From the Page-Turner blog at The New Yorker:
When Mark Twain opened his mouth, strange things came tumbling out. Things like hoaxes, jokes, yarns, obscenities, and non sequiturs. He had a drawl—his “slow talk,” his mother called it—that made his sentences long and sinuous. One reporter described it as a “little buzz-saw slowly grinding inside a corpse.” Others thought that he sounded drunk.
He loved to talk: to friends, to reporters, to the crowds of adoring fans who filled lecture halls to hear him. He gave famous after-dinner toasts and tossed off witty one-liners that made great copy for the next day’s papers. He could talk all night, preferably with a plentiful supply of cigars and Scotch on hand. He was always bursting with opinions on topics large and small and humming with ideas for new books and new business ventures. He often had trouble sleeping, and drank to numb his nerves. But he never had trouble talking.
He kept talking until the end. In the last years of his life, when he began writing his autobiography, Twain decided to do it mostly by dictation. He sat in bed, with his head propped up on pillows, and riffed and reminisced for hours at a time, while his stenographer took down everything in shorthand. When he was done, he had more than five thousand pages of typescript.
The result is the “Autobiography of Mark Twain,” a monster that has haunted Twain scholars for a hundred years. Its forbidding size and freewheeling structure have puzzled and infuriated generations of researchers who have descended into the archives, hoping to find a finished memoir and instead discovering ten file feet of musings, interspersed with letters and newspaper clippings. Twain insisted that his sprawling memoir not be published until a century after his death, in 1910, so that he could speak freely about everyone and everything. But he couldn’t resist publishing excerpts in the North American Review before he died. And, in the decades since, more has trickled out as editors have waded through Twain’s papers to uncover pieces that they considered worth publishing.
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No complete version appeared until 2010, the centennial of Twain’s death, when the University of California Press published the first of a projected three volumes. The book wasn’t intended for a general audience. It included nearly two hundred pages of endnotes, a scholarly introduction, and a large collection of Twain’s preliminary attempts at autobiography. Even so, the “Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1” sold more than half a million copies. Twain would have been proud. A veteran self-promoter, he had engineered a masterful publicity coup from beyond the grave.
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Other autobiographies “patiently and dutifully follow a planned and undivergent course,” he declares early on. His own, by contrast, is “a pleasure excursion.” It “sidetracks itself anywhere that there is a circus, or a fresh excitement of any kind, and seldom waits until the show is over, but packs up and goes on again as soon as a fresher one is advertised.”
This technique has been a main feature of Twain’s writing from the start. He “wrote as he thought, and as all men think, without sequence, without an eye to what went before or should come after,” said his close friend and his greatest critic, William Dean Howells. This stream-of-consciousness style came partly from his love for the spoken word. He grew up listening to tall tales and slave stories, and he tried to give his writing the slangy spontaneity of speech.
The result was a kind of “continuous incoherence,” to borrow Howell’s phrase, that let Twain realize the rich literary potential of the American vernacular. He helped to create a literature of ordinary life, making art out of material long considered too trivial or too crude to be taken seriously by the custodians of so-called serious culture. In his autobiography, the rambling flow that has always infused his work liberates itself of any pretense of plot or structure and achieves its purest form. It doesn’t always make for riveting reading, but it shows us what made Twain a revolutionary writer.