Mark Twain: Autobiographical Writings. Edited with an Introduction by R. Kent Rasmussen. Penguin Books, 2012. Paperback. Pp. xlviii + 493. $16.00. ISBN 978-0-14-310667-8.

Amazon sales commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project,
University of California, Berkeley, CA.

The following review appeared 24 May 2012 on the Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2012 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Alan Gribben

Almost from the beginning, Mark Twain seemed to place a monetary value on every episode that occurred in his life. He became so fiercely proprietary about each detail that he refused to give other writers permission to quote from his letters, speeches, and writings in any form. His possessiveness about the incidents that had shaped his career even extended to reporters seeking to produce brief summaries of his experiences. As he bragged to his brother Orion in 1887, "I have never yet allowed an interviewer or biography-sketcher to get out of me any circumstance of my history which I thought might be worth putting some day into my autobiography. . . . They never got anything that was worth the printing." His clear intention was to mine these promising veins of ore solely for himself. A headnote describing Mark Twain that he either wrote or approved for Mark Twain's Library of Humor (1888) cited his river-piloting days and his Quaker City cruise, and then assured readers that "his succeeding books continue the story of his own life, with more or less fullness and exactness." To an importunate author (Will Clemens) seeking to write his biography in 1900, Twain objected emphatically: "Such books as you propose are not proper to publish during my lifetime. A man's history is his own property until the grave extinguishes his ownership in it."

The recently retired and ingeniously resourceful R. Kent Rasmussen now retrieves and assembles those autobiographical snippets that Mark Twain treasured and scattered through his literary works. Although the publisher's advertising flier tries to connect this volume to the Mark Twain Project's Autobiography of Mark Twain ("more compact than the University of California's best-seller"), in point of fact Mark Twain: Autobiographical Writings does not include the previously unpublished materials in Volume 1of the recent California edition. What Rasmussen has done--and it is another one of his shrewd feats that will leave more than a few Twain scholars saying to themselves, "Well, I could have edited a book like Rasmussen's myself (if I had only thought of it)"--is to gather the portions of Twain's Autobiography that appeared in the North American Review in 1906 and 1907 (previously reprinted by Michael Kiskis, as Rasmussen duly notes). To those pieces Rasmussen adds selected passages of an autobiographical nature from The Innocents Abroad (1869), Mark Twain's Sketches New & Old (1875), A Tramp Abroad (1880), the cub piloting and Hannibal chapters in Life on the Mississippi (1883), Following the Equator (1897), "Hunting the Deceitful Turkey" (1906), "My Boyhood Dreams" (1900), Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909), "The Turning-Point of My Life" (1910), and Albert Bigelow Paine's "Unpublished Chapters from the Autobiography of Mark Twain" (1922).

Rasmussen is scrupulous about explaining his process and his sources. Most important, the resulting compendium is truly entertaining and often illuminating. When the purely autobiographical reminiscences embedded in Twain's travel narratives are extracted from their surrounding contexts of journeys and sights, they form a comprehensive picture of what the author remembered about his life, especially his early years. We are reminded that young Sam Clemens saw his father repeatedly cuff "our harmless slave boy" (Following the Equator Chapter 38), witnessed his mother confront a St. Louis cartman who was "beating his horse over the head with the butt of his heavy whip" ("Jane Lampton Clemens," written 1890-91), and was horribly embarrassed when as a ten year old he dreamed a steamboat was on fire and shouted out a mistaken alarm ("I crept humbly away," he related in A Tramp Abroad).

To these fascinating recollections Rasmussen contributes an informative Introduction that courageously takes up the issue of Samuel Clemens's veracity, a fuller-than-usual chronology of Clemens's life, an up-to-date bibliography of scholarship devoted to his autobiographical writings, and a surprisingly ample "Glossary" that identifies everyone and everything from Susan Crane to John Hay to the Monday Evening Club to the starboard side of a river vessel.

The revealing contents, reasonable price, and attractive format of this paperbound collection make it ideally suitable as a college textbook. Students can find much here to enlighten them about Mark Twain's remembered world. Scholars engaged in research will find themselves hampered--as they are in most of Twain's writings--by the lack of an index that might sort out the pervasive "so-hard-to-relocate-the-paragraph-in-which-he-told-that-anecdote" quality of his works. All the same, Rasmussen, who already has half a dozen excellent Mark Twain books to his credit, has again produced a highly usable and deeply enjoyable compilation of some of Twain's very best prose.