him going. As he rummages through a huge ragbag of topics (reminiscences, reflections on religion, thoughts on suicide and death), you wonder if he’s ever going to stop. Not for some time, apparently: a third volume is already planned.

Superficially, the reason for the book’s prolixity was its mode of composition. In his last years, Twain employed a stenographer to take down his day-to-day musings. Rambling (in every sense) for two hours a day, he poured out stories, memories and ideas. Dictated between April 1906 and February 1907 (he died in 1910), the ramshackle results are both tedious and fascinating. They offer not a coherent memoir but the sound of improvised speech. That makes them quite similar to his novels, which – though written rather than dictated – pioneered a style of vernacular narrative (colloquial, jokey, unpretentiously eloquent) that peaked with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Twain always wrote spontaneously. Embarking on Tom Sawyer, he had no idea how it would end. Halfway through Huckleberry Finn, his tank ran dry and he dropped the book for two years. His mordant satire on slavery, Pudd’nhead Wilson, only emerged when, by “a kind of literary Caesarean”, he removed a comic subplot about conjoined twins. His documentary works were equally makeshift. His 1869 bestselling travel book, The Innocents Abroad, was originally a series of newspaper articles. So was Life on the Mississippi, an important source for Huckleberry Finn. All these books were written in fits and starts and rivet you with the sound of Twain’s voice.

What is new about the Autobiography is the intensity and savagery of his reflections. Twain used it to manage a conflict that had dogged his entire career. Perpetually torn between defiance and conformity, he was instinctively a critic and outsider, a satirist with violent and anarchic fancies – yet his public success depended on submission to the norms of a censorious society. His natural home was the world of his twenties, the boisterous male enclaves of the silver mines and riverboats: as he put it in Life on the Mississippi, “A pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth.” Writers, by contrast, were “manacled servants of the public”. Making headway as a writer meant, for Twain, complying with (and even marrying into) a restrictive world of piety and patriotism, of good manners, high morals and polite speech. From early on, he let his work be censored – first by his mentor Mary Fairbanks, who scanned his manuscripts for vulgarity and irreverence, and later by his wife, Olivia, of whom he said: “She not only edited my works, she edited me!” In the Autobiography, he quotes from an account, written years before by his daughter Susy, of how Mamma “expergated [sic]” Huckleberry Finn: “. . . I remember so well, with what pangs of regret we used to see her turn down the leaves of the pages, which meant that some delightfully dreadful part must be scratched out.”

Twain outwardly complied and prospered as a writer but his wealth and celebrity failed to make him content. Like Huck Finn, he hankered after some means of escape from the pressures of “civilisation”. One favoured escape route was the past (where all his major novels are located): perhaps the Middle Ages (A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur) or the Tudor period (The Prince and the Pauper) or, more personally, his rambunctious young manhood or his boyhood in Hannibal, Missouri (a time when you could fight and smoke and play hooky and still retain adult affection).

Yet his commonest manoeuvre for shaking off the shackles was to split himself into two in fiction. His work is full of doubles, alter egos and disguise. A recurrent device is that of reversed identity: Edward Tudor and Tom Canty in The Prince and the Pauper; the exchanged babies in Pudd’nhead Wilson. His interest in conjoined twins resurfaced in a short story in which one (drunk and disreputable) is forced to coexist uncomfortably with another (sober and respectable). Supposedly hilarious, the story is revealing about an author who spoke elsewhere of “my double, my partner in duality, the other and wholly independent personage who resides in me”. Tellingly, Twain’s last recorded words were about Jekyll and Hyde.

For his Autobiography, he created a new double: a garrulous corpse. Requesting that sections be held back for a century, he imagined himself as already dead. Thus liberated, he could say what he thought, rather than what he wished people to think he thought. He could lay about him without fear of social reprisal. He could also cast off his status as America’s most feted author. The whitehaired, white-suited older Twain was lionised all over the world: in America he was invited to testify before congressional committees; he recalled chats with the British prime minister and dinner with the German kaiser in Europe. In the Autobiography, shrugging off the constricting mantle of fame, he was free to speak his mind.

Unfortunately, many of those he chose to attack scarcely deserved his lofty contempt. Just as the first volume of the Autobiography shocked readers with its intemperate onslaught on his personal assistant Isabel Lyon (“thief, drunkard, traitor and salacious slut”), so the second might prove startling with its endless diatribes against former colleagues – lawyers, publishers, journalists – who allegedly let him down. Among names filed under just one letter of the alphabet, you can find memorable strictures on Charles H Webb (“a poor sort of creature, and by nature and training a fraud”), Charles L Webster (“one of the most assful persons I have ever met”) and Daniel Whitford (“endowed with a stupidity which by the least little stretch would go around the globe four times”).

Some hate figures will be familiar to students of Twain – James W Paige, for one (“a descendant of Judas Iscariot”); Twain had lost a fortune by investing in his typesetting machine. In the case of his rival writer Bret Harte, the fulminations begin with a rumble (“He hadn’t a sincere fibre in him”) and build up to a thunderclap (“a born bummer and tramp . . . a loafer and an idler”). In the 200 pages of notes to this volume, the scrupulous editors include warnings (“one-sided and in many instances erroneous”, and so on) not to take Twain’s charges on trust.

Where his eruptions are likely to have more impact today is in the realm of religion. His portrait of God rivals that of Richard Dawkins: “In the Old Testament His acts expose His vindictive, unjust, ungenerous, pitiless and vengeful nature constantly . . . It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere.” Twain’s novels are often laced with mild religious mockery but contain nothing like his withering comments (to be held back, he said, until 2406) on “any and every god among the two or three millions of gods that our race has been manufacturing since it nearly ceased to be monkeys”.

On politics, the Autobiography might disquiet his more conservative admirers. Perhaps his invectives against men who “get down in the gutter and frankly worship dollars” can be taken with a pinch of salt, given Twain’s obsession with profit and addiction to calamitous investments (he sank money in a steam pulley, a new engraving process, a new cash register and a spiral hatpin). Yet a passage about the arms race (each country going “one battleship better”) still reads cogently, as do his warnings about imperialism. Just as he described US soldiers abroad as “uniformed assassins” in the first volume, here he asserts that praising Anglo-Saxon expansionism amounts to saying: “The English and the Americans are thieves, highwaymen, pirates, and we are proud to be of the combination.”

The Twain who steps out of the Autobiography is more sceptical and negative than the Twain of the novels but still very much the same character. He continues to function in all his doubleness: folksy and cosmopolitan, idealistic and cynical, the warmest champion and most blistering critic of mainstream American values.

David Grylls is a fellow of Kellogg College, Oxford, and the author of “Guardians and Angels: Parents and Children in 19th-Century Literature” (Faber & Faber)

On with the show: Susy and Papa in am dram at their holiday cottage in Onteora, New York, 1890. Image: Copyright Mark Twain Papers, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley

This article first appeared in the 23 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Russell Brand Guest Edit

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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.