Saturday, October 30, 2010

Autobiography of Mark Twain

Well, it's done--proofed, edited, "in the can" and out in the world. I refer to Blackstone Audio's production of the first volume of the University of California Press's magnificent new edition of Mark Twain's complete, unexpurgated autobiographical dictations.

Twain struggled for years to find a suitable method of laying down a record of his life and thoughts. After numerous written attempts, none of which proved satisfactory, he hit upon the idea of dictation. In 1906 he began a series of oral reminiscences that continued on and off for the next three years and resulted in a full file drawer of typed manuscript. Apart from a few excerpts he prepared for magazine publication, Twain placed an embargo on this enormous project, to be observed until 100 years after his death. The knowledge that he--and anyone else concerned--would be safely in the grave by that time liberated Twain to speak frankly about any person or topic that struck his fancy.

Despite the prohibition, in the decades following his death various editions of the "autobiography" appeared in heavily edited form. The current venture represents the first complete release of this material in what is believed to be the form Twain actually wished it to take.

This first volume includes an introduction, various early materials that he contemplated including in the final manuscript, and the first series of dictations from 1906. Two subsequent volumes will be released over the next couple of years. The entire text can be viewed at, and additional material can be found at The explanatory notes, appendixes and other supporting materials are very interesting and worth a look. There's a fascinating explanation of how they decrypted the four different typescripts and managed to decipher Twain's actual intentions. It's a forensic tour de force and goes far to explain why the project was 20 years in the making.

Things get off to something of a slow start as the editors explain the scope and logic of the project, and we wend our way through the various abortive attempts and peripheral material. (Don't get me wrong, it'll all very interesting.) But when the actual dictations kick in, we are off and running. A coherent pattern begins to emerge, and it's illuminating.

Those familiar with Twain will know that by the end of his life he was a disheartened and embittered man. A misplaced trust in others led to a series of disastrous financial endeavors that left him debt-ridden and cynical, and robbed him of any chance of a secure retirement. He was similarly robbed by Death, who took his wife and two of his daughters before their time. War and politics disgusted him, and the rising tide of American imperialism and religious sanctimony prompted responses that are, even to modern ears, startling in their savagery. Even passages that begin in a light-hearted manner are likely to conclude with a gloomy, "What's it all for?"

But by and large we are treated to exactly the sort of warmth, wit and insight we would expect from this great humorist and lion of American letters. His dazzling, fluid style and impeccable timing are on full display. When he approaches matters of the heart, he speaks with a direct simplicity that is extraordinarily moving.

I have narrated several of Twain's books for Blackstone--among them The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (the latter as "Tom Parker')--and am in the process of recording or re-recording the rest of the canonical works for them. Life on the Mississippi will be released in in December and A Tramp Abroad in January, with Innocents Abroad, Roughing It and others to follow through the year. I feel a strong affinity for Twain's style, and listeners, for the most part, seem to agree. That said, I was not a shoo-in for this project. The publishers wanted approval over the narrator, and I bit my nails for three weeks waiting to hear if they would allow me to do it. Good taste triumphed and I was selected.

Discussions ensued about what to include in the audio version and what to leave out. Notes and references were rightly considered too cumbersome, and the appended speeches and other material, while interesting, are a bit anti-climactic. We settled on the editorial introduction and the main body of Twain's writings and dictations. One significant piece had to be bypassed, which is unfortunate because it is published for the first time. It is an introduction Twain wrote to a translation of the transcripts of Joan of Arc's trial. An exuberant editor took it upon himself to brutally blue-line Twain's prose, regularizing the punctuation and smoothing out the syntax. Twain composed a savagely funny response (which he never mailed). This part is well-known and is included in the recording, but the edited introduction itself (which the clever UC Press typesetters have meticulously reconstructed) is full of strike-throughs, inserts and comments that would have been impossible to read with any fluency or coherence. As noted in the audio version, it can be viewed at

Finally, I was confronted with the question of how to voice Twain himself. As far as anyone knows, no recordings of Mark Twain have survived. In 1891, he attempted to dictate An American Claimant onto a series of wax cylinders, filling four dozen of them before giving up in frustration. These have never been found, though they reportedly contained a great deal of swearing at the machine itself. Thomas Edison made some recordings of Twain in 1909, but these were lost in a fire in 1914. The American actor William Gillette knew Twain well and mimicked him as part of a touring show he put together in the latter part of the 19th century. In 1934 he performed his imitation for a group of Harvard students, and a recording of the event can be heard at It's a fascinating document, but I have little doubt that 20 hours of this sort of delivery would drive even the most patient modern listener around the bend.

Hal Holbrook's impersonation is justly famous, and unlikely to be bettered in ours or any future generation. It's also sui generis and I, for one, wouldn't presume to improve upon its daft brilliance. After experimenting with different approaches, I decided to do what I've done before in Twain's works--speak more or less in my own voice, avoid any hint of caricature, and devote my energy to connecting with Twain's heart and mind. It was rewarding from my standpoint; I can only hope listeners agree.

Here's a sample from the first set of dictations, a little story that exemplifies the sort of self-deprecating charm that permeates the whole work:


  1. Thank you for narrating Twain without trying to imitate the Mississippi drawl. This will be in my Audible checkout cart in just a few minutes.

  2. G: My favorite part of reading Twain was his packing list for an alpine expedition in Germany or Switzerland -- which book was that? Twain's packing list included 200 cigars!

  3. I am thoroughly enjoying this audio-book! Excellent narration.

  4. There is a collection of children's audio books availalbe for downloading free here:

    You have to scroll down to the bottom of the page for the link

  5. You did such a fantastic job. You totally nailed your goal of "connecting with Twain's heart and mind." This is the best reading I have ever heard and am loving every minute of it.