Book Review: “Autobiography of Mark Twain” by Mark Twain

This is a huge book. I listened to the audiobook (23-CD worth) for almost 30 hours and hardback book has very small fonts and 737-page thick. It was long and tedious consists of his original autobiography manuscripts, “random extracts” and other miscellaneous notes including her daughter’s (Suzy Clemens) version of Mark Twain’s (Samuel Clemens) autobiography – too complete for my taste. While it’s important for literature historian to read through all chapters of this book, it may be overwhelming for most readers. It’s no wonder that Mark Twain hesitated to publish it. But there were stories that stood out for me:

President’s Grant’s Autobiography: It’s interesting for Mark Twain to detail his respect for and relationship with President Grant, the civil war general who later became the US President. Mark Twain’s business savvy helped General Grant to secure a mutually profitable autobiography deal with his own publishing firm. It also sheds lights on the business dealing between an author and the publisher: 10% straight cut or 50/50 profit sharing. I also got to know a little about this great modest man, President Grant.

Dueling: The use of dueling to settle scores was rather intriguing. How any mature person would resort to such a childish way to exonerate one’s honor is beyond me. Mark Twain talked about how he almost died from dueling with another man. Thanks to the bluffing effect of his friend’s marksmanship, the other party decided not to proceed with it. He probably wouldn’t have lived that long without any negative health impact from the dueling incident.

Mark Twain was a risk taker. His investment in the typesetting machine, though a failure, tells what an entrepreneur he was in his era. He even started his own publishing company and devised a method to extend his copyright for the benefits of his children. He probably learned about business from his father who bought a large Tennessee land passed on to all his children but the children eventually squandered away.

Mark Twain’s little daughter, Suzy, was as gifted in writing as Mark Twain. Unfortunately, she passed away in her 20’s. This was a big blow for Mark Twain and his wife Olivia, who adored this girl more than the other girls. It’s a family tragedy in addition to his son Langdon’s early demise. Mark Twain’s early life before 7 years old was a constant anxiety for his mother. What struck me was his mother’s answer to him about his question whether the anxiety came from if he was going to die, “No, it was if you were going to live.” Wow, I can imagine the precarious state of Mark Twain’s health in his childhood.

Mark Twain’s ingenious “scheme” of getting a job is as relevant in today’s job market. His method: Do it for “refreshment” without any wage . Produce the results without any complaints. When the competitors come to recruit you with a wage offer, give the current employer the first shot at retaining you at an equal or better wage before accepting the competitor’s offer. What a smart scheme! The unemployed should learn from him.

There were the usual observation essays about the places where he traveled: Vienna, Germany, and etc. The cabs, German language from one of his servants, and many others.

It’s no doubt that Mark Twain was in the high society associated with Presidents (Grant, Cleveland), Babe Ruth, Helen Keller and other dignitaries.

At the end, the letter from Helen Keller for his speech was most moving. This is an appropriate end to this autobiography. Keller’s complement to Mark Twain: “You once told me you were a pessimist. Mr. Clemens; but great men are usually mistaken about themselves. You are an optimist.”