Will Publication of the Autobiography of Mark Twain Resurrect the Book Format?

“Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for-annually, not oftener-if they succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.” Excerpt From the Autobiography of Mark Twain

mark twain
An early photo of Mark Twain.

Book stores across the country are running out of it quickly. The publisher’s initial printing was for only 7,500 copies. But what initially looked like an academic book is turning out to be a popular book, a collector’s item. Mark Twain is injecting life into the fledgling independent bookstores across our nation. Well maybe not entirely, but he’s helping them out. Why is a traditional, academic book striking a popular nerve?

It must simply be the irresistible charm of Mark Twain, speaking from the grave, and telling us truths that we may be afraid hear, such as the notion that our Thanksgiving celebration is a sham of white pilgrims who were hell-bent on eradicating the poor Indians.

Okay, while it’s a bitter pill to swallow, we don’t mind it if Mr. Twain tells us this. And now our curiosity is pricked, why does Twain think that Teddy Roosevelt is such a big dork, or how did Christianity become a total sham during the Guilded Age?

Twain has clout, PULL that never diminishes with his dying breath, when Halley’s Comet took him away from us a hundred years ago. I hightailed it over to Bookpeople yesterday to get my name on the waiting list for The Autobiography.

Bookpeople is selling the Autobiography of Mark Twain like hotcakes!

To prepare myself for the impending Autobiography, I dropped by Half-Price Books on North Lamar. They had plenty of Mark Twain books. Anthologies, biographies, travelogues and children’s editions of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

Those I had read 100s of times before, along with reenactments of robbers, Indians and pirates, scaring the neighbors. I chose a handsome edition of The Prince And The Pauper, published by Classic Library. Mark writes with the old-timey formalism of royalty and entitlement.

Further preparation includes two viewings of a Ken Burns’ PBS documentary from 2000, Mark Twain. You can see it on Netflix on their Watch Instantly feature; it’s 220 minutes and covers Twain’s entire life, using photographs and copious quotations from Twain. Towards the end of his life Thomas Edison introduced film, so we can see some footage of an elderly Twain. Ken Burns is linear in approach, so we can get a perspective of American history as well. That is, we can channel the intersection of Samuel Clemons with America.

My favorite portion was the coverage of the writing of Huck Finn. Got writers block for a while and put it down. Wrote Life On The Mississippi and went back to his home in Hannibal, Missouri. Got the inspiration and picked up the pieces of Huck Finn. Saw something on the river that spoke to him about slavery.

The Autobiography aint linear, Twain flashes all over his life, current events, politics, philosophy, journalism and everything in between. Linear biographies and histories will help paint a complete picture.

Huck Finn
An original edition of the Adventures of Huck Finn.

I’m jumping on the bandwagon myself; when I was a little boy, my family would travel to Missouri to see our kin. My Aunt Jeanie and Aunt Martha (bless their souls, for they are now departed this world) would take me to St. Louis for an adventure on the SS Admiral, a real, live riverboat ride down the Mississippi!

Last summer, when my father died, we returned to Missouri to deposit the ashes to his grave in Tuscumbia, Missouri. We passed through St. Louis and sojourned down to the river dock to have a bite of lunch in what I believe is the Arts District. Lo and behold, sitting on the Old Muddy was the leisure cruiser, the SS Admiral! It looked different to me, had maybe been fixed up. I took me some postcard pictures of it and have included one fur ya here, to take a gander.

These riverboat rides in the early 1960s were grand old times, and gave me a chance to see what Mark Twain musta seen when he was a riverboat captain. It was during these days, before the U.S. Civil War, when Samuel gathered much of the fodder that he would integrate into his books.

You could see debris floating down the river; I still remember in Huck Finn when Jim seen Huck’s old drunken pappy floating down the river. Jim didn’t let on to Huck until much later in the tale. ‘Twould hurt em too much.

SS Admiral
This is the SS Admiral docked on the Mississippi in St. Louis. I took some nice riverboat rides when I was a young boy, and felt like I was Mark Twain when he was a riverboat captain!

Never been to Hannibal, but will get there sometime. Aint a Twain scholar but will chew on these matters more, especially when I get my Autobiography. An angle that most piques my interest, is what did Twain contribute to American Journalism? I’d like to read some of his articles, written as a working journalist.

The folks over at the University of California Press have done a marvelous job with this project. There web page created for this book is out of this world. I will link it for you and I think you will agree with me, it’s a treasure to behold! Lots of photos, art, audio and video, with a helpful timeline of Mark Twain’s life.

I won’t be surprised in the least bit if there sales go over one million. Americans are coming behind this Autobiography; we can learn not just about the life of Mark Twain, but we learn what happened to America in the second half of the nineteenth century and the first ten years of the twentieth.

I know you are gonna get it. I’m trickin’ you into buying it just like Tom Sawyer coaxed his buddies into whitewashing his fence. I’m a swindler of a door-to-door salesman. This will fly because you can’t resist. I’ll take my royalty check from U. of California Press.

You don’t read it straight through, you nibble at it, it’s a fancy reference work. You might just read a few lines a day and supplement it with various of his other novels. Did you know that the precious ideas about slavery (in Huck Finn) and the freeing of the slaves was more a result of Reconstruction than it was the Civil War, per se?

Will the release of the Autobiography of Mark Twain (Volume I) reinvigorate the traditional format of the printed book? Perhaps, in part. This is a collectible. A book you want lyin’ ’round your children’s home long after you are deposited in your final resting place. I see similarities in the collecting of vinyl records.

CDs just don’t measure up to this earlier format. And you can put your hands on it; it’s tactile, you can gaze at the pictures and dream you’re on the Mississippi again! I better ski-dad-le right quick, lest I get tarred and feathered and run outta this mud-hole of a River Town!