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Pages from Mark Twain’s Autobiography

Robert H. Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project, explains the significance of these two pages from the prefatory matter of Mark Twain’s autobiography.

The text of these pages in Mark Twain’s hand has never been published before, even though they have been in the Mark Twain Papers since June 1906. They are the second and third pages of the prefatory matter Mark Twain drafted when he had at last settled on how to organize the autobiography he was then dictating. Albert Bigelow Paine did not include them in his edition of the Autobiography (1924), almost certainly because he did not know what was meant by ‘Here insert the 44 old-type-written pages.’ Without that understanding, the preface on the previous page was meaningless, and better ignored.

Fortunately the editors of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1 (forthcoming in November from University of California Press) have solved this mystery, among many others. After dictating several times a week for the first six months of 1906, Mark Twain reviewed perhaps thirty or forty early experiments and drafts that he had accumulated since 1870. From them he chose one to begin his Autobiography by illustrating the ‘old, old, old’ method of composition that he had now rejected. He also decided to leave out most of the other experiments (another thing Paine did not understand, since he included all of them in 1924).

The Berkeley editors were able to prove that Mark Twain referred to a typescript (now lost) made in Vienna in 1898, a transcription of a manuscript ‘chapter’ he called ‘My Autobiography [Random Extracts from It].’ That manuscript is extant and it contains many wonderful passages, perhaps the most extraordinary being the extract about the Quarles farm. One should not be misled by the dismissive description in ‘An Early Attempt.’ Mark Twain knew full well that his ‘chapters’ were a superlative example of his best writing, and that they would set the tone for everything else that followed. In fact, shortly before he made this decision, on 22 June 1906, his secretary recorded that ‘after luncheon we sat on the porch & Mr. Clemens read the very first autobiography beginning, written many years ago . . . 44 typewritten pages, & telling of his boyhood days, & the farm . . . It is beautiful. He was deeply moved as he read on & on.’

The exceptional literary merit of ‘Random Extracts’ was recognized early on, and George Harvey selected most of it for the North American Review in 1906 and 1907. Part of it, perhaps the best part, is here reprinted for the first time, however, with the context and authorial purpose supplied by the new understanding of these two prefatory pages.

‘The Farm’, an extract of the autobiography, is printed in Granta 111: Going Back, which is published in the UK today. Read Benjamin Griffin, associate editor on the project, on the experience of editing the whole work – and some advice on this from Twain himself (‘You ought never to edit except when awake.’)