Autobiography of Mark Twain Volume 1 (Samuel Langhorne Clemens, 1835-1910) - Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith - University of California Press - 2010 - 736 pages

This book is a time machine.  Mark Twain takes the reader back to the 19th century and early 20th century with his authentic account of the times.  With an unorthodox autobiographic style, Twain rambles from one subject to another occasionally finding time to recall his life and family.  He tells of meetings with General Grant, Helen Keller, Lewis Carroll and many other personalities during his travels in North America and Europe.  For example, his description of the Villa di Quarto in Florence, Italy and his experience with an unscrupulous Countess who rented space to his family in 1892 is priceless: "She is excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward.  Her lips are as familiar with lies, deceptions, swindles and treacheries as are her nostrils with breath.  She has not a single friend in Florence, she is not received in any house.  I think she is the best hated person I have ever known, and the most liberally despised."  These protestations go on for several pages.  Twain felt the freedom to write his true feelings about certain people since he had left instructions to withhold publication of the complete autobiography until 100 years after his death.

Although Twain's rough exterior is evident throughout, he often shows a softer side especially with regard to his immediate family.  Following is a short account of a very happy time with friends and family: "In the midst of our reading-campaign, I returned to Hartford from the Far West, reaching home one evening just at dinner time.  I was expecting to have a happy and restful season by a hickory fire in the library with the family, but was required to go at once to George Warner's house, a hundred and fifty yards away, across the grounds.  This was a heavy disappointment, and I tried to beg off but did not succeed.  I couldn't even find out why I must waste this precious evening in a visit to a friend's house when our house offered so many and superior advantages.  There was a mystery somewhere, but I was not able to get to the bottom of it.  So we tramped across in the snow, and I found the Warner drawing-room crowded with seated people.  There was a vacancy in the front row, for me - in front of a curtain.  At once the curtain was drawn, and before me, properly costumed, was the little maid, Margaret Warner, clothed in Tom Canty's rags, and beyond an intercepting railing was Susy Clemens [1872-1896], arrayed in the silks and satins of the prince.  Then followed with good action and spirit the rest of that first meeting between the prince and the pauper.  It was a charming surprise, and to me a moving one.  Other episodes of the tale followed, and I have seldom in my life enjoyed an evening so much as I enjoyed that one.  This lovely surprise was my wife's [Olivia Langdon Clemens 1845-1904] work.  She had patched the scenes together from the book, and had trained the six or eight young actors in their parts, and had also designed and furnished the costumes."

This is the most thoroughly researched book I have ever read.  The Introduction covers 67 pages.  The post-text Explanatory Notes cover another 182 pages.  The Appendixes, References and Index fill 86 more pages.  Volume 1 primarily examines Twain's dictations from January through March 1906.  Volume 2 due in 2012 and Volume 3 due in 2014 will cover dictations given between April 2006 and his death in 1910.  When completed, the three-volume set will become a national treasure, describing in detail the Twain Era. [JAM 3/21/2011]