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Mark Twain’s ‘Autobiography’ is a big, fat literary fraud.

December 1, 2010

America's greatest writer, and also its most overrated.

And Mr. Clemens himself is overrated, a trend only worsened by the groveling reviews that have greeted the publication, after the longest embargo in history, of The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1. In truth, only about five percent of the new book is actually new.

That’s just one of the facts and reassessments, delivered with grinning brio, by Adam Gopnik in the current issue of The New Yorker. Alas, this link takes you only to an “abstract,” or summary, of the article. To see the whole thing you have to subscribe. But really, if you care about literature and journalism and culture and wit, why wouldn’t you?

I’m a latecomer to the joys of The New Yorker, only reading it regularly after the turn of the century. It was a kind of reverse snobbery that kept me away. I mean, that title, which implied to my provincial heart the insupportable notion that anything worth saying or reading was uttered or written only in New York City.

Thus I missed the golden age when the magazine was edited by the dignified William Shawn, those edenic decades (1951-1987) before Tina Brown (1992-98) brought her coarse British sensibility to the editor’s chair and sullied the prose of the magazine with dirty words for the first time.

When I hear people sniff about how great The New Yorker used to be, I feel the incipient anger of a Radiohead devotee: Yeah, yeah, the Beatles were great, but so are my guys!

So I don’t really care how fine The New Yorker was under Mr. Shawn, or before him, under the founding editor Harold Ross. Those are matters of merely archival interest, and nowhere on my mind when I pull a new issue from my mailbox. What I’m most looking forward to, apart from the solid (if usually overlong) journalism and hit-or-miss fiction, is the cultural reporting and criticism at the front and back of the book.

The New Yorker‘s staff writers and contributors routinely write with an erudition to rival my other favorite magazine, The New York Review of Books, but with more nimble prose and keener wit. Thus the current issue not only includes Gopnik’s Twain piece, but also an assessment of George Bush’s memoir by George Packer, and a double movie review by Anthony Lane, the funniest if not best film critic going these days.

The magazine often induces me to read articles on culture in which I’m only marginally interested. For example, this week: Peter Schjeldahl on art and Alex Ross on modern classical music. When reading is so much fun, I learn new things despite myself.

There’s also an appreciation of the long dead rock drummer Keith Moon, of the pioneering band The Who, by James Wood (whose day job is Harvard professor and literary critic). Stuffy? Not a bit. Wood not only examines Moon’s life and career, but also details in clear, readable prose exactly what a rock drummer does, and how Moon deviated in every way to achieve a kind of singular musical genius.

Wood also punctuates the piece with a wittiness beyond what we have any right to expect: “Groups like Supertramp and the Eagles seem soft, in large part, because the snare is so drippy and mildly used (and not just because elves are apparently squeezing the singers’ testicles).”

Back to Mark Twain: Gopnik provides a deeply felt and delightful corrective to the image inflation that has accompanied the publication of the Autobigraphy, Volume 1. Some of the exaggeration accompany the new book is understandable. Twain forbid its official publication until 100 years after his death (which turns out to be a marketing ploy, like all embargoes, more than anything else).

Rummaging through the Emperor’s wardrobe, Gopnik notes that Twain was as much a  performer as a writer. He points out that Twain wrote only one really good book, Hucklebery Finn. And he exposes the new edition of the Autobiography not only as a fraud for having been mostly published multiple times in the past, but also as a vastly inferior piece of work:

“A book that had been a disjointed and largely baffling bore emerges now as a disjointed and largely baffling bore…This is a fault not of the editors but of Twain’s conception and, it must be said, of his dictated prose, which is slack and anti-rhythmic. Scarcely a single sentence in the whole thousand pages stands out to be admired.”

I don’t intend to knock Twain off his pedestal, nor does Gopnik, who writes of Huckleberry Finn: “[T]he one very good book now seems so very good a  book that it would be meaningless to ask for too many more like it. Hemingway’s assertion that all modern literature comes from Huck seems even more nearly true now than when he said it, back in the nineteen-thirties.”

If you want to revisit Twain, or make his acquaintance for the first time, forgo the Autobiography in favor of Huck, or perhaps Life on the Mississippi or Innocents Abroad or Roughing It. These will give you something worthwhile to read while you’re waiting for the next issue of The New Yorker.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    December 1, 2010 4:18 pm

    Love “The New Yorker” always! Glad you finally came around. And no literature beats Huckleberry Finn, and therefore the author is a giant no matter what.

  2. Connie permalink
    December 1, 2010 8:10 pm

    Well, thanks, now you’ve made me sorry I’ve let my New Yorker subscription lapse. It just was causing me so much anxiety, piling up as it did every week until I had a mountain stacked up on the coffee table. But I do miss Anthony Lane. He has written two of the best film reviews ever written, one on The English Patient (he loved it) and the other on The Phantom Menace (he didn’t love it).

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 1, 2010 8:41 pm

      The secret to enjoying The New Yorker is to remember it’s only a magazine, and we’re under no obligation to read every article. I often read On the Town and the arts coverage and skip the interminable articles in between.

  3. December 1, 2010 10:54 pm

    Thanks for the heads-up, Chauncey. I had the “new” bio on my list, but to tell you the truth the autobio published 30 or 40 years ago was such a bore that I put it down. I have The New Yorker issue you’re talking about, but haven’t had the time to sit still & read it. Semester is almost over, then I won’t have anymore excuses. What I’m really looking forward to is the new translation of Doctor Zhivago (trans: Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky). Have you read it? I read the first few pages & started salivating & put it away for the Xmas break when I can really concentrate on it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      December 1, 2010 11:34 pm

      No, I haven’t gotten a copy of the Zhivago. Have you seen the Lydia Davis Bovary? I don’t have that yet, either, but I hear it’s either the best thing since Erectus hooted the first anecdote, or else badly tinkered with. Since I don’t know French, I won’t be able to tell, for certain. I’ve read the Francis Steegmuller translation, which some critics consider flat and unworthy of Flaubert’s stylistic suppleness, but I loved it.

  4. December 2, 2010 12:15 pm

    Didn’t know about the Davis Bovary, Chauncey. It’s been probably 30 years since I read the Steegmuller trans. It’s time for another go at it.

  5. James Peet permalink
    February 24, 2011 10:48 pm

    I have had the cruel misfortune, myself, of occasionally reading a book and feeling I had been robbed of valuable time but I felt it an embarrassment and not one that I would rant loud and long upon. It seems so much easier to criticize, with extreme generalities and vaguenesses than to actually give an honestly critical assessment of the work in mention or-heaven forbid give a positive criticism. I would challenge the author of this fraudulent to write an opinion of this book that didn’t sound as counterfeit as he claimed the book to be. My experience with this type of vagueness tells me that the author actually read very little-if any- of the work-before authoring such a criticism…positive or negative.

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