"My parents removed to Missouri in the early thirties; I do not remember
just when, for I was not born then, and cared nothing for such things."
This would be a hilarious beginning to an autobiography, but it actually
occurs smack in the middle of
Chapters from My Autobiography, which is a randomly ordered
assortment of anecdotes dictated by Twain as the mood struck him.
They were typed up by secretaries and serialized in the North American
Review. It is great stuff, very funny, and focused primarily on the
mundane — there are only a few bits about rubbing shoulders with
big names (one that comes up, oddly enough, is Lewis Carroll) and lots of
"kids say the darnedest things" moments. Fortunately, Mark Twain proves
significantly more bearable than Bil Keane in his selection of such.
These chapters don't really add up to anything, nor were they intended
to; Twain had official biographers who were already attached to his
household and preparing to write the official start-to-finish story of
his life. I got the sense that, to Twain, working on Chapters
wasn't about product so much as process — as he points out, he
has survived nearly everyone he talks about: his son, his favorite
daughter, his wife, his siblings, his friends... like Allen Mockery,
Twain is writing primarily in order to spend a few last moments with
the people he has loved who are gone now.
One interesting aspect of Chapters is that though the book is
mainly focused on family life, practical jokes, memorable games of pool,
that sort of thing, Twain doesn't attempt to cast himself as an everyman:
he is not at all reticent about drawing attention to his role late in
life as possibly the most famous man in the world. He also more than
once makes plain that he has no reluctance in accepting the mantle of
America's Greatest Writer Ever, and that it concurs with his own
opinion. This is pretty much the only noteworthy thing about his
book Is Shakespeare Dead?, a long essay arguing that William
Shakespeare never wrote a play and that the author of Hamlet and
the rest was probably Francis Bacon. While he mostly just rehashes
others' arguments, the one original bit he adds is interesting: in effect,
he says, I'm America's greatest writer ever, and I'm a huge celebrity.
William Shakespeare of Stratford wasn't a huge celebrity, so therefore
he couldn't have written the plays that were clearly penned by Britain's
greatest writer ever.
Paired with this trifle to form the volume
1601, and Is Shakespeare Dead? is a tiny story called
"Conversation, as it was by the Social Fireside, in the time of the
Tudors," which has to be by far the weirdest thing Twain ever wrote. I
could describe it, but a scan of a sample paragraph says it all:
W, as the kids say, tf. "1601," as it has come to be called, is eleven
pages of faux-Elizabethan ribaldry. I should have figured something was
up when I saw that Erica Jong had written the introduction. Why on earth
would Mark Twain write something like this? "1601" was penned at the
height of Twain's powers, written in tandem with Adventures of
Huckleberry Finn, so it's neither a piece of juvenalia nor something
he'd banged out in his senility. If he'd just wanted to write some off-color
dialogue, why not set it on a ship or at a mining camp or some such? Why the
court of Queen Elizabeth? It can't be that he was trying to disguise his
authorship, as he only intended to circulate "1601" among a small circle of
friends. Clearly there is more going on here than fart jokes.
(Incidentally, "1601" may contain the first funny fart joke I have ever
encountered. The humor springs not from the farting, but from the
indignant response of the narrator, who fumes, "God damn this wyndy
ruffian&all his breed." Even in ancient dialect, the man had a way
with a phrase.)
It has been hypothesized that "1601" was an outgrowth of all the stuff
from the sixteenth century and thereabouts that Twain had read in
researching The Prince and the Pauper — he'd encountered
material not altogether dissimilar from "1601" and couldn't help but
write a parody. I wonder: parody, or homage? The afterword suggests
that Twain was quite taken by just how frank people were about shitting
and fucking and such back in the Early Modern eras. A moment ago I asked
why this story wasn't set at one of the places Twain wrote about so often,
where he made clear that rough speech was ubiquitous? Because Twain never
actually transcribed any of the cursing he wrote about at such length.
Chapters details how everything Twain wrote passed before the eyes
of his prudish wife, who was quite liberal in applying her red pencil to
potentially objectionable passages. It must have been quite cathartic
for Twain to be able to write "cunt" over and over again without worrying
about Livy having a heart attack over it.
And then there's this, which strikes me as the key line:
Twain married at thirty-four. According to his biographers, nothing
suggests that Twain's own sex life was significantly different from
that of anyone else in "the vttermoft parts of America." Parody?
Sounds more like a rueful acknowledgement that, thanks to the shift
in mores from one time and place to another, the joke was on him.
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