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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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