Incandescent Memory

Thomas Powers

  • BuyAutobiography of Mark Twain Vol. I edited by Harriet Elinor Smith et al
    California, 736 pp, £24.95, November 2010, ISBN 978 0 520 26719 0

The sun never shone more brightly and a boy’s dreams never seemed in closer reach, nor the girl next door prettier, nor his friends readier for bold adventure on a Saturday free of school than all did in the ‘white town drowsing’ on the Missouri shore of the mighty Mississippi River where Mark Twain in the 1840s drank deeply of the sweetness of life, and never forgot it. ‘Free’ was a word of powerful attraction for Twain. His friend Tom Blankenship enjoyed a glorious perfection of freedom, as Twain saw things: no mother or aunts to wash, comb, dress and civilise him; no expectations to fail to meet, no sermons in church to scare him and no school to crimp his style. He slept in a hogshead, smoked a corncob pipe, went barefoot in three seasons, knew how to make himself scarce when his father showed up drunk and mean. ‘He was the only really independent person – boy or man – in the community,’ Twain recalled in his seventies, ‘and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy, and was envied by all the rest of us.’

It was Tom Blankenship, rechristened as Huckleberry Finn, who whistled up ‘Tom Sawyer’ for night-time roving when the streets and back alleys were quiet in Hannibal, the village that became St Petersburg in the two novels that made Twain immortal. Not forgetting Hannibal was the work of Twain’s life. The adventures of Tom and Huck constitute the greatest of all American feats of memory. The original for ‘Tom’ was of course the original of Mark Twain, born Samuel L. Clemens, a deeply impressionable boy who resisted all entreaty to improve until the grave took him at 74 and closed the case. There is no point in trying to sort out fiction and reality in Hannibal-St Petersburg, or to distinguish ‘Huck’ from the real Tom, or ‘Tom’ from the real Sam. The life went into the books with such fidelity that the stories can be lifted out again as evidence of what ‘really’ happened or what the characters ‘really’ thought or felt.

The Tom Blankenship of history left few traces. He was a few years older than Twain, he remained in Hannibal, he was twice arrested for stealing food, he died of cholera about 1889. So far as we know, Blankenship never escaped down the Mississippi with a runaway slave but we know he was the kind of boy who would have sprung to do it. Did he not acknowledge, in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, that Jim ‘had an uncommon level head, for a nigger’? And did he not say of the slave Uncle Jake, in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: ‘Sometimes I’ve set right down and eat with him’?

Twain’s memory was incandescent; when it rose up and seized him he wrote the thing down right where he was. In The Innocents Abroad, for example, the writing of a few lines about a Greek sculpture attributed to Phidias suddenly called up a ghastly scene from Twain’s youth. The pen was in his hand and the memory was too intense to hold back another minute. Young Sam had been playing hooky from school. Anticipating a whipping at home he slipped through the window of his father’s law office and settled himself for the night. ‘As I lay on the lounge and my eyes grew accustomed to the darkness,’ Twain wrote, interrupting a description of the cathedral in Milan, ‘I fancied I could see a long, dusky, shapeless thing stretched upon the floor.’ The boy turned in terror towards the wall, trying not to see. He held steady for a moment, then peeked. A beam of moonlight through the window advanced slowly across the floor with the passing of the minutes, revealing first a hand, followed by the whole of an arm, finally ‘the pallid face of a man … eyes fixed and glassy in death!’ By now sitting upright, the boy watched aghast; he had probably ceased to breathe. The light of the moon ‘crept down the bare breast – line by line – inch by inch – past the nipple – and then it disclosed a ghastly stab!’

That did it! ‘I went out at the window, and I carried the sash along with me,’ Twain wrote. ‘I was not scared, but I was considerably agitated.’ He let go with a few jokes here, relieving the tension of readers in shock at this moonlit spectre of a murdered man. (‘That man had been stabbed near the office that afternoon, and they carried him in there to doctor him, but he only lived an hour.’) But the passage is not an idle aside. Twain was writing in his early thirties. The memory dates to his ninth or tenth year. ‘I have slept in the same room with him often, since then – in my dreams.’

Twain lived with several such indelible memories. The occasion of the death of his father was another of them. The date was 24 March 1847; the place was the home of a friend on Hill Street in Hannibal, where John Clemens had taken to his bed with a cold that developed into pneumonia. It was in that room, only minutes before his father’s final rattling breaths, that young Sam for the first time watched one member of his family kiss another. His dying father ‘put his arm around my sister’s neck and drew her down and kissed her’. The boy was 11. That electrifying actual kiss is coupled in the life of Twain with another, imaginary kiss which Tom Sawyer placed on the sleeping lips of his Aunt Polly while he was creeping about the house at night. The family all thought he’d drowned. Later, Aunt Polly assailed the boy’s hard heart, relenting when Tom said he’d kissed her. Then she was ready to forgive the boy almost anything.

The evidence offered in the first of an eventual three volumes of Twain’s Autobiography, published unchanged 100 years after his death, as he had desired, suggests that he thought continually about the people and incidents of his entire life, not just his childhood on the river, and brooded on their significance. The tone of the book is well-captured by the cover photograph, taken one morning in September 1906 as he lay in bed, the place he preferred in late life for work. But it’s not a morning picture. Twain is looking up from shadow and doubt. He is anxious, even fearful, but obstinate. It is the face of a man who has seen something he does not want to put into words.

The new book is a formidable block of materials, beginning with an account from 1870 of a huge tract of Tennessee wilderness purchased by his father, who died confident his children would ‘live to see these acres turn to silver and gold’; and ending with an account from 1906 of a visit from Helen Keller, who pleased Twain by agreeing that he was distinguished not only for his humour, but for his wisdom. Most of what appears in the Autobiography has been published before, but generally in fragments, or abridged, or reordered, or interspersed with other materials. The new book is a hodgepodge but it is pure Twain, and often vintage Twain, just as he left it. Some reviewers have been irritated by the book’s abundance, disorder and uneven quality, but in my view that is like complaining that a dictionary has too many words in it, including many boring words.

‘Autobiography’ was the word Twain used for this project. Several early attempts were quickly abandoned, but at last in Florence in 1904, where he had taken his failing wife in hope of recovery, he ‘hit upon the right way to do an autobiography’, which was not to write it at all, in the conventional sense, but to dictate it, following no particular plan, but speaking only of what interested him at the moment – stories from the deep past, anecdotes of friends, outrages discovered in the morning paper. ‘The right plan,’ he wrote, ‘makes my labour amusement … play, pastime, and wholly effortless.’ This and similar remarks suggest what a bubbling, cheerful stream Twain thought an autobiography ought to be. ‘No talent is required,’ he wrote. He planned to be honest, and include his ‘frankest and freest and privatest’ thoughts, just as they occurred to him. He would take no pains to spare anyone’s feelings because all would be dead before the book appeared.

But it is well to recall that Twain is never guileless. Something is missing here. To speak candidly about small things is not the same as speaking seriously about large ones. It seems evident, although Twain did not say as much in plain words, that he intended to keep clear of deep waters: the sort of deep waters one might expect to find in a childhood which included a father dying in a friend’s house because he could not afford his own; a dead sister, two dead brothers, sermons on Sunday ‘made up almost exclusively of fire and brimstone’, and those two lonely kisses. The important thing about the second kiss was that the writer gave it to the woman he had patterned on his mother, Jane, who was evidently a tough bird. The night Sam’s father died, Jane related in an interview in 1885, she took the boy into the room where the body lay in its coffin. ‘I said to him that here in this presence I had some serious requests to make of him, and that I knew his word, once given, was never broken.’ Young Sam was weeping but he was not napping. He saw where this was going and instantly responded: ‘Oh, mother, I will do anything, anything you ask of me, except to go to school; I can’t do that!’ Jane was whipped and knew it. After ‘a sober talk’ she allowed the boy, not yet 12, to leave school and learn typesetting at a local printing office.

The Florentine dictations stopped with the death of Twain’s wife, Olivia, in June 1904, the second of two powerful blows struck Twain by death. The first had been the sudden and unexpected death of his daughter Susy at 24 in 1896. Twain was in London when the news arrived, ‘standing in our dining room thinking of nothing in particular’. He describes the moment in the Autobiography (which he had taken up again in earnest in 1906). ‘A cablegram was put into my hand. It said: “Susy was peacefully released today.”’

‘It is one of the mysteries of our nature,’ he continues, ‘that a man, all unprepared, can receive a thunderstroke like that and live.’ Twain thought the explanation must be the obvious one: that the real magnitude of the thunderstroke was not initially perceived. To understand how much had been taken away, and how much the loss was going to hurt, over how long a period of time, became apparent only with the slow passage of months and years. It was the memory of Susy’s death that released the flood of reminiscence that forms the heart of this first volume of Twain’s Autobiography. Twain scholars and biographers have written much about the two most important women in his life – his wife and his daughter. He was famously taken in hand by the first and deeply charmed by the second. Van Wyck Brooks (in The Ordeal of Mark Twain) and Justin Kaplan (in Mr Clemens and Mark Twain) were the first to argue that Olivia brought a secure emotional structure into Twain’s life but only at a high cost, imposing a severe check on his fresh eye, quick sympathy and honest tongue.

Olivia, whom Twain called Livy, was deeply conventional. Public display made her uneasy. In her view Twain’s humour skirted always at the boundary of good taste. She detested coarse language, which Twain had picked up in his knockabout youth. Nor did she like frank language, which was Twain’s stock in trade, and she was equally disturbed, perhaps even frightened, by Twain’s nose for the whiff of hypocrisy. He went for it immediately, much as a Jack Russell terrier would snap at the neck of a mewling kitten. Livy did what she could to make her standards his, at least in public, and she mainly succeeded. The loss to the world cannot be calculated.

But no fair judgment of Livy can be reached without taking into account Twain’s acceptance of exactly the kind of woman she was. A story in the Autobiography, too funny to be read safely in public, makes this clear. The occasion was Livy’s effort to rein in an irrepressible Viennese servant who ‘talks all the time, talks in her sleep, will talk when she is dead’. The torrent made Livy frantic, but Twain loved it. ‘Her talk is my circus, my menagerie,’ he wrote. ‘When she is at it I would rather be there than at a fire.’

But Twain kept well out of the way when Livy ordered the servant to ‘Be still!’ The torrent was only the half of it. The servant meddled in everything: barred visitors she thought would not be wanted, told the cook what to do, interfered with the maid, pushed in to answer a question Livy had asked the postman. Twain paints the scene in 2000 words with the sort of care another writer might devote to the battle of Waterloo, but the real object of his attention is Livy’s mind, harried this way and that by a mob of impulses. She wants to be fair, she wants to be heard, she wants silence, she wants Twain to step in on her side, she wants the servant to say ‘Yes, Ma’am!’ and halt with that. Twain is listening to it all. He is not working, as he should be, Livy is sure, but sitting on the balcony, smoking and reading. ‘Reading his own books,’ she adds: ‘He is always doing it.’

This aside, in Twain’s view, is not for the servant, but for Livy herself, uttered in a low tone, ‘with shame’. Here Twain’s remarkable breadth of observation stands revealed. He has a sure grasp of everything jostling for precedence in Livy’s mind, her fury and her restraint. She knows Twain reads his own books compulsively, Twain knows she knows, and he knows that knowing it does not really shame Livy: it is one of the things she understands about the writer, she gently disapproves, she worries that it is simply vanity, but it puzzles and touches her as well. Much the same happens in Twain’s other stories about Livy: he knows her, he delights in her, he marvels at her tenacity of purpose, he trusts her desire to do right, he is touched by her tenderness for him and for others. The loss of all that in 1904, less than a decade after the loss of Susy, was crushing. But it did not simply hurt. It swept away Twain’s confidence, and even his hope, that life had meaning.

One of the first things a reader learns about Twain is that the sunny humour all comes from the first part of his life, and the bitter humour from the last. The early work can be so funny that a reader needs to stop and rest, but gradually that well ran dry. Twain didn’t quit being funny, but the subjects of his humour changed from things he loved and forgave, to things he hated and scorned. These later targets are many: public greed and private selfishness, frozen hearts, religious and political cant, the bloody work of imperialism in the Congo and the Philippines. Wherever he turned something furiously wrong captured his eye. In 1889, on completing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, a book with a sharp edge, he wrote to his friend William Dean Howells that too many subjects had escaped his wrath. ‘They burn in me; and they keep multiplying … but now they can’t ever be said. And besides, they would require a library – and a pen warmed-up in hell.’

This was a late development. Right up until middle life Twain had found it easy to look away. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his greatest book, and the one from which Hemingway said all American writing came, is a withering attack on the racism and hypocrisy which supported American slavery – but only up to a point. The point where the book turns into something else can be marked on a map – Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River joins the Mississippi. Up the Ohio was the North and freedom. Down the Mississippi was the heartland of the cotton kingdom that fattened on slavery. At river’s end was New Orleans, where the overseers worked black men on the sweltering docks until they could endure no more. ‘Being sold down the river’ was a sentence of early death; it is what prompted Jim to leave wife and child in a break for freedom. On the river above Cairo with Huck, Jim feels not only ‘all over trembly and feverish to be so close to freedom’, but rich, because he owns himself, and he is worth $800.

It is the foretaste of freedom that makes life on the raft a kind of paradise for Jim: lazy days naked in the sun, discussing life’s big questions with Huck, eating catfish and watching the weather play over the vast river. But somehow they miss the Cairo turnoff, the last point where they might easily have rowed to freedom in a skiff. Nothing changed when they swept past Cairo but their knowledge of what lay ahead, and they knew because Twain knew.

This was Twain before he lost the ability to look away. Down the Mississippi lay the heart of American darkness. When Jim was seized by the Phelps family, who scratched out a living in ‘one of these little one-horse cotton plantations’ along the river, Twain gave up the struggle. He switched books. The last third of Huckleberry Finn is stage-managed for laughs by Tom Sawyer, dropped into the story by authorial fiat. Tom masterminds Jim’s escape from the Phelps plantation according to all the ‘best authorities’ of boys’ literature. Any evening after dark Jim might have walked out of the cabin where he was being held prisoner, but no, Tom insists they must dig him out, and secret letters must be written, and Jim the lonely prisoner must be friends with spiders and snakes, and a whole lot of other nonsensical stuff which we may as well concede is funny in its way and funny to a point. But it is no longer Huckleberry Finn; it is no longer an unflinching tale of the cruelty and wrong of human bondage. ‘In the whole reach of English literature,’ Bernard DeVoto wrote in 1932, ‘there is no more abrupt or more chilling descent.’ He meant from a brave book to a silly book, which DeVoto considered a shocking failure of literary courage on Twain’s part.

But consider the problem from Twain’s point of view. He had written himself into a corner. Jim had been captured by men who intended to contact his owner and return him to slavery. The owner had sold him down the river. Jim’s only friend was a penniless and semi-literate boy in his teens. They had drifted too far south to hope to escape overland to the north. A novel that finished as it had begun, saying plainly what any honest man would know to be the case, would have seen Jim returned to bondage with shackles on his ankles and fresh stripes on his back, and Huck turned loose on his own, far from home, without friend or protector, at just about the age when boys began to be treated as men: paid little or nothing for labour, beaten for show of defiance or for gazing too long at a woman in the street; jailed for stealing a watermelon, and liable to be hanged for stealing a nigger. Jim’s history would have been lost; he would have disappeared from the view of any white man who was not his owner or his driver. Huck’s history would have been sad and short – probably much like Tom Blankenship’s. Twain looked away, set Jim free on his own say-so, and spared Huck the fate life did not spare Tom.

But after Livy’s death Twain quit looking away. I do not intend to record the history of his opinions on all the things that irritated and angered him in the latter part of his life. It is enough to say that Twain kept busy with his ‘pen warmed-up in hell’. What needs pointing out is the core of his despair – the sense that life has no meaning. We can watch the dam break in the Autobiography. It comes into view on 1 February 1906, the day before the 36th anniversary of his marriage to Livy, when he recalls that he ‘saw her first in the form of an ivory miniature in her brother Charley’s stateroom in the steamer Quaker City in the Bay of Smyrna, in the summer of 1867’. Twain was on the voyage he soon related in The Innocents Abroad, a book so successful that Olivia’s father eventually approved the marriage. Twain could not say enough nice things about Livy, but tried. Thinking of her he thought of their children, which reminded him of Susy, whose warmth and curiosity had delighted her father. Susy is pretty much at the centre of the rest of the first volume of the Autobiography. He is haunted by her simplicity and depth. For happiness Susy required no explanation; it was loss, pain and sorrow that made no sense. ‘Mamma,’ she said at the age of seven, ‘what is it all for?’ When Susy wept over some momentary hurt, Livy tried to explain. ‘There, there, Susy,’ she said, ‘you mustn’t cry over little things.’ Susy tried to think this through, but failed. After two or three days, she asked: ‘Mamma, what is “little things?”’

Susy died before she and her mother went after the big things, but they were much on Twain’s mind. By the time he got down to serious work on the Autobiography he had lost faith that life made sense. His many angers were ultimately a reflection of that. On 21 February 1906, at a dinner in New York, Twain ran into a strange, long, lank fellow with a gold pince-nez and an English way of speaking. Twain imagined he must be at least an earl. But when Twain caught his name he remembered – it was David Gray, son of a friend from Buffalo of the same name. Years before Twain had been an intimate of the elder David Gray, then a vigorous poet and freethinker who earned his bread as the editor of a political newspaper until sunstroke followed by brain fever struck him in late middle age, leaving no poetry, no political opinions, and no capacity for any task more demanding than teaching Bible stories to children. Twain saw him once after the disaster for ‘a few minutes’ talk’. Soon came news that the elder Gray had been crushed and burned to death in a railway accident.

Such stories are a staple of the late Twain. There are many in the Autobiography: encounters with the spent husks of people who had once been all the things wrapped shimmering in the word ‘young’. Seeing David Gray the son was a blow. ‘What was he born for?’ Twain asks silently at the dinner table. ‘What was his father born for? What was I born for? What is anybody born for?’

Twain does not answer these questions, just as he declined to show us the fate waiting for Huck and Jim down the river. But Twain’s late writings hammer out a harsh law of life, the thing he believed at the end. It comes down to this: life is in cruel balance, every good thing shall be taken away and missed until the final hour, the things that make life sweet are the things that make life hurt. Twain lays it out for anybody to see, but he will not say it.