The Unexpurgated Autobiography of Mark Twain

Books • Views: 15,528

Here’s a new book I’m very much looking forward to reading, reviewed by Larry Rohter in the New York Times Books section: Mark Twain’s Unexpurgated Autobiography.

Twain’s autobiography has been previously published, but only after meddlesome editors removed some passages, ostensibly to protect Twain’s reputation.

Versions of the autobiography have been published before, in 1924, 1940 and 1959. But the original editor, Albert Bigelow Paine, was a stickler for propriety, cutting entire sections he thought offensive; his successors imposed a chronological cradle-to-grave narrative that Twain had specifically rejected, altered his distinctive punctuation, struck additional material they considered uninteresting and generally bowed to the desire of Twain’s daughter Clara, who died in 1962, to protect her father’s image.

“Paine was a Victorian editor,” said Robert Hirst, curator and general editor of the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where Twain’s papers are housed. “He has an exaggerated sense of how dangerous some of Twain’s statements are going to be, which can extend to anything: politics, sexuality, the Bible, anything that’s just a little too radical. This goes on for a good long time, a protective attitude that is very harmful.”

Twain was especially harsh in his criticism of American involvement in Cuba and the Philippines.

Twain’s opposition to incipient imperialism and American military intervention in Cuba and the Philippines, for example, were well known even in his own time. But the uncensored autobiography makes it clear that those feelings ran very deep and includes remarks that, if made today in the context of Iraq or Afghanistan, would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers.

In a passage removed by Paine, Twain excoriates “the iniquitous Cuban-Spanish War” and Gen. Leonard Wood’s “mephitic record” as governor general in Havana. In writing about an attack on a tribal group in the Philippines, Twain refers to American troops as “our uniformed assassins” and describes their killing of “six hundred helpless and weaponless savages” as “a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.”

Oh, the right wing blogosphere would have a field day with Mark Twain today; imagine the rants from Jim Hoft and Ed Morrissey and Andrew Breitbart, and the death threats at Free Republic! I wish Pamela Geller would review the book, but right now she’s too busy writing mash notes to genocidal Serbian war criminals.

UPDATE at 7/11/10 1:48:36 pm:

Here’s a PBS News Hour segment on the new version of Twain’s autobiography.

Youtube Video

(Hat tip: Slumbering Behemoth.)

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