Monday, May 24, 2010

Mark Twain, Freshly Bilious Again

Much of what Mark Twain wrote in his last years has still not been made available to the public, but that is about to change:
[Twain] left behind 5,000 unedited pages of memoirs when he died in 1910, together with handwritten notes saying that he did not want them to hit bookshops for at least a century.

That milestone has now been reached, and in November the University of California, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume of Mark Twain's autobiography. The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words, and shed new light on the quintessentially American novelist.
That he wanted it kept from publication for 100 years after his death hints that it will feature Twain at his most acerbic:
"Most people think Mark Twain was a sort of genteel Victorian. Well, in this document he calls her [his secretary, Elizabeth Lyon] a slut and says she tried to seduce him. It's completely at odds with the impression most people have of him," says the historian Laura Trombley ... "He spent six months of the last year of his life writing a manuscript full of vitriol, saying things that he'd never said about anyone in print before. It really is 400 pages of bile."
With due respect to either historian Laura Trombley or to most people -- I'm not sure which -- I find it difficult to believe that Mark Twain is widely regarded as a genteel Victorian. When I think "genteel Victorian," it calls up the image of Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Charles Darwin, Charles Kingsley, Alfred Tennyson, Charles Dickens -- prudish, carefully-spoken fops in smoking jackets and mutton-chops drinking brandy from snifters straining desperately to hide any sentiment while holding forth on the preposterousness of women's suffrage.

Impressions are impressions, and some of the above fit this impression better than others, but does Mark Twain belong in the group? The guy who wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with its irreverence, crudeness, and sentimentality? The guy who lampooned gentility and the overly mannered in, among other writings, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court?

Impressions are impressions. I look forward to the chance to read this new writing by Mark Twain, especially since it promises to greatly enlarge every English speaker's repertoire of insults.

2 comments:

Sis B said...

This is certainly the most exciting thing I have read today, and is a contender for the most exciting thing I have read this year. And last. I. Can't. Wait. And whoever considers Twain genteel hasn't read anything he's written. Or maybe they have, but have completely failed to understand it.

Dale said...

Sis B, I agree! It's very exciting news. I consider myself in line at Powell's already for the day these books hit the shelves.