The Autobiography of Mark Twain

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The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Mark Twain 1924

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


The Autobiography of Mark Twain is as famous for its fictional qualities as for its lively writing style. This is one of the reasons the work—which exists in three distinct and competing versions—has lived on for generations and inspired much debate. This entry studies the 1959 version, edited and arranged by Charles Neider and available in paperback from Perennial Classics.

Twain's autobiography was originally published in 1924 (fourteen years after Twain's death) by Albert Bigelow Paine in New York. It was published in two volumes as Mark Twain's Autobiography. Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the real-life counterpart of the Mark Twain pseudonym, had been preparing notes for his autobiography for almost forty years, and they culminated in a series of dictated conversations to Paine from 1906 to Twain's death in 1910. Twain had lofty intentions when he started writing autobiographical notes in the 1870s. He expected that his autobiography would live on forever, and in this spirit he designated that certain parts of his memoirs would be time-released from his estate at specific times in the distant future.

The Autobiography of Mark Twain spans the years from 1835 to 1910, a rich period in United States history. Through Twain's characteristic wit and wisdom, readers gain a unique perspective on the Civil War, slavery and race relations, the colonization of the American West, world travel in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and notable literary and historical figures. With popular works like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain was regarded as a master storyteller in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and readers eagerly anticipated his memoirs. Readers were therefore profoundly disappointed when the first version of the Twain's autobiography was published in 1924 as a mass of incomplete biographical notes and observations that lacked organization. Later versions have tried to correct this problem by removing awkward sections or adding or rearranging other sections as necessary. None of the editors have chosen to include Twain's complete typescript in the order in which Twain intended.

Author Biography

Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens on November 30, 1835, in the village of Florida, Missouri. When his father died in 1847, Clemens—who was only twelve years old at the time—was sent to be a printer's apprentice. While his early life was spent in Missouri, Clemens left home as a young man and was a traveler for the rest of his life, often taking on odd jobs, submitting various writings for publication, and assuming other odd jobs to fund his adventures.

After working as a riverboat pilot and spending some time in the South, where he was a Confederate soldier for two weeks, Clemens moved to the developing American West. He first gained popularity in small towns as a journalist using the pseudonym Mark Twain, a nautical term from his riverboat pilot days. He later became known as a travel writer, humorist, and lecturer.

Clemens married Olivia Langdon in 1870. They had four children together: Langdon, who died as an infant; Susy, who died from meningitis in her twenties; Jean, who died from heart failure in her twenties; and Clara, their only surviving daughter.

An optimistic and enterprising man, Clemens used the small fortune from his literary success to make several bad investments, including starting his own publishing company, which sent him into debt in his late fifties. Clemens worked off his debts through a new lecture tour and then spent his final years traveling with his family and dictating much of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, the first version of which was not published until after his death.

Clemens left specific instructions for the release of all of his autobiographical writings, the next major installment of which is due to be published in 2006 by the University of California Press. He considered some of his writings so controversial that they are not to be published until 2406.

Clemens wrote hundreds of works during his lifetime under the pseudonym Mark Twain. Some of his most famous writings include novels such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Prince and the Pauper, and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court ; autobiographical and travel books such as The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims' Progress, Roughing It, Old Times on the Mississippi, and Following the Equator ; and short stories such as "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," "1601," and "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg." He also wrote numerous essays, speeches, and other short nonfiction works, many of which have been anthologized or reproduced in collections. In 2001, one of Clemens's unpublished manuscripts entitled A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage was published by the Atlantic Monthly.

Clemens died from heart disease in his home near Redding, Connecticut, on April 21, 1910. He left behind a legacy as one of America's most important writers, a distinction that has only increased with time.

Plot Summary


The author explains to his readers that since the publication of his autobiography will happen after he is dead, he is "speaking from the grave," and so will not have to censor himself.

Chapters 1-17

Clemens is born in the small village of Florida, Missouri. He remembers an uncle whom he admired, and describes this uncle's general store and the farm where Clemens stayed for a few months each year. Clemens says that he could never be totally equal with his Negro friends on the farm, due to their differences in skin color and social stature.

He recalls his mother and father, and explores his ancestral connection to Geoffrey Clement, who helped to sentence England's King Charles I to death. Clemens describes his father's purchase of 100,000 acres of then-worthless Tennessee land and the family's move to Hannibal, Missouri. He remembers his mother's death, and discusses her infinite compassion.

Clemens is a troublemaker and has problems at both school and home. As a teenager, he gets into more precarious situations. He fakes a trance for a hypnotist to get the approval of the audience, and has to act like it does not hurt when they stick him with pins. He reflects on various friends from his boyhood who have contacted him as an adult, then introduces his brother Orion.

Chapters 18-28

Clemens's father dies in 1847, sending the family into poverty. Clemens becomes a printer's apprentice, then works for his brother Orion's newspaper. Orion is so honest that he lowers prices too far to make a profit, a trend he continues with other businesses.

Clemens decides to travel to South America, then becomes a riverboat pilot instead. In a dream, he predicts his brother Henry's upcoming death. He then joins the Confederate army for two weeks while in Louisiana.

Through a personal connection, Orion becomes secretary of the new territory of Nevada. Clemens moves to Nevada with him, and starts writing for the Virginia City Enterprise, eventually adopting his pseudonym Mark Twain, a nautical term meaning two fathoms (twelve feet). When Twain's editor is out of town, Twain is challenged to a duel in the editor's place. The man who challenged Twain to a duel is scared away after one of the other men from the newspaper office creates a lie about Twain's marksmanship.

When Twain moves to San Francisco, he becomes the only reporter on the Morning Call. He covers the courts and the theaters, and creates news when there is not any. The editor hires an assistant to help Twain, and the assistant ends up doing Twain's job to the point where Twain gets fired.

Twain meets Bret Harte, a writer who becomes famous for a style of literature that mimics Dickens. Twain explains how Harte's character changed from honest to dishonest when Harte moved from San Francisco to the East.

Twain is sent by the Sacramento Union to the Sandwich Islands, where he writes about the survivors of a boat accident. Back in the United States, he begins a lecture tour as a result of his growing fame.

Chapters 29-35

Twain takes a trip around the world, then writes The Innocents Abroad based on his experiences. The book is a rousing success, but Twain gets swindled out of some of his royalties because he is uneducated about the publishing business.

Twain remembers his first lecturing experience and how he got on the national lecturing circuit through James Redpath's bureau in Boston. Twain lectures for three seasons, then retires to his married life.

Chapters 36-42

Twain discusses his courtship of and marriage to Olivia L. Langdon, an invalid most of her life, who denies Twain's proposals several times before agreeing to marry him. Twain's first child, Langdon, dies from complications due to a cold. His second child, Susy, is an inquisitive and passionate child who troubles over the meaning of human existence and who exhibits a mature sense of fairness. She undertakes a frank biography of her father when she is thirteen years old.

Chapters 43-52

While in San Francisco, Twain gets two potential opportunities from an investor, both of which are foiled inadvertently by Twain's brother Orion. Twain does not make much money on his next several books or investments, and decides to become his own publisher. He puts his nephew-inlaw, Webster, in charge of the business, starting with the publication of Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Twain receives the contract to publish the memoirs of his friend General Grant, and reflects on his past experiences with this former President and Civil War hero. Grant's book is a success, and it earns his heirs about half a million dollars.

Webster renegotiates his contract with Twain a couple of times, cheating Twain out of money and decision-making rights in the process. Twain buys out Webster, but Webster's mismanagement bankrupts the business. Twain reimburses his creditors by liquidating the company's assets and earning the rest himself through another lecture tour and the publication of his book Following the Equator.

Chapters 53-60

Twain discusses his half-completed books, his laziness, and his newfound dependence on dictation. He reflects on the other humorists from his early career, most of whom have become unknowns by this time. He expresses his views about the ignorance of copyright laws and the ignorance of inexperienced writers who try to get published. Twain relates how he unknowingly met his favorite author, Rudyard Kipling, before the writer became famous, then talks about authors who have fame with the lower classes.

Chapters 61-64

Twain talks about his increasing disdain for Bret Harte, who has angered creditors, critics, and friends with irresponsible behavior. Twain notes that Harte can only write when the pressure from creditors is strongest, then discusses how Harte has abandoned his family, including trying to figuratively stab his son in the back.

Twain pardons Harte's actions, saying he is like other creatures of nature, using God-given traits, whether good or bad. Twain talks about trickery in general, and gives examples of tricks that have been played on others.

Chapters 65-71

Twain relates the details of the death of his daughter Susy, who contracts meningitis while Twain is abroad in England. He then discusses the death of his wife, resulting from the failure of her immune system.

Twain writes that, during his wife's final months, their daughter Jean caught a chill and got double pneumonia. The family hides Jean's illness from Twain's wife through Twain's daughter Clara, who lies to her mother about Jean—the first time Clara has ever lied to her mother. Twain moves his wife back to their villa, where she dies.

Chapters 72-78

Twain shares his negative views on Europe, then jumps at the chance to travel there to receive an honorary degree from Oxford. During his trip, an acquaintance tricks him into lunching with her so that she can parade him around through carefully staged events designed to improve her reputation with the press.

Twain meets with an English author who has recently gained notoriety for her salacious novel, which Twain praises privately but says he can never defend publicly. Twain attends the overly elaborate memorial dedication for a writer friend, whose wife is preoccupied with her reputation. He talks about his reputation for not following common superstitions.

Chapter 79

Twain describes his daughter Jean's death from heart failure caused by an epileptic seizure, then remembers back on other loved ones he has lost—Susy, his wife, friends—and reflects on the fact that he is alone until he dies. He describes death as a gift.

Key Figures

Elisha Bliss

Elisha Bliss, who works for the American Publishing Company, offers Twain the contract for The Innocents Abroad, then delays publication of the book, for fear its humorous quality would offend readers, until Twain threatens a lawsuit. Ironically, the book is a success. Twain publishes several more books with Bliss, and it is only after Bliss's death that Twain finds out from the publishing company how badly Bliss had swindled him in skimming money from the company.

Clara Clemens

Clara Clemens is Twain's second-born daughter. In her twenties, Clara is known as being extremely honest, and her mother Olivia believes that she cannot tell a lie. Clara is thus recruited to take care of her mother when her mother falls ill, so that she can lie to her mother about the severity of her illness.

Olivia is a very watchful person, and while she is in her sickbed, she analyzes every report that Clara gives her about the outside world. The lying is painful for Clara, who often has to create more lies to cover up inconsistencies in her stories. It is particularly difficult for Clara when Clara's sister Jean catches pneumonia, and Clara has to hide the illness from her mother. Clara is the only one of Twain's children who survives into adulthood.

Henry Clemens

Henry Clemens is Twain's younger brother. He often tells his parents about Twain's many mischievous acts when he and Twain are children, and Twain makes Henry the object of many pranks. Because Henry rarely does anything naughty, Twain usually gets blamed when Henry actually does something bad.

Henry is injured in a steam boiler explosion while working as a mud clerk (a volunteer position) on Twain's riverboat. Although Henry survives the accident and begins to heal, he dies when some inexperienced young doctors give him an overdose of morphine. Twain has a prophetic dream about his brother's funeral a few days before the explosion.

Jean Clemens

Jean Clemens is Twain's youngest child. She is energetic and enjoys being outdoors. She catches pneumonia at one point, although she eventually gets better. An epileptic, Jean dies in her father's home after she has an epileptic seizure and her heart fails, one day before Twain's last Christmas in 1909.

John Marshall Clemens

John Marshall Clemens is Twain's father. He invests a small fortune in 100,000 acres of Tennessee land, which he thinks will be worth a lot of money to his family some day. Although this prospect gives him hope throughout hard financial times and even on his deathbed, the property becomes a burden to Twain and his brother Orion, who lose most of the property through mismanagement. When John loses several thousand dollars on a bad loan, he and his family are thrown into poverty. His luck changes when he is offered a new job, but he dies before he can start, forcing Twain to start work as a printer's apprentice.

Langdon Clemens

Langdon is the firstborn child of Olivia and Twain. He dies as a baby after complications stemming from a cold.

Mrs. Clemens

See Olivia Langdon Clemens

Olivia Langdon Clemens

Olivia Langdon Clemens is Twain's wife. Often referred to as "Livy," or "Mrs. Clemens," Olivia is an invalid most of her life due to a partial paralysis from a fall on the ice at age sixteen. Twain first learns of Olivia from her brother Charley, one of Twain's shipmates on the Quaker City excursion.

Twain meets Olivia for the first time following the Quaker City excursion. He begins to court Olivia, and proposes to her on several occasions, but she initially denies his proposals. Twain then fakes an injury following an accident at Olivia's house, and she ends up nursing him back to health. The next time he proposes, she accepts. As a wedding gift, Olivia's father buys the young couple a house in Buffalo, New York. Olivia's father tells Olivia about the house, but she and her father hide the fact from Twain for a time, using it as the basis to play a joke on him.

Olivia is much more affectionate than Twain, who was brought up to be reserved. She acts as Twain's inspiration through their many years of poverty and debt, and edits most of his written works. Olivia helps preserve her husband's literary reputation in other ways as well. When his publishing company fails, Olivia is the one who first suggests to her husband that he pay back everything that is owed to the company's creditors, so that Twain's character is not stained. She also supports Twain's decision to destroy lower quality manuscripts before he is tempted to sell them and discourages him from lending his name as editor to a humorous periodical, which would pay a large salary but would be a step down for a writer of his stature.

Olivia and Twain have several children together. Their firstborn, Langdon, dies as a baby after complication stemming from a cold. They also bury their second child, Susy, after Susy contracts meningitis at age twenty-four.

Olivia herself becomes ill on several separate occasions during the last decade of her life, when she and Twain are doing a lot of traveling. However, she recovers from these maladies. During the last two years of her life, she falls seriously ill and ultimately dies of heart failure at Twain's villa.

Orion Clemens

Orion Clemens is Twain's oldest sibling. He is an enterprising individual with many optimistic ideas, but his bad business sense gets him into trouble when he puts money into a string of ill-fated investments. He is so honest that as soon as he buys a business, he reduces the price of the product so far that he cannot afford to pay his overhead.

Orion has other misadventures. He gets engaged to two Illinois girls, until one of them forces him to break off the other engagement and marry her. He and his new wife move to her hometown and buy a newspaper office. Twain often helps out Orion, such as when he works in Orion's newspaper office after leaving his printer's apprenticeship.

Through a friend, Orion secures the office of secretary of the new territory of Nevada, working under Governor Nye. His extreme honesty makes him popular with the legislature, who cannot trust one another. Nye is often absent from the territory, leaving Orion to act as governor. When Nye lobbies to turn the territory of Nevada into an official state, it is assumed that Orion will become secretary of state. However, on the day that he is to be nominated, Orion suddenly shifts his views from supporting alcohol to banning it, and the pro-alcohol community refuses to nominate him.

Jobless, Orion and his wife sell their Nevada house at a reduced price, squander the money on a vacation in New York, then eventually settle in Hartford, Connecticut, where Twain helps Orion trick his way into an editing job. Against Twain's advice, Orion takes a better-paying editorial job in Virginia, from which he is eventually fired. Orion tries his hand at several more careers, including law, chicken farming, and inventing, but he does not find success, and repeatedly has to borrow money from Twain to survive.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens

Samuel Langhorne Clemens is the author and main character in his autobiography, in which he is referred to by both his real name, Clemens, and by his pseudonym, Mark Twain. In his autobiography, Twain sometimes paints himself in a positive light and sometimes not. He admits that he does not get all of his facts right, and states that he does not care, because the facts he presents will do just as well. He also jumps from topic to topic, talking about experiences when and how it pleases him. He notes that his intentions are to tell his story the way he wants to tell it, and not to censor himself.

A fiery, independent temperament is characteristic of Twain, who shares many of his experiences as a troublemaking child. After his father dies and the family is plunged into poverty, Twain is sent to work as a printer's apprentice, learning a trade that will serve him well in various other jobs throughout the United States.

Twain devotes his considerable energies towards many jobs as a young man, including working as a riverboat pilot, laborer, reporter, and lecturer. Eventually Twain's fiery spirit manifests itself in his sharp sense of humor—demonstrated throughout his autobiography—for which he becomes famous. Twain is also adventurous and travels extensively throughout his life, producing many lectures and books as a result of his travels. He mentions these works throughout his autobiography, and also notes the various people—celebrities and unknowns—that he meets in his lifetime.

While he is uncensored in his discussion of people he does not like, the people in his life who truly invoked his ire receive a special roasting in his autobiography. The people who most irritated him include: the writer, Bret Harte; a series of publishers who swindle him out of profits when he is a young, naïve author; and Charles Webster, Twain's nephew-in-law, whose deceptive and irresponsible behavior at his uncle's publishing company ruins Twain's fortune.

Twain is a family man and a significant portion of his autobiography is devoted to talking about his family life. During the last decade of his life, it greatly distresses him when he loses his oldest daughter Susy, his wife Olivia, and his youngest daughter Jean.

Susy Clemens

Susy Clemens is Twain's oldest daughter. A bright, inquisitive child, Susy contemplates the meaning of life at an early age. As a child, her passionate temper often gets her into trouble in fights with her younger sister, Clara. Still, she is very honest, and when she is caught doing something wrong, she always gives herself a just punishment.

At age thirteen, Susy begins writing a frank and honest biography of her father, which is flattering in spots and less so in others. Twain adores Susy's biography, which he reproduces in his own autobiography.

While Twain, his wife, and Clara are in England after Twain's final lecture tour, they receive word that Susy—who is supposed to travel to England to meet her family—is slightly ill. Olivia and Clara take a steamer back to Hartford to be with Susy, but she dies from meningitis (a disease that causes inflammation of the brain and spinal cord) while they are in transit.

General Ulysses S. Grant

General Grant is the Union general who eventually defeats Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army, thus winning the Civil War for the North. He also serves as President of the United States from 1869 to 1877.

Twain notes that during his two weeks in the Confederate army, he was almost captured by Grant, who was then a colonel. Twain meets Grant briefly on two separate occasions. Twain's literary status earns him an invitation to give a toast on Grant's behalf. During his toast, Twain tells a slightly irreverent joke about the general, who finds it very funny. From this point on, Twain and Grant become friends.

When Twain hears that Grant is going to publish his memoirs, he visits Grant to see what kind of deal Grant is getting from his publisher. When Twain realizes that the publisher is trying to swindle Grant, Twain offers to publish Grant's book himself, offering Grant a much better deal in the process.

Grant is hesitant at first, concerned that Twain will lose money on the deal. After one of Grant's friends examines Twain's publishing operation and finds it sound, the general relents and Twain publishes the book.

Grant's book is a huge success, and nets Grant's heirs about a half-million dollars, although Grant does not live to see it. On Grant's deathbed, his last request—to die as a general and not a president—is granted by Congress, even though Congress is officially out of session.

Bret Harte

Bret Harte is one of Twain's writer friends, who becomes famous for his story "The Luck of the Roaring Camp." Twain meets Harte in San Francisco, when Harte is the private secretary of the superintendent of the United States Mint, a position with very few duties that leaves him much free time to write.

Twain says that once Harte went east, all of Harte's good qualities departed. Twain goes on at length about Harte's vanity and the injustices that Harte has visited upon others, including Twain. Harte generally lives beyond his means—especially when it comes to his fashionable clothes—at the expense of his family, whom he has abandoned. At one point, Harte deliberately encourages his son to seek out the help of one of Harte's friends, then tries to stab him in the back.

Harte secures assignments that he does not complete, such as when he receives ten thousand dollars from the Atlantic Monthly for a year's worth of writings, then produces almost nothing. He goes on a streak of borrowing money from friends and acquaintances, most of whom he never pays back.

Harte's literary fame turns sour when he deliberately antagonizes his critics, after which time they give his works bad reviews. As a rule, he generally does not line up writing work until he is desperate for money, and he seems to only be able to write under deadline pressure.

Jane Lampton

Jane Lampton is Twain's mother. She knows that Twain is a troublemaker in his youth and believes that he deserves whatever retaliation his brother Henry dishes out. Her compassion for others is so great that she defends Satan when some townspeople put her to the test to see if she will go that far. On other occasions, she intervenes on behalf of both people and animals in danger of being beaten.

Jervis Langdon

Jervis Langdon is Olivia Langdon's father. When Twain proposes to Olivia, Langdon checks out Twain's references, who do not speak well of the writer. In the end, Langdon overlooks this fact and allows the marriage. Out of concern for his daughter's welfare, however, he purchases a house in Buffalo, New York, for the new married couple.


See Olivia Langdon Clemens

Henry H. Rogers

Henry Rogers is a friend who saves Twain from many swindlers. He also negotiates with Twain's creditors to keep them from hounding Twain while he is on his lecture tour, earning back the debt incurred by the failure of Twain's publishing company, Webster and Company.

Mark Twain

See Samuel Langhorne Clemens

Charles L. Webster

Charles L. Webster is Twain's nephew-in-law, whom Twain initially hires to manage one of his investments. Twain loses forty-two thousand dollars on the investment, but does not hold Webster responsible for the loss.

Later, when Twain forms his own publishing company, he offers to put Webster in charge of it. Webster demands a large salary, which Twain thinks is very bold, since Twain himself never got paid to learn a new trade. Twain believes that Webster's initiative will make him rich, and even names the company after him.

The first book from Webster and Company, Twain's Huckleberry Finn, is a success. Although he had intended to use the company only to publish his own books, Twain does end up publishing General Ulysses S. Grant's memoir.

However, by signing a series of bad contracts that Webster's lawyer creates, Twain inadvertently gives away his decision-making power and profits to Webster. Eventually, Webster's mismanagement weakens the business. In an ironic twist, Webster places his trust into another employee, who ends up swindling Webster out of his profits. When Webster experiences problems from his increasing drug habit, Twain steps in and buys Webster's share of the business for twelve thousand dollars, although the company fails shortly thereafter.


Truth and Lies

The Autobiography of Mark Twain begins with a preface from Twain that states the "frankest and freest and privatest product of the human mind is a love letter," and that with his autobiography, he intends to be this frank and honest with his readers. The book is saturated with references to truth. However, when one compares Twain's autobiographical accounts with real-life events, they do not always match, a fact noted by many reviewers. Indeed, Twain himself admits at the beginning of the work that he does not always get his memories right. He notes he used to remember his brother Henry being burned in a fire when he was a baby. Twain notes that it was "remarkable that I should cling to the delusion for thirty years that I did remember it—for of course it never happened."

Twain himself admits on several occasions he may not be telling the truth. For example, he relates how he sold a dog that was not his so that he could collect his reward. "Now then, that is the tale. Some of it is true," he writes.

Within the narrative of Twain's life, the concept of truth features prominently. As a child, Twain was a troublemaker and lied to his mother or hid information from her so often that she did not believe him even when he was telling the truth. Twain also discusses the concept of trickery, both his own and others.

Overall, Twain seems to support the telling of white lies, but not truly dishonest acts that hurt people. When Twain hires his nephew-in-law Webster to work for him in his new publishing company, he gives Webster a good salary and names the company after him. However, Webster wants more. He swindles his uncle into signing a contract that turns all control over to him. Says Twain, "Under the preceding contracts Webster had been my paid servant; under the new one I was his slave, his absolute slave, and without salary."


Vanity is another key theme in the book. To extend the Webster example, after he swindles Twain out of his company, Webster takes a number of management actions based on his vanity that eventually sink the company. These actions include insisting on expensive offices that are larger than necessary and publishing all books that are offered directly to him, not Twain. After the huge success of the Grant book that Twain secured, Webster takes the credit for its success. "In his obscure days his hat was number six and a quarter," says Twain. "In these latter days he was not able to get his head into a barrel."

Other characters also exhibit vanity, most notably Twain himself. When one of his friends asks him if he can name the American author with the most widespread popularity, Twain notes, "I thought I could but it didn't seem to me that it would be modest to speak out, in the circumstances." Twain's friend notices Twain's silence and puts him in his place with the comment, "Save your delicacy for another time—you are not the one."

On another occasion, near the end of his life Twain receives an honorary degree from Oxford. He notes that it is long overdue and that he should have received the degree long before now, because others who are less talented than him have been receiving degrees in the meantime. Says Twain, "I have stood at the head of my guild during all that time, with none to dispute the place with me."

When it comes to discussing the vanity of others, Twain is very quick to criticize, most notably in several chapters about Bret Harte, in which Twain provides examples of Harte's vanity. When a wealthy benefactor of Harte's sends Harte's stack of IOUs back to Harte, offering to wipe Harte's debt clean as an act of friendship, Harte apparently "fired the bale back at him, accompanying it with a letter which was all afire with insulted dignity." On another occasion, Twain is with Harte in a New York hotel, getting ready to deliver a play they have written together. The theater is down the street, and Twain assumes they will walk. However, Harte, who is wearing some fancy clothes that are badly "out of repair," puts on airs for the hotel clerk and pays him a dollar (ten times the normal fee) to deliver the play for him.


The fragile quality of human life plays an important role in Twain's autobiography. True to the times he lives in, people are susceptible to many fatal and crippling illnesses, including many of Twain's family and friends.

Topics for Further Study

  • In his autobiography, Twain admits that he does not always give the correct facts about his life. Write a short biography about your own life, in which you deliberately embellish some of the details.
  • Clemens created the pseudonym Mark Twain from a term he learned while working as a riverboat pilot. Create a pseudonym for yourself that is derived from your own life experiences, then write a short essay explaining from where the name comes and how it symbolizes your personality.
  • Twain does not follow a true chronological format when describing the events of his life. Organize the major journeys of his life in chronological order, then plot them on a world map.
  • Twain bought a number of patents for inventions, and in one case even invented his own scrapbook. Research the process one takes when securing a patent, then create a sample patent for a new invention, either based on an existing product or one of your own ideas.
  • Research the reasons why the Civil War began and the main effects the North's victory had on life in the United States. Write a short essay explaining what life might be like today if the Confederate South had won the war.

Twain's view of death changes throughout his life. When he is remembering his experiences as a boy, he acts like being saved from death was a bad thing. He talks about his family doctor, claiming that he "saved my life several times. Still, he was a good man and meant well." One might suspect that Twain is being humorous here, but there are other instances of the apparent fatalism he had as a child. At one point, Twain remembers a day when he was nine years old and almost drowned in a creek. A slave woman saved him. He almost drowns several more times before he learns how to swim. Twain notes that he does not know "who the people were who interfered with the intentions of a Providence wiser than themselves," but says he still holds a grudge.

When Twain is recounting his experiences as a young man, it appears he is afraid of death. In San Francisco, after he is issued a challenge to fight in a duel, Twain is concerned that if his opponent shows up he might die as a result. "I didn't sleep any," says Twain. "I had plenty to think about." When one of Twain's friends shoots the head off a flying bird before the duel, then lies and says it was Twain's shot, the opponent refuses to duel. In this case, providence is on Twain's side: "I don't know what the bird thought about that interposition of Providence but I felt very, very comfortable with it."

As an adult, when he witnesses the deaths of many family members, he regards death as negative. "To-morrow will be the 5th of June, a day which marks the disaster of my life—the death of my wife," writes Twain. Later, in another passage about his wife's death, he laments some more, "She was my life, and she is gone; she was my riches, and I am a pauper."

Although Twain is flippant or scared about his own brushes with death, the death of his family hits him hard, and there is no mistaking his feelings about it at the end of the book. In the final chapter, which is devoted entirely to the topic of death, Twain remarks that even if he could, he would not bring back his deceased daughter: "If a word would do it, I would beg for the strength to withhold the word." Twain says that he is "content" because Jean "has been enriched with the most precious of all gifts … death."



Although Charles Neider's version of the The Autobiography of Mark Twain is organized chronologically, the material within each chapter still reflects Twain's original intent to impose no structure on the material other than that which was created by his freeform dictations. This lack of formal organization forces the reader to pay greater attention to details, since the details are not neatly packaged. The lack of formal organization also creates links between subjects that might not be there in a truly chronological autobiography, and thus provides an insight into the author's thought patterns.

For example, in the chapter where Twain first talks about his mother, he describes her extreme compassion, writing, "my mother would not have allowed a rat to be restrained of its liberty." In the next paragraph he abruptly switches gears, and talks about how, when he was a boy in Missouri, "everybody was poor but didn't know it."

What is the purpose of this abrupt switch in narrative? One imagines Twain dictating this passage, with an image of the rat his mother would try to save. It could be at this point that he starts to think about rats in general, and how rats are usually associated with poor conditions. This would provide the link to the paragraph about poverty.

In any case, analyzing the text in this manner, especially at points where Twain abruptly switches topics, helps the reader to get inside Twain's head and understand his intentions better. If all of the recollections of Twain's mother were included in one chapter and all of the recollections of his poverty were kept in a separate chapter, the book would have an entirely different feel.


Twain was known as a humorist and demonstrated a playful quality in most of his writings. This is evident throughout the book, in which he uses humorous phrases to describe situations, such as when wasps are crawling up the leg of a boy so stricken with shyness by some girls in the room that he cannot move. Twain describes the wasps as "prospecting around," and says that "one group of excursionists after another climbed up Jim's legs and resented even the slightest wince or squirm that he indulged himself with in his misery." By employing interesting words like "excursionists" in obviously unconventional ways, Twain elicits a laugh from his readers.

But Twain's humor also has a sharp edge to it when it is aimed at somebody else. He does this when he wants to vilify someone whom he feels has wronged him. For example, when explaining that Webster's business manager at the publishing company came from the same town as Webster and his lawyer, Twain says, "We got all our talents from that stud farm at Dunkirk." A stud farm is a place where quality horses are bred. By referring to the three young men who sink the business as "talents" who came from a "stud farm," Twain is suggesting just the opposite—that the men have no talent and they come from low stock.

Historical Context

One of the reasons The Autobiography of Mark Twain continues to engage readers is its detailed, first-person account of the historical events of the time. Twain lived during formative years in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when America was experiencing growing pains and defining its national identity.

It is no surprise that Twain and his brother Orion were able to find work in the newspaper industry, which experienced rapid growth in the nineteenth century. This growth was due to a number of developments, including the increased use of advertising to subsidize printing costs, an increase in the number of news correspondents using the telegraph to wire in the latest national news, and the establishment of the Associated Press. The importance of newspapers and other forms of rapid communication increased with the advent of the Civil War, when existing newspapers on both sides of the conflict promoted their cause in print.

The Civil War was the single, bloodiest fight that America has ever experienced. From 1861 to 1865, more than six hundred thousand Americans died in this war which pitted brother against brother—sometimes literally, as some families were divided in their loyalties to North and South. Although the secession of the southern states from the Union started the war, divided views over slavery caused the South to secede. The South viewed the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 as a threat to its way of life—most notably the institution of slavery, which provided the massive labor force that fueled the lucrative southern cotton trade.

The majority of casualties in the war came from disease, which thrived among the troops on both sides. Second to disease as a cause of death in the war were battlefield injuries and a lack of medical knowledge, experience, and preparation. Medicine in the nineteenth century was largely undeveloped, and medical education was not yet regulated. American physicians had, at this time, little knowledge of the cause and prevention of disease and infection.

Even in cities, away from the crude setting of the battlefront, medicine was largely guesswork and people easily succumbed to many fatal and crippling illnesses. In this autobiography, Twain gives some examples from his own experiences. His father gets caught out in a storm on a trip home and dies from pleurisy, an inflammation in the pleura due to a prolonged lung infection. Twain's wife falls on the ice when she is a teenager, and as a result is an invalid for the rest of her life. His brother, Henry, is given an overdose of morphine, which kills him.

In one of the most heart-wrenching passages of the book, Twain recalls his responsibility for the death of his first-born child, Langdon. Twain took his son out for a drive on a cold morning and forgot to check on him. "The furs fell away and exposed his bare legs," Twain recalls. He and the coachman wrap up the child again, but the effects of the cold proved fatal. As Resa Willis notes in her book, Mark and Livy, Langdon's death was "caused by diphtheria, the disease that took so many children in the nineteenth century and for which no antitoxin would be developed until 1890."

Critical Overview

To understand the critical reception of The Autobiography of Mark Twain, one must examine the context in which all of the versions were created and released, the intentions of each editor, and the debate over the works that continues today. Twain's autobiography, in the form that he intended it to be released, exists in the form of a massive, 400,000-word typescript he created in the final years of his life. The manuscript is largely composed of nonchronological, freeform dictations that Twain made to Albert Bigelow Paine, his official biographer, from 1906 until his death in 1910. During these dictations, Twain would say whatever came into his mind, mixing present and past events as he saw fit. Says E. Hudson Long in his Mark Twain Handbook,"Mark's intentions were to make his autobiography a combination of daily diary and memories from the past, a contrast he believed would add interest."

Twain assembled his dictations, along with other autobiographical writings from the past, into the typescript, which he continued to work on until his death. It was not until 1924, fourteen years after Twain's death, that Paine published a portion of the typescript as Mark Twain's Autobiography. Paine deliberately removed items from the work that he thought might be too controversial, in some cases instructed by the Twain estate to do so, but left the rest in the unconventional order of composition that Twain had intended rather than the true chronological order that most autobiographies follow. This hybrid approach led to mixed reviews. As Charles Neider notes in the introduction to his version of Twain's autobiography, most reviewers commented negatively about the lack of order, although some critics found good things to say about the writing itself and criticized Paine for leaving out some sections.

In 1940 Bernard DeVoto published his version of the autobiography, Mark Twain in Eruption, which left out all of the material from Paine's version, and only included part of the remaining manuscript. He edited his version heavily, imposing a thematic order on it that was directly contrary to Twain's intentions. He did, however, include some of the controversial items that Paine left out, which whetted critics' appetites. Atlantic Monthly critic Robert M. Gay read the book eagerly, "half expecting to find a chamber of horrors. In it, I suspected, we should at last get to the bottom of Mark Twain's tragic mystery which we have heard so much about." Unfortunately, as Gay remarked in his review, the passages did "not prove to be soul-shaking revelations."

In 1959 Neider tackled the typescript. Like DeVoto, Neider ignored Twain's original intentions and imposed his own views on how the autobiography should be organized. Neider's version included some published material from the previous versions and some new selections from the typescript. Nation critic Kenneth Rexroth reviewed Neider's version with the same mixed feelings that the other two versions had received:

What is there to say about this book? It is a more coherent collection of Mark Twain's random reminiscences than the Paine or DeVoto volumes, but it omits some of the political and social criticism that DeVoto printed and that is certainly important to an understanding of Mark Twain.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1860s: The United States engages in the Civil War, a ground battle that divides the country and claims the lives of more than six hundred thousand Americans.

    Today: Americans unite in their support of the war on international terrorism, instigated by a terrorist act on September 11, 2001, that claimed the lives of several thousand Americans. This new kind of war relies heavily on behind-the-scenes intelligence efforts, and the use of military ground forces and air strikes.

  • 1860s: America experiences an increase in leisure travel, due in large part to the expanding railroad network which triggers a decline in domestic travel by slower, steam-powered river boats.

    Today: Many Americans travel to all parts of the world for both work and pleasure. The fastest form of commercial air travel, the supersonic Concorde, can travel at more than two thousand miles per hour.

  • 1860s: James Redpath establishes the first official lecture management agency in America, capitalizing on the increase in popularity of lectures by major and minor celebrities.

    Today: Many celebrities find a wide audience for their ideas on television talk shows, and most have an agent or manager who books engagements for them.

Twentieth-first century critics look forward to the publication of Twain's complete autobiographical typescript—disorganized structure, margin notes, and all—so that they can make their own estimations about whether or not Twain's idea to publish such an unconventional autobiography was a good one. In his 1996 article, "Mark Twain and Collaborative Autobiography," Michael Kiskis argues that the time has come to stop relying on editors' interpretations and let Twain's entire version be published. Says Kiskis, "We should turn away from the seductive prospect of retelling his story by adjusting his words and return to the original materials to understand the complex process in which Clemens was engaged." Kiskis notes that "such an edition is still in the planning stages by the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley."


Ryan D. Poquette

Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette proposes a model for divining the truth in Twain's autobiography.

How does one go about reading The Autobiography of Mark Twain ? Noted by generations of critics and readers alike for its sprawling collection of experiences that lack an obvious structure, the work has also been studied with a historical microscope to determine what facts hold up under inspection.

Indeed, even while the bulk of the material was being dictated to Albert Bigelow Paine, the biographer himself had doubts as to its authenticity. As Michael Kiskis notes in his article, "Mark Twain and Collaborative Autobiography," "Paine came to believe that the material was infected by dramatization, a belief that drove a wedge between his work as biographer and Clemens's as autobiographer."

To some extent, this should have been expected, given Twain's profession. Twain was known for his "tall tales" in both his fictional works and semi-autobiographical travel works, and the tendency to embellish his life for the amusement of others was—by the time of the autobiographical dictations—instinct.

Twain may not be alone in this instinct. Speaking about autobiographies in general, Alvin P. Sanoff notes in his article "Autobiography and the Craft of Embellishment" that "scholars are now asking whether autobiographers actually bare their souls or whether their works are every bit as much a product of the imagination as a well-crafted novel."

However, this does not necessarily mean that one should read Twain's autobiography with a history book or documented biography nearby, although some readers do. Instead, a reader who wishes to understand the truth within the work should consider focusing on the particular qualities of the words themselves. Perhaps one of Twain's own quotes sums it up best. In an excerpt from a conversation to his friend, William Dean Howells, reproduced in Kaplan's book, Twain says "The remorseless truth is there, between the lines."

If reading between the lines is the trick to understanding the truth of Twain's autobiography, then there must be some formula, some focusing point, with which to view the work to find its subtext, or hidden meaning. Indeed, when one examines the situations in the book in light of their relative quality of humor, a possible formula presents itself. Specifically, Twain uses three different levels of humor in his autobiography—mild humor, vicious humor, and the total lack of humor—all of which give an indication of how truthful the account is.

When Twain uses mild humor, there is good reason to believe that he is embellishing the truth, if not manufacturing the entire story, telling the equivalent of a harmless white lie to benefit the narrative. There are many examples of mild humor in the text. In the narrative, when Twain almost takes part in a duel, he acts like he is worried and says of his opponent, "If the duel had come off he would have so filled my skin with bullet holes that it wouldn't have held my principles." This is a funny little anecdote, but the duel never happened. As Leland Krauth notes in his article "Mark Twain Fights Sam Clemens' Duel," "Clemens' challenges … were never accepted; there was no confrontation on the field of honor."

That does not mean, however, that other instances where Twain uses mild humor are totally false. For example, Kaplan notes that Twain's brother Orion does have a number of misadventures in real life, including the incident where he sneaks into the wrong house in the middle of the night and snuggles up against two old maids, whom he mistakes for his brothers. Whether the maids actually screamed or whether Orion "was out of the bed and clawing around in the dark for his clothes in a fraction of a second," readers may never know, although it is likely that Twain embellished this part somewhat for greater effect.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage (1895) is a classic Civil War novel that claims to gives a first-hand, realistic account of the war experience, which is often traumatic and without glory.
  • The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Writings (1869) is a collection of some of Bret Harte's best-known works. Harte was at the forefront of American literature in his day, and paved the way for many great authors, including Mark Twain.
  • Rudyard Kipling's Kim (1901) is the story of an orphaned Irish boy in India, who is recruited by the British Government as a spy to help keep reign over Indian soil. In his autobiography, Mark Twain says this is his favorite book.
  • Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, originally published in 1884, is considered by many to be a seminal work of American fiction. The Annotated Huckleberry Finn (2001), edited by Michael Patrick Hearn, includes the original tale, a lengthy introduction that details the book's history, the author's intentions, the critical reception, and an exhaustive collection of explanatory notes and Twain quotes that run alongside the text.
  • Mark Twain's The Complete Humorous Sketches and Tales of Mark Twain (1996), edited by Charles Neider, demonstrates why people often appreciate Twain's humor.
  • Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad; or the New Pilgrims' Progress (1869) is a humorous narrative about Twain's steamship voyage to Europe.
  • When Mark Twain's Joan of Arc was published in 1895, readers noted the striking difference in tone from the author's other works. Twain spent more than a decade researching Joan's story and developed his narrative from the point of view of Louis de Conte—using a translation of Conte's memoirs—who was with Joan from her beginning as a peasant until he served as defense counsel at her trial.
  • Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (1876) details his childhood experiences as a worker on a steamboat that traveled up and down the Mississippi River.
  • Mark Twain's Roughing It (1872) is an account of his many adventures journeying to and living in the developing American West.

However, in other portrayals of Orion, Twain does not give the full story. In his narrative, Twain discusses how he gave Orion the task of writing down an autobiography in the style that he himself was planning. He instructs Orion to "tell the straight truth in it," saying that "this had never been done," and that if Orion succeeded, "his autobiography would be a most valuable piece of literature." Apparently, in real life, Orion succeeds, for Kaplan notes that "[t]he first installments struck Sam as so 'killingly entertaining,"' that he sent them on to try to get them published. But when Twain recalls Orion's autobiography, he says, "great was my disappointment.… In it he was constantly making a hero of himself, exactly as I should have done and am doing now." In an effort to justify his own autobiographical embellishments, Twain's dictation alters the past so that he is not the only one adding embellishments.

This trend intensifies when Twain's humor turns dark and he becomes especially vicious towards others in his autobiography. On these occasions, the facts would suggest that he is crafting a lie and attributing it to a scapegoat to hide a fault of his own. The most notable examples from the book come from the discussion of Twain's relationship with his nephew-in-law Webster. From the start of his recollections about Webster, Twain fabricates the actual details. In his account, he paints Webster as a vain, uneducated, and inexperienced man who eventually swindles Twain out of his business, picks up a drug habit, and mismanages the publishing business to its ruin.

In reality, these claims are unfounded. The truth of the matter, as Kaplan notes, is that Twain completely tied himself up with the daily details for the publication of the General Grant book, which is the type of job that he hired Webster to do. "He simply could not hand over authority, and Charley's days as a publisher were numbered," says Kaplan, who notes that for years Twain ran Webster ragged with small errands, at the same time warning him not to work too hard. Largely due to this stress and the resulting health effects, Webster sold his share in the business and died an early death at the age of forty.

This is a far cry from the story that Twain tells about Webster, but it makes sense why he makes up the tale. Twain cannot admit that it is his own mismanagement that makes his book business fail, and so he demonizes Webster to try to absolve his own guilt. In Twain's version, Twain is the embattled underdog who has to deal with his nephew-inlaw's traitorous act and soldier on to regain financial solvency. Even when he does not have an audience, Twain is in such need to deny his own guilt that he maintains Webster has wronged him. Kaplan notes that until his death, Twain "held Webster responsible for every terrible thing that happened, including bankruptcy and the deaths of Susy and Livy."

Twain himself admits in the autobiography that his memory is failing, and that when he was younger, he could "remember anything, whether it happened or not." But in the case of his strong feelings toward Webster, it goes beyond remembering something incorrectly. His hatred becomes an internal reality, which manifests itself in his excessive use of vicious humor at the expense of his nephew-in-law.

On a similar note, Twain is most honest when describing tragic events that are totally devoid of humor, such as the accounts of the deaths of his daughter Susy and wife Olivia. This fact is not lost on Twain's biographer. Says Kiskis, "As Paine came to realize the conflicting approaches, he drew a distinction between the materials related to Livy and Susy as being different from the other materials."

A significant portion of Twain's autobiography is devoted to the death of his wife Olivia and two of his daughters, Susy and Jean. In each of these tellings, Twain is notably moved. "It is one of the mysteries of our nature that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunder-stroke like that and live," says Twain, when recalling his reaction to Susy's death. He goes on to say that "the intellect is stunned by the shock." For the great humorist with the noted quick wit, there are no humorous alleviations for his grief; death of a close personal loved one is the single topic that cannot be qualified with a joke.

"For the great humorist with the noted quick wit, there are no humorous alleviations for his grief; death of a close personal loved one is the single topic that cannot be qualified with a joke."

Jean's death hits him so hard that he ends the book with it. There is no mistaking his tone when he recounts the death of this daughter. Humor is still absent, and the voice is one of a man in pain: "Possibly I know now what the soldier feels like when a bullet crashes through his heart."

Given the fact that Twain makes this statement in the last chapter in his book, which was also one of the last chapters that he dictated, it might be that this is Twain at his most honest. All of his playful humor is gone, and he is merely waiting for his own death, which he views as a "gift." Indeed, Twain dies a mere four months later, one presumes from a broken heart, which even his incredibly imaginative mind—with its characteristic and sometimes falsifying sense of humor—could not repair.


Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on The Autobiography of Mark Twain, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Michael J. Kiskis

In the following essay, Kiskis examines Twain's reliance on "collaborating"—trying his work out on family and friends—in his creative process, especially in the creation of his autobiography.

Our understanding of Mark Twain's creative process continues to be obscured by the complex myth that he, his heirs (literary and legal), and his critics have suggested and reinforced. It is a myth that has been fostered by Twain's own descriptions of his work habits, descriptions that have been too quickly accepted by critics as well as Twain enthusiasts. The myth suggests that Twain avoided work, that he was not interested in the mechanics of composing beyond the accumulation of words and pages, and, perhaps most importantly, that his use of various editors (Mary Fairbanks, Olivia Langdon Clemens, William Dean Howells, Albert Bigelow Paine) was based on a basic and one-way relationship. Twain composed, and then editors excised. Despite the work that Bernard DeVoto, Henry Nash Smith, Walter Blair, James Cox, Alan Gribben, and Everett Emerson have given us, the myth persists. We are notoriously accepting of the Mark Twain persona that Samuel Clemens projected—the lazy and uninterested writer, the "jack-leg" writer who felt chained to the pen when he would much rather lounge and speculate on new business dealings. Samuel Clemens, however, the man behind the persona, promoted the image of the lazy and disinterested writer as part of his performance as Mark Twain. Clemens's often stated reliance on his imaginative "well" has become legendary. He is dismissed as incapable of disciplined thought, and his seemingly passive acceptance of editorial advice is presented as a conscious attempt to use others to support his composing process.

Recent critical work (especially that of Victor Doyno in Writing Huck Finn and Laura Skandera-Trombley in Mark Twain in the Company of Women, an examination of Clemens's reliance on the women in his circle) introduces us not to a passive and submissive Clemens but to a writer who courted intense personal and primary relationships in order to give tone and substance to his storytelling, both fiction and non-fiction. While Clemens's sensitivity to his audience has long been accepted, this new work demonstrates how Clemens remained tuned to the needs of real readers throughout his creative process and how he adjusted his prose so that it would more effectively approach reader expectations. Most importantly, it demonstrates how he understood and made constant use of collaborative relationships and how he invited a range of opinion and a chorus of voices into his creative process as he struggled to give shape to his creations. A primary critical focus on his relationships with various editors, censors, and advisors has been directed toward his fiction; however, collaboration also played a vital role in Clemens's approach to autobiography. An examination of Clemens's collaborative efforts at autobiography offers us a new and valuable insight into the creative approaches Clemens adopted early on and then reclaimed during the final years of his life. It also offers us an important insight into his reliance on a variety of "editors" and the specific roles that succeeding editors would play in extending the life of the tales and manuscripts that Clemens bundled together as his autobiography.

Clemens began to compose autobiography as early as 1870, but he did not fully engage in the process of recollecting his past until late in 1905 when he was approached by Albert Bigelow Paine who proposed a formal and authorized biography. During those thirty-five years, Clemens made brief and long-separated attempts at writing and dictating portions of autobiography which he would then set aside, feeling only an occasional impulse to return to the project but with no firm plan for an extended effort. Some of these fragments, it would appear, helped him to rehearse settings and tales for his fiction. The early manuscripts written between 1870 and 1876 conform to the conventional approach to reflective writing in which the writer attempts to build a bridge to his past by examining episodes out of his prior experience. In Clemens's case, this meant creating sketches only several paragraphs long, a form with links to his talent for short, precise vignettes like those strung together in the chapters of The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, and even The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. In these sketches, he attempts to reclaim a sense of the contrast between his present and his past. Longer autobiographical fragments—the Grant Dictations of 1885 and the dictations begun in Florence during 1904—were composed in the presence of a "shorthander" or stenographer. These later self-contained descriptions of Clemens's experiences are precursors of a form of collaboration Clemens would pursue more energetically in his autobiographical dictations of 1906-1909.

Clemens used the dictating sessions of 1885 and 1904 to record immediate ideas and impressions. James Pond, Clemens's lecture agent, worked with him on the Grant material; Isabel Lyon, recently hired to help carry some of the weight of the household, took down Clemens's 1904 Florence observations. Neither of these attempts at working with an amanuensis was Clemens's first such attempt. The very notion of working with a stenographer appears quite early. During his 1872 trip through England, Clemens wrote to Olivia: "If I could take notes of all I hear said, I should make a most interesting book—but of course these things are interminable—only a shorthand reporter could seize them." In 1873, he hired S. C. Thompson, a theological student, to accompany him to England and to keep notes and records of the trip; in 1883 he hired Roswell H. Phelps, a stenographer for the Continental Life Insurance Company of Hartford, to accompany him during his tour of the Mississippi River, although Phelps would not complete the trip. Clemens also dictated portions of The American Claimant and even toyed with the idea of dictating onto wax cylinders as a way to increase his output.

While these events demonstrate Clemens's interest in dictating as one method of composing, they hardly suggest collaboration. The early experiences with Thompson, Phelps, and Pond do not suggest any attempt to share the work of composition. They were there to take down notes and ideas and reactions, not to take an active role in composing text. In Phelps's case, Clemens used dictated material much later when he wrote Life on the Mississippi. Even Clemens's earlier—and rather quickly aborted—attempt at collaboration, a scheme to engage John Henry Riley to dispatch notes from South Africa so that Clemens could build a book on diamond mining by surrounding those notes with his own reactions and ideas, was more collaborative in spirit. Besides, Clemens certainly had neither wish nor intention to share either the composition or the credit with any other person. He shared bylines only with Charles Dudley Warner, Bret Harte, and William Dean Howells, but even then there was usually some tension between the collaborators.

"What is important here is the emphasis on performance and the way that Clemens intentionally and expertly places himself at the center of a creative process that ultimately recasts the collaborative relationship as one that … uses a silent presence to stoke his talk."

During the 1870s and 1880s, Clemens was riding the crest of his own creativity. He was thus not interested in sharing the fruits of that success. He was, however, interested in using those around him to help him sharpen his storytelling. That interest led him to collaborate with family members by reading the day's work to them in order to gauge their reaction. Historically, critical confusion over Olivia's role as reader and censor has resulted in misinterpretations of Clemens's own descriptions of those evening readings. Clemens's desire to use an audience of auditors was also behind his repeated pleas to Howells for editorial support. On one level, these are simply attempts to try his material out "on the dog," attempts to get some notion of how the work was progressing and whether he should "edit" material out. But what seemed either a game or a serious attempt at censorship, in various critical interpretations, was more likely Clemens's shrewd attempt to use a representative audience to see whether his work might have broader appeal. More specifically, Clemens used his wife and their daughters Susy, Clara, and Jean as a focus group to determine how his work would play to a wider audience. Later, he would look back at this period as among the more peaceful and creatively satisfying of his life. As the century came to a close, however, Clemens faced the loss of the support network that had sustained his work. He was geographically separated from Howells, Livy's illness took her further out of the circle of creative partners, and his daughters were maturing and looking to wean themselves from the family. Susy's death in 1896, Jean's increasingly serious epilepsy, and Clara's attempt to create her own life and singing career contributed to Clemens's physical and psychological isolation. With Livy's death in 1904, Clemens lost the creative compass that held him on course, and he began a methodical search for a new network that would sustain his creativity. He would spend the final decade of his life in a sometimes desperate attempt to recapture the muse that escaped him when the family circle was broken.

With these circumstances as background, we can better understand not only why Clemens began to show more interest in autobiography but also why he returned to dictation of his material. One of its primary attractions was the prospect of telling tales to a captive and appreciative audience. That notion began to take shape with Isabel Lyon in Florence as Clemens turned to the practice of dictating in the face of Olivia's deteriorating health. While the balance of the Florence materials is rather bland, with the exception of several nasty entries focusing on the Clemenses' landlady, it is clear that Clemens saw the work as important to his own peace of mind. Years earlier, he had retreated into work after Susy's death and produced his longest and most effective piece of autobiographical writing to date—"Ancestors." With Livy's decline, he found a similar solace in the production of dictated text. In keeping with a practice that was particularly useful as he constructed Following the Equator, he attempted to infuse the later sections of the Florence dictations with an additional power and poignancy by returning to his notebooks to offer pieces of his earlier descriptions of Florence in 1892 so as to contrast with the 1904 experience. The mixture of dictation and notebook materials shows Clemens's interest not only in his work with an amanuensis but also with the idea of placing his own past on display and of running that past head on into the present like, as he said later, "the contact of flint with steel." For a very brief period, that mixture fostered a collaboration with his own younger and happier self.

Livy's death on June 4, 1904, threw Clemens into personal and creative chaos. His family, in effect, became fractured. Clara entered a New York rest-cure where Clemens was not allowed to visit, Jean and Isabel Lyon spent a long stretch in the Berkshires, and Clemens himself arranged for new living quarters in New York. He continued to work, with "Eve's Diary" being published in 1905, "Adam's Diary" being revised, "3,000 Years Among the Microbes" and a section of the Mysterious Stranger saga being begun. The prospect of gathering a circle of admiring listeners seems to have helped convince Clemens not only of the entertainment value of being interviewed by Paine for the biography but also of the creative potential offered by dictating material to a waiting and eager stenographer as grist for an autobiography that would both extend copyright on many of his earlier works by using portions as preface material and also keep Mark Twain before the reading public. Clemens adapted his notion of collaboration to fit the moment. For the biography, Paine would be able to use the autobiography that Clemens produced; Clemens himself would be able to sit and tell his stories to his audience and recapture some of the creative energy that emanated from the family gatherings at which he formerly read the day's work. Clemens would be free to weave a complicated quilt that would map his mind's wandering. He would survey his memories, introduce contemporary issues, even drop whole newspaper articles, letters, essays, and fiction into the massive collection. As early as March, 1906, he concocted an idea of an autobiography that would require an entire state to contain its volumes. The captive audience of Paine, Lyon, and Josephine Hobby, the first of several stenographers employed by Clemens, seemed perfectly to aid Clemens as he worked to recapture the creative momentum that was his while his family circle had been intact.

Paine describes the dictating sessions as taking on the aspect of performance: "We were watching one of the great literary creators of his time in the very process of his architecture. We constituted about the most select audience in the world enjoying what was, likely enough, its most remarkable entertainment." He records Clemens's description of his return to dictating: "'With shorthand dictation one can talk as if he were at his own dinner-table—always a most inspiring place. I expect to dictate all the rest of my life, if you good people are willing to come and listen to it."' Of course, they kept coming. The constellation of agendas guaranteed that each member of the little band preserved his or her own vested interest in continuing the sessions. Paine and Lyon, the two minor players in the intimate audience, were each marrying their futures to a connection with Clemens. Paine's interests lay in a projected biography, which made it imperative that he forge both professional and personal relationships with Clemens in order to assure continued access to source materials. As the biographical process continued, Paine's interest focussed on maintaining the public persona, the public icon that Clemens had established for Mark Twain. On the other hand, Lyon's mixture of literary ambition—she was to be an editor of Clemens's correspondence—and personal interest—her personal affection for Clemens grew deeper as time passed—seem directed toward creating a safe environment for the aging writer. At the center of all the creative and emotional attention, Clemens immediately sensed the value of recording the re-creation of his past.

As the dictations moved ahead, they became the locus for the self-mythologizing at which Clemens was now so expert. Paine found out the hard way that Clemens was using the dictations both to review and to re-create his past. At times, Paine discovered, Clemens became caught in the web of creative memory:

It was not for several weeks that I began to realize that those marvelous reminiscences bore only an atmospheric relation to history; that they were aspects of biography rather than its veritable narrative, and built largely—sometimes wholly—from an imagination that, with age, had dominated memory, creating details, even reversing them, yet with a perfect sincerity of purpose on the part of the narrator to set down the literal and unvarnished truth … His gift of dramatization had been exercised too long to be discarded now.

Paine came to believe that the material was infected by dramatization, a belief that drove a wedge between his work as a biographer and Clemens's as autobiographer, between the work of historian and storyteller. Clemens, it seemed, was using the contrasting approaches to break free from the traditional demands of verisimilitude placed on biography in order to move back to the by-now-familiar, perhaps inevitable, blending of life and fiction that had been the foundation for his half-century of storytelling. As Paine came to realize the conflicting approaches, he drew a distinction between the materials related to Livy and Susy as being different from the other materials.

The things he told of Mrs. Clemens and of Susy were true—marvelously and beautifully true, in spirit and in aspect—and the actual detail of these mattered little in such a record. The rest was history only as Roughing It is history, or the Tramp Abroad ; that is to say, it was fictional history, with fact as a starting-point.

This is, most likely, a distinction driven by Paine's own agenda to assure his readers of the quality and consistency of Clemens's approach to the autobiography. It certainly points to a symbiotic relationship between his and Clemens's work which makes them individual halves that need to be brought together to appreciate the life whole and entire. Paine's focus on truth "in spirit and in aspect," in other words truth based on the consistency of the teller's voice and tone, is closely allied to Clemens's concept of a truth created both by words and the impression left for the reader to find "between the lines," one which leaves at issue the possibility of verifiable truth outside the reader/writer relationship. On a more practical level, it not only sets up the biography as a necessary historical check to Clemens's creative wanderings but also lays the early groundwork for the two-volume autobiography that Paine would publish in 1924.

What is important here is the emphasis on performance and the way that Clemens intentionally and expertly places himself at the center of a creative process that ultimately recasts the collaborative relationship as one that—unlike his earlier episodes that begged for clear advice or at least clear vocal reaction from his family—uses a silent presence to stoke his talk. He is not looking for editorial advice but, rather, for appreciative listeners who will hang on his every word. In fact, what appear to be unrehearsed comments and reactions are often best related to Clemens's rehearsed stage appearances. Contrary to the evidence of Clemens's and even Paine's descriptions of the dictating sessions, the formal sessions were not the only venue for Clemens's use of audience to ignite his own creativity. Clemens, in fact, augmented the emotive power of the dictating sessions by frequent rehearsals with Isabel Lyon during the morning prior to the arrival of the stenographer and the beginning of the formal dictating session. Increasingly, Clemens needed an audience—even an audience of one—to prompt, but not interrupt, his talk. The audience—the listeners to his talk rather than the readers of his writing or the commentators on his writing—aided in the production of text. It was an effective, if somewhat unusual, use of his relatively new immediate social circle.

This immediate audience, however, was not only a boon to Clemens's work, enabling him to excavate stories and to amass text. It was also one of the primary influences on Clemens's approach to storytelling itself. That small audience, closed and comfortable and congenial, for the most part adoring, lent an element of informality to the enterprise, even though that informality did not extend to the possibility of their interrupting his monologue or diverting his dictation toward conversational give and take. Clemens's analogy to the dinner table is key to our understanding of how he played off his loyal listeners not only because it places him at center stage but also because of the subtle suggestion that they are guests who may or may not be invited again. Still later, Clemens's habit of dictating from his bed, in effect a revision of his practice of welcoming visiting reporters to conduct their interviews while he lounged comfortably in bed, suggested an atmosphere steeped in confidence, safety, and confidentiality. In fact, that atmosphere seems another revision of yet another of Clemens's storytelling experiences, a revised version of Clemens's own memories of the storytelling that echoed in the cabin at Angel's Camp—or around the real and metaphorical camp fires of the west—or within frontier kitchens and slave quarters. Each locus of storytelling enhances the potential for a variety of tales and emphasizes the creation of a community defined and restricted, and yet somehow inviting and welcoming, by shared stories. The mixed atmosphere allowed Clemens to offer a full range of tales and observations—some of which he would eventually hold back from publication because he felt that his comfort had allowed him to range far from the content and tone that would make for proper reading. Some of these, he would announce, were being held back in order to whet public appetite, as for example when, during his first six months of work, Clemens gave his agents instructions to withhold the material generated during twenty-six of the seventy-eight dictating sessions. This entire series of tales and recollections re-connected him to the base-line value of talk itself.

As he warmed to the return to oral storytelling, Clemens used his tales to introduce a variety of voices, not only those of actual people he had known but those he himself invented, as he orchestrated the autobiography. His voices are many, and they are complex. Unlike the rather simple juxtaposition of present and past that Clemens used in "Early Years in Florida, Missouri" or in the Florence dictations, the dictations of 1906-1909 present a broader and more complex picture of Clemens as he approaches the tales of his own past from the perspective of seventy years and a full experience with life and death, success and disappointment at his disposal. He adjusts his own voice as he moves among the tales: he is calm and reflective when he speaks of Susy and Livy; angry and defiant when he blasts his various editors; uncompromising when he issues judgments on politicians and contemporary political scandals; shrill when he addresses the practices of an unjust deity; remorseful as he considers his own role in the financial problems that haunted his family.

Of the voices that Clemens adopted, and perhaps the most useful in establishing a relation between him and his audience (both immediate and future), was his guise as a dead man. He announced that he would play this role as early as 1904:

In this Autobiography I shall keep in mind the fact that I am speaking from the grave. I am literally speaking from the grave, because I shall be dead when the book is issued from the press.

This idea of grave speech (perhaps a genre unto itself) regulated Clemens's approach to the dictations. It is one of the primary motifs that run through the typescripts. The pose—itself a mixture of indifferent, disconnected voices—gave Clemens the opportunity to integrate his present and future audiences and to use this composite to gauge his success at creating a serious and effective story. As he wove what he hoped would eventually become a tale renowned for its truthfulness (whether that truth came out directly in his words or indirectly in the impressions that would be left to be discovered between the lines), he was aided by both his actual and imagined audience as he drew a shade of intimacy around these confidantes who were sharing the wanderings and workings of his mind. It is, of course, one more instance of Clemens collaborating with silent listeners to tease out what he felt were his most private thoughts.

Each day found Clemens ready. He would often slide into new topics in order to explore a particularly nagging question or issue. This mixture does not easily allow for easy characterization. In fact, the broad expanse of the dictations in raw form is intimidating for any reader, although their length is not as daunting as the shifts among topics. For example, from the initial burst on January 6, 1906, that begins in his thirtieth year and focuses on his Nevada experiences, Clemens detours into contemporary events. The look at his present interests keeps him solidly interested until January 19, when he returns to the topic of his experiences in Nevada. The loudest voice in this series may be that of the tour guide who is pleased to meander along wherever the paths he opens might lead. At one point, Clemens claims, "In this autobiography it my purpose to wander whenever I please and come back when I am ready."

That self-assured and relaxed voice is at the heart of the dictations. It leads us through a series of day-long and month-long episodes that have their own particular focus. Still, only when reading the full collection of materials does a reader come away with a sense of the intellectual territory that Clemens was attempting to map. The final scheme is best described as a collection of linked tales. Clemens's survey extends from a host of dictations in February, 1906, that deal broadly with family concerns through a series of commentaries devoted to his career, accounts that speed through April and May and June of 1906 and on into a brief series devoted to the relationship between man and God. The collection of topics and themes continues through 1907 and 1908 as Clemens offers his readers a tour not only through the events of his life but of the very process of storytelling itself. As the dictations move ahead, in fact, it is quite reasonable to see the broad sweep as an extended experiment in practical storytelling rather than as a deep analysis of a life. Throughout the dictations, we never lose sight of the ever-present audience. Neither does Clemens.

But Clemens could not sustain the full weight of the dictations himself: not even his powerful and compelling voice would support the structure he was attempting to build. And he knew it. One way to turn away from a dependence on his solitary voice was to import tales from other sources. Clemens's sensitivity to the voice in his fiction—a voice like that which resonates through Huckleberry Finn, Hank Morgan, Roxana, and Mark Twain—sent him off to scour the autobiographical materials he had accumulated as well as his own journals and notebooks. More than that, however, it pushed him to search other (and external) sources: from newspaper accounts to letters, from the morning's post to the biography of him that Susy wrote when she was thirteen years old, to the journals that Ralph Ashcroft kept during the 1907 visit to England. Clemens used all of these materials: he would carefully and scrupulously juxtapose their stories with a flurry of his own commentaries and observations. Newspaper clippings appear throughout the dictations and provide Clemens with grist for his disillusionment with American politics and policy (he being particularly fond of blasting Theodore Roosevelt). In later dictations, he turns his attention to tales he finds in letters that he receives. Susy's biography appears in twenty-six of the dictations that Clemens completed during 1906; his responses to her writing formed the most effective and most emotional recurring thread within the first year's dictalions. Ralph Ashcroft's notes begin to appear in August, 1907, and play an important supporting role in the series of dictations during July, August, September, and October, 1907, that describe Clemens's trip to Oxford. During 1908, Clemens incorporates letters and writing samples from Dorothy Quick, the model for his aquarium of Angel Fish, and follows his established pattern of excerpt followed by his own commentary.

My main point, however, is not merely the specific trajectories of Clemens's interest but rather certain patterns of dependence that Clemens establishes early in the dictating process. At its most basic, the need for external aids was a part of his career as a writer: a host of his books from The Innocents Abroad to Roughing It to Life on the Mississippi to Following the Equator relied heavily on gathered materials. With the turn to autobiography, however, his reliance on notebooks, journals, and correspondence, as well as on the physical presence of a select audience, became even more profound. His need to identify, include, and expand on external sources and influences increased as he dove into the final series of dictations. In fact, the use of bits and pieces of external materials—from clippings to full literary works—acted as a stimulant. The chorus, perhaps the chaos, of voices helped Clemens adjust the tone and vibration of his commentary. He could act as a foil for the honest and innocent and cutting observations of his children; he could adopt the swagger of celebrity to intimidate any number of literary or business adversaries. The external voices could move him to deep sentiment or mild amusement or spitting anger. At its most mundane, his collection of manuscripts simply gave him something to talk about when his creative well was low. At its most inspired, it energized his attempt to escape the constraints of time.

All of this collecting and excerpting and commenting is supplementary to Clemens's well-established dependence upon his small and captive audience. He uses both to enhance the creative process, a process that he seems genuinely incapable of engaging without the support of these collaborators. Of course, the primary voice and perspective throughout is Clemens's; however, he clearly understands and makes allowances for the difficulty of the task he has set for himself. By the time Clemens began the final series of dictations in 1906, he had moved away from writing books, except for the rare exceptions of Adam's Diary (1904), What is Man? (published in 1906 but written in 1898), Christian Science (1907) and "Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" (1908), which were not particularly successful either financially or artistically. The dictations—a project that he originally envisioned to require some 600,000 words—was far beyond any project he had ever attempted during his prime. His ability to begin and complete the project was assured by his ability to depend so completely on collaboration.

The collaborative work on Clemens's autobiography, however, did not end with his final scratch of pen on paper for his description of Jean Clemens's death on December 24, 1909, or with his own death on April 10, 1910. Clemens did plan and oversee the publication of a portion of his autobiographical manuscripts in the North American Review of 1906-1907. Subsequently, his materials have been presented to the public in several competing versions. The competition to define Clemens's autobiography began in 1924 when Albert Bigelow Paine published his two-volume Mark Twain's Autobiography. Paine offered both written and dictated material and arranged the pieces in the order of composition, a plan that Clemens would have approved. Unfortunately, Paine not only presented a mere handful of dictations, material that extends from January through April, 1906, but also edited sections of the pre-1906 manuscripts that would seem to taint Clemens's status as an American icon. A radically different version was published by Bernard DeVoto as Mark Twain in Eruption in 1940. While including material that was not part of Paine's edition, DeVoto arranges the material in thematic cluster—a useful compilation but one that altered Clemens's own scheme. Charles Neider's revised version The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959) takes the autobiographical manuscripts and fashions them into a conventional cradle-to-grave chronology, also violating Clemens's instructions. Clemens's own version of his autobiography that he published as "Chapters from My Autobiography" in the North American Review were issued as a single text in 1990 as Mark Twain's Own Autobiography: The Chapters from the "North American Review." Each edition is, in fact, a collaborative work between Clemens's text—if not Clemens himself—and an individual editor. No version presents the whole of the autobiographical manuscripts; such an edition is still in the planning stages by the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley.

All of this has about it a bit of the child's game "telephone." It is a simple game, but it presents us with an analogy that helps to explain the difficulty that is part of any exploration of Clemens's autobiographical work. To play this game, children establish a sequence, e.g., a line or a circle. The first child begins by whispering a sentence to the next in line. That child whispers what he or she has heard to the next. And so on. And so on. The last child in line announces the sentence to the group after it has made the rounds. Invariably, by the time the last child speaks, the simple sentence has been transformed: "The fox ran to the tree ahead of the dogs" becomes "The dog rested his head on the box." In Clemens's version of the game, he plays the role of several children. His first version of a tale is rehearsed before the arrival of stenographer and biographer, the dictation is recorded, Clemens edits the typescript, the tale is redone. Then editors come along and choose, edit, and rearrange the material. While individual episodes may remain intact, the whole of the autobiography may be distorted as editors place their own stamp upon and infuse their own voice into the text; voice, after all, is affected by the order and arrangement of material which often helps to set the tone for a work. Paine, DeVoto, and Neider imposed their ideas upon the materials that Clemens composed and arranged. Each offered his version of what he thought was the appropriate form for the autobiography; each started with Clemens's text but then moved quite far afield. The line that runs from Clemens through Neider is very much a game of "telephone."

Ultimately, it is important to place Clemens back at the center of his creative process and reinforce his voice as the authoritative voice. The collaborative work that remains should now focus on expanding our understanding of Clemens's creative and autobiographical process. Examining the public text of Clemens's life is one way to illuminate his thinking about autobiography; examining the public text against the original materials sheds even more light on Clemens's creative choices as well as on his abilities, both strong and weak, to consider audience. We should turn away from the seductive prospect of retelling his story by adjusting his words and return to the original materials to understand the complex process in which Clemens was engaged. That approach to collaboration holds considerable scholarly and intellectual promise.

For Clemens, collaboration became a way to meet a personal and creative need. Companionship and human connection were central to the entire process of his autobiographical dictations. Dictating became a social activity, a way to keep people with him, a way to recall the intimacy of evenings surrounded by family. The very act of talking out his story brought him back to the most basic of his experiences—oral storytelling and the sharing of tales in comfortably domestic surroundings. It also brought the potential for connecting to a readership in posterity that would assure his reputation and standing as an author. It was a way to bring order and constancy to his long and often troubled life.

In the end, the complexity of the dictations suggests that Clemens actively sought order as he moved ahead with the project; the presence of a physical audience made it more likely that he would contain his wanderlust and control bundles of tales by staying within admittedly loose chronological and thematic sequences. The collaboration introduced a structure, at times a discipline. One result is that Clemens is at once navigator and guide, architect and engineer. He steers the story along the current, and he ties up at a network of interconnecting lattices. Yet neither drift nor design offers a single strand that runs from end to end. Stories connect at well-timed junctures and lead both writer and audience to an insight into the writer's process and personality with each new turn and dip. Clemens aims at painting the full portrait using an effective blend of language and silence. The silence of quiet listeners as well as the silence that inhabits the space between the lines of story becomes an effective collaborator as Clemens creates his life. Returning to this basic tale—and to the context in which that tale was composed—will allow us to look behind the myth of Mark Twain, and it will free the original tale from the editorial round-robin that has so confused our image of Clemens.


Michael J. Kiskis, "Mark Twain and Collaborative Autobiography," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, Fall 1996, pp. 27-40.


Gay, Robert M., "The Two Mark Twains," in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 166, December 1940, pp. 724-26.

Kaplan, Justin, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography, Simon & Schuster, 1983, pp. 233-34, 272, 292, 378.

Kiskis, Michael, "Mark Twain and the Collaborative Autobiography," in Studies in the Literary Imagination, Vol. 29, Fall 1996, pp. 27-40.

Krauth, Leland, "Mark Twain Fights Sam Clemens' Duel," in Mississippi Quarterly, Vol. 33, Spring 1980, pp. 144-53.

Long, E. Hudson, Mark Twain Handbook, Hendricks House, 1957, p. 23.

Neider, Charles, "Introduction," in The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Perennial Classics, 1959, pp. ix—xxviii.

Rexroth, Kenneth, "Humor in a Tough Age," in Nation, Vol. 188, March 7, 1959, pp. 211-13.

Sanoff, Alvin P., "Autobiography and the Craft of Embellishment," in U.S. News and World Report, Vol. 107, No. 16, October 23, 1989, p. 64.

Willis, Resa, Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who (Almost) Tamed Him, TV Books Inc., 2000, p. 73.

Further Reading

Budd, Louis J., Critical Essays on Mark Twain, 1867-1910, G. K. Hall & Co., 1982.

This collection features a number of the key criticisms of Twain's works during his lifetime.

Davis, David Brion, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture, Oxford University Press, 1988.

This classic, Pulitzer Prize—winning study examines slavery from historical and sociological perspectives.

DeVoto, Bernard, Mark Twain's America, The Riverside Press, 1951.

This informative book, by the editor of the second version of Twain's autobiography, discusses Twain within the context of the times in which he lived, and answers some of the critical attacks on Twain.

Gandy, Joan W., and Thomas H. Gandy, The Mississippi Steamboat Era in Historic Photographs: Natchez to New Orleans 1870-1920, Dover Publications, 1989.

This book chronicles the culture of steamboats through photos and essays from the Civil War until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Meinig, D. W., The Shaping of America: A Geographical Perspective on 500 Years of History, Vol. 3, Transcontinental America, 1850-1915, Yale University Press, 2000.

This book contains a detailed account about the country's geographical development from the mid-nineteenth century until the beginning of World War I.

Powers, Ron, Dangerous Water: A Biography of the Boy Who Became Mark Twain, Basic Books, 1999.

This biography by a fellow Missouri native discusses the real-life Clemens in context with the Twain pseudonym and icon, which the author says helped launch Twain as the first American media superstar.

Turner, Frederick Jackson, The Frontier in American History, Dover Publications, 1996.

Originally published in 1920, this classic book on the American frontier explains how and why the United States became the country that it is.