The Autobiography of Mark Twain
is a memoir by the legendary American author Mark Twain. Dictated to biographer Albert Paine from 1906 to 1910, the year of Twain’s death, the book contains lengthy reminiscences and commentary on the author’s life, work, and the society in which he lived. Although Twain insisted that the book not be published until a hundred years after his death, Paine only waited fourteen years, publishing it in 1924.
This extensive book is divided into 79 chapters, plus a Preface in which Twain addresses readers as “speaking [to them] from the grave.” Chapters 1 through 17 cover Twain’s life from his birth in 1835 until his father’s death in 1847. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in the small town of Florida, Missouri, Twain is the sixth of seven children belonging to John and Jane Clemens. Each year, he stays for a few months on a farm owned by his family. Although he befriends the slaves on the farm, Twain is constantly reminded during his childhood of the stark differences in social stature between the races in America. As for Twain’s social stature, despite the fact that his family is of modest means, the author is aware of his noble ancestry, counting among his distant relations one Geoffrey Clement, a seventeenth-century English lord who participated in Charles I’s execution during the English Civil War.
Twain goes on to describe his compassionate mother and his hapless father, who buys 100,000 acres of worthless farmland in Tennessee. He also characterizes his warm relationship with his brother Orion who is ten years his senior. Finally, Twain discusses some of his boyhood friends along with various young adult pranks, including the time he pretended to be entranced by a local hypnotist in order to mock the performer onstage.
In Chapters 18 through 28, Twain’s family descends even deeper into poverty in the wake of his father’s death at the age of forty-eight from pleurisy and pneumonia. Twain holds a number of jobs over the next few years to help support the family, working as a printer’s apprentice and later at Orion’s newspaper. After an aborted trip to South America, Twain works on a riverboat on the Mississippi River. He ends up in Louisiana where he joins the Confederate Army but abandons his post within two weeks.
After a string of failed business enterprises, Orion receives a government secretary job in the Nevada Territory. Twain jumps at the chance to join him out West where he makes a living as a writer for the Virginia City Enterprise
. Twain shares an anecdote wherein he steps in to fight a duel on behalf of his editor. Though Twain fully intends to carry out the duel, his opponent backs out after Twain’s colleagues spread an untrue rumor about the author’s formidable skill as a marksman. After moving to San Francisco, Twain gets his first taste of international travel when he is sent to the Sandwich Islands on assignment to cover a boat accident.
Chapters 29 through 35 detail more of Twain’s world travels, which would provide the material for his first major hit, The Innocents Abroad
. Despite the fact that the book is a huge success, Twain’s inexperience in the publishing industry results in him losing most of the royalties.
In Chapters 36 through 42, Twain courts and marries Olivia Langdon, the daughter of a wealthy coal businessman who suffered health problems throughout her life. After the death of a son in childhood, Langdon gives birth to Susy, an exceedingly intelligent and precocious girl who, among other accomplishments, writes a biography of her father at the age of thirteen.
Chapters 43 through 52 describe Twain’s growing reputation and literary successes, also establishing a pattern in Twain’s life of creating a lot of wealth for other people but receiving little of it himself. For example, his ghostwritten memoirs of General Ulysses S. Grant would go on to earn the future president’s heirs a half a million dollars. And despite putting his nephew-in-law in charge of the publication of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
and keeping the contracts in the family, the nephew cheats Twain out of royalties, spending the money before Twain can reclaim it.
Chapters 53 through 60 are more introspective, as Twain considers how his habitual laziness has resulted in countless unfinished manuscripts. He also discusses his favorite writer, Rudyard Kipling.
In Chapters 61 through 64, Twain criticizes his colleague and former friend, writer Bret Harte, for abandoning his family and leaving creditors in the lurch. However, perhaps owing to Twain’s own laziness, the author forgives Harte for simply indulging in his own imperfect nature as a human being.
In Chapters 54 through 71, Twain discusses the tragic deaths of both his daughter and his wife, the former from meningitis and the latter from the immune disease that plagued her over the course of her entire life.
In Chapters 72 through 78, Twain laments the state of literature in Europe, though he does reserve praise for some English writers.
In the final chapter, Twain looks back on all the women in his life who have died: Olivia, Susy, and now his daughter Jean from an epileptic seizure. Twain laments that he has outlived all these people and looks forward to death as a “gift.”