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Going downstream

Will a 100-year-old autobiography show an American icon grown bitter?

Issue: "2010 Books Issue," July 3, 2010

Ernest Hemingway famously declared that American literature began with one book: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The scruffily virtuous hero, "lighting out for the territory," is an icon of rawboned innocence and uncompromising honesty, even though he tells some whoppers throughout the narrative. The writing style is still fresh and spontaneous, breathing right out of antebellum America a sense of what we were at one stage of our evolution, and to some degree what we still are. It's an artful blend of humor and pathos, a deeply human story, and a strong contender for the great American novel.

The man known as Mark Twain has an iconic feel about him too, like Abe Lincoln or Davy Crockett. His life hit the high notes of an all-American success: growing up with the country; a steamboat pilot while barely out of his teens; a young man going west; a literary sensation by his thirties; a loving husband and father, world traveler, household name; passing out of this life with Halley's Comet at the ripe age of 75. "There is a perception that Twain spent his final years basking in the adoration of fans," comments historian Laura Trombley. "The autobiography will perhaps show that it wasn't such a happy time."

Autobiography? Though long in his grave, Samuel L. Clemens can still make publishing news-the first volume of a memoir, sequestered at UC-Berkeley for a hundred years, is due in November. The announcement was made about a month after the centennial of the author's death, stirring speculation about what new light might be shed upon the wise-cracking, white-suited, smoke-wreathed figure popularized by Hal Holbrook. Why did he leave strict orders for these 5,000 pages of manuscript to remain unpublished for a century? What did he not want his adoring fans to know? Did he have a venereal disease, a taste for witchcraft, an illegitimate son? Not likely. Says 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."

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"Vitriol"-is that news? Aside from a relationship with his secretary that got too cozy after his wife died, the controversial parts of the work deal with the author's views on religion, politics, public figures, and other authors: an opportunity to unburden himself of years of pent-up scorn. But if that's what the autobiography reveals, Twain himself has already revealed it to anyone who looks closely at his work. "As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man" (Proverbs 27:19).

The second half of his life was much more clouded than the first, beset by debt, unwise investments, and the supreme misfortune of outliving all but one of his family: from his little son not yet two years old, to his favorite daughter Susy who had inherited his literary talent, to his loyal wife Olivia whose picture won his heart before they even met. All this, added to a streak of misanthropy acquired early, made him a bitter man. That's the only conclusion a reader can draw from later stories like The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and The Mysterious Stranger.

He was no atheist, but his religious thought was a mixed bag. He despised the Catholic Church but revered Joan of Arc (his biography of her being his favorite work); he admired Christ while claiming that the last thing Christ would be today was a Christian; he made respectful nods to the Almighty but saw the biblical God as a product of man's twisted imagination. What he never seemed to ask himself was why he blamed this God for apparently holding the same view of mankind as Mark Twain.

Anyone who could write so exuberantly and feelingly of "life on the Mississippi" must have begun with an expansive heart. But allowing a "root of bitterness" to spring up makes the heart shrivel. If that's what the autobiography reveals, it makes a sad apostrophe to an American icon.
Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at RedeemedReader.com. Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.

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