". . .I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography: start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and talk about the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime."
Between 1870 and 1905, American author Mark Twain accumulated over 30 partial manuscripts of his autobiography. He struggled with the format of the story, noting that a straight chronological progression would leave out "the side-excursions [that] are the life of our life-voyage, and should be, also, of its history."
Plus, he felt that autobiographies were not completely truthful. As he wrote in 1905, "We suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter cost of putting it forth... None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned."
To that end, he insisted the book be published in its entirety only posthumously--100 years after his death. He explains: "A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way. In these conditions, you can draw a man without prejudice exactly as you knew him and yet have no fear of hurting his feelings or those of his grandsons."
Says Edward Griffin, American literature scholar, U of M English professor emeritus, and speaker at LearningLife's upcoming Mark Twain Immersion, "It was something of an experiment for him--to see if he could write his own life story and tell the unguarded, unvarnished, unprotected truth. He wrestled with the method for years. He knew he wanted to avoid a chronological rehash, and that he preferred free association."
Between 1906 and 1909, Twain dictated--and his stenographer and secretary typed--more than 5,000 pages of text.
In conjunction with the official November 15 publication of the first volume of Autobiography of Mark Twain, LearningLife will be holding a daylong celebration of all things Twain.
Covering not just the new autobiography, but also the myriad facets of Twain's life and his long-lasting impact on American literature and society, Mark Twain in His Own Words will feature several different perspectives on Twain and his career from three notable Twain experts.
Presenters include Griffin, along with legendary WCCO journalist Don Shelby and travel writer and editor Catherine Watson.
Griffin, who taught the popular course Mark Twain: On the River and Beyond for the Compleat Scholar program (now LearningLife short courses) and is an expert on colonial literature and the use of early American history and literature by modern American writers, will discuss how we can see American history unfolding in Twain's work and Twain's part in the foundation of the American "style." Griffin will also touch on the role of truth in autobiography, and the process that brought about the autobiography--including why Twain did what he did, what was involved, and what the book includes.
Shelby, who is active in the development of the Mississippi River and river preservation work, will step away from his journalist persona, and look at Mark Twain from the perspective of an avid reader and collector of books by the author, as well as a Twain reenactor.
As a travel writer and editor, Watson is especially excited to tackle the life and works of Mark Twain. "No one in American letters was better prepared for travel writing than Mark Twain," Watson says. "He was a born journalist - a noticer, a wordsmith, a mental notetaker even in childhood. Travel journalism gave him his earliest fame, and he did it throughout his life."
Watson continues, "The best compliment a travel writer can get is when one of your readers says, 'You made me feel like I was there!' Mark Twain knew this instinctively. He says it in the preface to The Innocents Abroad--the first time I know of that an American writer does so. Even today, it still makes you feel like you're there. It's because Twain was so fully there himself."
Says Margy Ligon, the College of Continuing Education's director of personal enrichment programs, "Mark Twain is still intensely relevant in today's world. His pointed observations of American politics, religion, sexuality, and history could have been written by a political pundit today.
"His uncensored autobiography will allow 21st century readers and fans to hear the author speak his mind and will remind us of his genius. I also hope that his ability to deliver biting social criticism with humor reminds us of the power of civil discourse."
Mark Twain in His Own Words is scheduled for Saturday, November 13, from 9:30 to 4:30 on the St. Paul campus. Workshop participants will have the opportunity to purchase a copy of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1 at the immersion--two days prior to the official publication date. Complete details and registration information are on the LearningLife Web site.