Thursday, February 10, 2011

Roughing It

I am now finished slogging through the new Autobiography of Mark Twain. You would not think it possible to make Twain – this country’s most emblematic and original writer – into something that had to be slogged through, but that is what happens when editors run wild.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed the book, those parts of it where it was Twain speaking to me rather than the editors. But this is not the sort of book that is designed for a popular audience that just wants to sit down with a compatible beverage and read it straight through. It instead an academic monograph, complete with a long introduction about textual provenance, 150 pages of preliminary material that Twain wrote in earlier attempts at writing his autobiography, any number of catty asides from the present editors regarding the shortcomings of the previous editors of earlier volumes of Twain’s works, and several hundred pages of endnotes explaining what all the things Twain mentioned – and I do mean all of them – were, for the benefit of the rest of us who no longer remember any of them.

I’m a professional historian – I study the history of the United States for a living – and a lot of the things Twain mentioned were unknown to me. He knew that would happen – he even devotes several pages’ worth of discussion to the larger meaning of that, pages that are well worth reading. Much of what was important in the world of 1906, when he was dictating the Autobiography, or the world of the late 19th century, when most of the events he describes from the perspective of 1906 were happening, is long gone now, forgotten and passed over.

But you know, sometimes I think that’s not such a bad thing.

Twain is Twain – his writing style never changes, his opinions are delivered in the kind of vibrant prose that you would expect of him, even though most of this book consists of things he dictated rather than wrote out – and it almost doesn’t matter what he’s discoursing about. The joy of it is listening to his voice tell the stories.

This would have been a better book if the editors had stepped back a bit and let that happen.

I think they should have published two editions – this one, for the literary scholars and historians who like this sort of stuff, and another one that just has Twain, for people who want to sit and read it and listen to his voice.

I suppose I could create that edition myself, just by ignoring all the editorial intrusions, and perhaps someday I will go back and do that – probably when Volume 2 comes out and I want to catch up.

It will be nice just to listen to his voice.

1 comment:

Katherine McKay said...

Couldn't agree with you more! I'm gliding over all the editorial nonsense and reading Twain's words exclusively.