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It’s Mark Twain vs. the World in the final volume of his complete ‘Autobiography’

Despite his international fame as an author and lecturer, Mark Twain visited Buffalo for the last time as a broken man. It was mid-July 1895. Twain was in his 60th year, hobbled by a painful carbuncle and on the verge of voluntary bankruptcy. The New York City press had skewered him for having a child’s understanding of money when he faced his creditors in a court hearing.

However, Buffalo was the departure point for a yearlong worldwide lecture tour that helped restore his fortune. By 1898 he had paid his debts, estimated at over $200,000, or around $5 million today.

Volume 3 of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain” demonstrates that even as a well-off literary lion a decade later, Twain never shook the specter of fiscal insecurity. These dictations from March 1907 to December 1909, just five months before his death, are sprinkled with serious worries about investments and an obsession with recouping royalty fees. At one point in March 1907, Twain second-guesses the judgment of Henry H. Rogers, the Standard Oil executive who had engineered Twain’s exhumation from a landslide of debt. In his autobiography, Twain accuses Rogers of being too conservative in managing his copper stock.

Twain wants to trust his own instinct, to sell the stock, instead of listening to Rogers. This from a man who foolishly sank over $200,000 into an incredibly useless invention, the Paige typesetting machine.

Even in old age, Twain’s flawed business mind was still intrigued by word of a new wireless telephone. Luckily, he reeled himself back in, suspecting that the stock share offerings were nothing but “fishing for widows and orphans, and the clergy.”

The drumbeat of financial paranoia reverberates through this third volume of Twain’s autobiography. In August 1907 he laments that the American Plasmon Company, which produced a skim milk derivative, had swindled him out of tens of thousands of dollars. So he sues them. In fact, the book is rife with examples of Twain at his litigious worst: over royalties owed for stage productions of novels; for money not paid by the publisher of his earlier works; against his late-life companion, Isabel V. Lyon, and her husband for malfeasance.

Often Twain fumes at well-known contemporaries, which may explain why he decreed that his authorized autobiography not appear until 100 years after his death. The first volume, published in 2010 and weighing in at 736 pages, covered his dictations up to 1905. It was a New York Times best-seller, selling more than half a million copies. Volume 2, released in 2013 at a mere 733 pages, covered Twain’s autobiographical dictations from 1906 to February 1907. This final installment wins the prize with 792 pages of dictations and footnotes.

In Volume 3, Twain attacks British novelist Marie Corelli as “fat and shapeless” with a “gross animal face.” He dismisses Whitelaw Reid, U.S. ambassador to England, as a man “disliked by many, liked by a few, envied by a multitude, and admired by nobody.” Twain has harsh words, too, for the widow of his friend Thomas Bailey Aldrich. He calls Lilian Aldrich “a strange and vanity-devoured, detestable woman.”

His favorite target is the virile president Theodore Roosevelt.

He raps Teddy for big-game hunting at a California camp, which is akin to “slaughtering helpless bears” in a zoo. Twain employs one of his sharpest comic tools, climactic arrangement, to poke fun at macho Teddy’s hunting retinue, consisting of a “multitude of dogs and hunters, and equerries, and chamberlains in waiting, and sutlers, and cooks, and scullions, and Rough Riders, and infantry and artillery.” When the nation celebrates Roosevelt’s 50th birthday, Twain claims the president is “still only 14 years old after half a century.”

Twain is fond of some celebrities. He speaks well of John Hay, George Bernard Shaw, Andrew Carnegie and the Rockefellers. And he notes the long list of friends and relatives who are dying before his eyes, among them the former president Grover Cleveland (“the greatest and purest American citizen”), whom he had met in Buffalo in 1870.

In an ironic twist with a Western New York connection, Twain rails in 1908 against Tammany Hall political corruption and its editorial control of newspapers. He points to William J. “Fingy” Conners as one of the four most dangerous, powerful and crooked Democrats in the state. By the mid-1920s, Conners, who started out as a laborer on Buffalo’s docks, owned the Buffalo Courier-Express, whose forerunner Twain also co-owned from 1869 to 1871.

There are uncomfortable references throughout the autobiography to Twain’s “Angelfish,” the group of girls ages 10-16 with whom he played cards, swam and took carriage rides, usually with their mothers present, in his last years. Starting at the age of 72, Twain met the girls, whom he collected like “pets,” on voyages to and from England, on vacations to Bermuda, and in New York City. Joyce Carol Oates and John Cooley have written engaging fictional and nonfiction accounts of these relationships.

However, the autobiography offers plenty of entertaining moments. Twain remembers banquets as “probably the most fatiguing thing in the world except ditch-digging.” He exaggerates their tedium as lasting seven hours, and including as many as 16 toasts, countless speeches and 14-course dinners. As an honored guest at one such insufferable meal at London’s Garrick Club in 1907, Twain listened to Anthony Trollope and Joaquin Miller talking chaotically at the same time.

Relying on his visits to Niagara Falls in 1869 and 1884 for metaphor, Twain describes Trollope as “pouring forth a smooth and limpid and sparkling stream of faultless English, and Joaquin discharging into it his muddy and tumultuous mountain torrent, and – Well, there was never anything just like it except the Whirlpool Rapids under Niagara Falls.”

That wild dinner was part of his summer 1907 trip to receive an honorary doctorate at Oxford University. He shook hands with the king and called his four weeks in England “the delightfulest of my life.”

Twain’s intellectual and physical stamina are impressive. In 1908 alone he exhausted three or four stenographers. The four years of his dictations, taken down in shorthand, ended up as 5,000 pages of typescript, or a pile of paper 10 file feet high.

His social energy and output were also unflagging. In 1908, at the age of 72, he partied one night in New York City until 4:30 a.m., grabbed two hours of sleep and ate breakfast at 8, “refreshed and ready for more activities.”

Twain’s lust for life and his dictations finally hit a wall when he watched his beloved daughter Jean die on Christmas Eve 1909. He was emotionally wiped out, much like the financial ruin earlier in his career: “In her loss I am almost bankrupt.” For the remaining five months of his life, there are no more dictations. His autobiography ends.

Volume 3 of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain” also publishes for the first time a gossipy, distorted, slanderous letter, taking up over 100 pages of the book, written by Twain in his last few months. Called “The Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript,” it accuses his secretary, Isabel Lyon, of being a thief and heavy drinker, and her husband, Ralph Ashcroft, a swindler. Laura Skandera Trombley’s “Mark Twain’s Other Woman” provides a more accurate version.

This autobiography is not necessarily leisure reading. Garrison Keillor blasted Volume 1 as “a ragbag of scraps” more appropriate for scholars. But one reader’s scraps are another reader’s morsels. And the abundant morsels here give us a glimpse into the big human heart of our great American author who seems to grow more popular with every passing year.

Thomas J. Reigstad is an emeritus professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State and author of “Scribblin’ for a Livin’: Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo” (Prometheus 2013).


Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3: The Complete and Authoritative Edition

By Mark Twain

Edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith

University of California Press

792 pages, $45