The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2; edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith, University of California Press, 733 pages ($45). Here is Mark Twain writing of his old friend David Gray – a poet and editor who edited the Buffalo Courier before it merged with the Express – encouraging a skittish Twain to be proud of his scatological classic “1601” and urging him to be bold about taking credit: “Put your name to it. Don’t be ashamed of it. It’s a great and fine piece of literature and deserves to live, and will live. Your ‘Innocents Abroad’ will presently be forgotten but this will survive. Don’t be ashamed, don’t be afraid. Leave the command in your will that your heirs shall put on your tombstone these words and these alone, ‘He wrote “1601.’ ”
Isn’t it nice to know that Gray, the best friend Samuel Langhorne Clemens made in Buffalo, was among his most progressive literary champions? On his own, Twain wasn’t always so progressive. His will famously required the unexpurgated text of this only be published after his death.
We are now into Volume 2 of one of the more marvelous literary projects of our time. As with Volume 1, the only drawback to this massive Volume 2 is, in this case, that the invaluable “Explanatory Notes” begin on Page 457 of a 735-page book. The book, then, is a test of the patience and indeed very reading abilities of many kindly disposed. We can only imagine what Twain himself – especially in one of his more sour and benighted moods – might have written about the cruiserweight tome that had landed in his lap.
None of which detracts a whit from the primal literary joys to be found here. Here is Twain in 1905 replying to a fellow who wanted “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” removed from the children’s section of his local library. “The mind that becomes soiled in youth can never again be washed clean. I know this from my own experience; and to this day I cherish an unappeasable bitterness against the unfaithful guardian of my young life who not only permitted but compelled me to read an unexpurgated Bible through before I was 15 years old. No one can do that and ever draw a sweet breath again this side of the grave.”
– Jeff Simon