November 15, 2010
Volume I of the Autobiography of Mark Twain is in stores today, published 100 years after Twain’s death. He might find it especially hilarious that, while he specifically requested that this material not appear in book form until 100 years after his death, the the book is actually appearing now (more or less in accordance with his wishes) more as the result of coincidence than anything else.
I want to read this book—and the two volumes which will follow it over the next five years—because I have always felt a kinship with Twain. As far as I know, he was the first writer whose authorial voice sounds like people now living. Much of this, I think, arises from Twain’s existential sorrow. I tend to think of him as a temporal castaway, marooned in a world that was as alien to him as it would be to me.
By the time Twain died in 1910, nearly all of the people most dear to him in the world had died before him. As a castaway, however, he did not enjoy the comforts of conventional 19th century religion because he simply didn’t believe it. He was alone in his grief in ways that few of the people around him would have been able to understand.
I got the tiniest inkling of what Twain must have endured when my father died. I was told repeatedly that he had “gone to a better place” and that he was “with the Lord.” I didn’t believe it then, and I don’t believe it now. In my world, however, unbelief can be spoken aloud. Unlike Twain, I wasn’t obligated to behave as if comforted by banal fictions that did not comfort me at all.
As I understand the Autobiography, it is Twain’s message in a bottle from his time to the future. He finished it just a few months before his own death. I wish he could have known how many people like me are waiting for it expectantly here in 2010.