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A Century Later, Twain's Final Work Hits Bestseller List

Mark Twain in Elmira, New York in 1874, where his family spent summers and he did much of his writing.

'The Autobiography of Mark Twain' is the first of three volumes the writer left to be published 100 years after his death

One of the most popular books in the United States right now is by an author who has been dead for a century. "The Autobiography of Mark Twain" is the first of three volumes which make up writer Samuel Clemens' final work.

On hold for 100 years

This is the first time the final work by the man who wrote "Huckleberry Finn," "Tom Sawyer," and "The Prince and the Pauper" has been published in its entirety.

"It was deliberately unpublished," says Robert Hirst, curator of the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California Berkley, where Twain's biography has been held since 1949. "He specifically says he doesn't want it published in its entirety, complete, until 100 years after his death."

According to Hirst, the author wanted the freedom to be truthful and frank with his opinions. "Mark Twain had a very tender heart. He liked to say nasty things, and he was very good at saying nasty things, but he really didn't want to hurt anybody's feelings. And he himself didn't want to be shunned because of his extraordinary opinions."

One of his most outspoken opinions in the book centers on U.S. soldiers in the Philippines during the 1898 Spanish-American War who reportedly massacred 600 native men, women and children. The victims, who were essentially defenseless, had gathered in the crater of a dormant volcano.

"General Wood was present and looking on," Twain writes. "His order had been 'Kill or capture those savages.' Apparently our little army considered that the 'or' left them authorized to kill or capture according to taste, and that their taste had remained what it has been for eight years, in our army out there - the taste of Christian butchers."

Twain's criticism of "our imperial behavior in the Philippines rings awfully true to us," Hirst says. "We have seen some imperial behavior in our own history that is not very different."

Modern book

According to Hirst, Twain was a forward-looking person. Even the format of his autobiography is ground-breaking - a series of dictations he began in 1906, at the age of 70, on whatever struck his fancy.

"He so frees himself from the chronological compulsion, that he really is able to talk about whatever he feels like talking about, and when he loses interest to the least degree to change to something else."

Because the book isn't in chronological order, the reader can dive in at any point and learn more about the people who inspired his famous characters or pick up a story about getting the measles as a child or meeting President Grover Cleveland or Helen Keller. Throughout, Twain shows his trademark humor.

"I do think it is fundamentally the humor that keeps us coming back," Hirst says. "This is fun to read, simply because you cannot anticipate when he will say something funny."

Twain continued his dictations for three-and-a-half years. He ends it, Hirst says, when his youngest daughter, Jean, an epileptic, dies in 1909.

The Clemens family in Hartford, Connecticut in 1884.
The Clemens family in Hartford, Connecticut in 1884.

"She has just come home from one of the institutions she has been staying in, and she is preparing Christmas for him and she has it all set up for him and then she dies in the bathtub on Christmas Eve." That day, the author writes about his daughter and notes, "This is the last part of the autobiography."

Waiting game

Twain died the following April. He saw the autobiography as a way to provide income for his daughters after his death, since he feared the copyright on his books would soon expire. Despite his admonition to delay publication until a century after his death, Hirst says the author did release portions of it even in his lifetime.

"He knew well and so did his publisher at the time that if you said, 'Here is a little piece of the autobiography, but you can't read the book until Mark Twain dies.' They both knew that it would attract people's attention and I don't think there is any question that it has."

The first of three volumes is now in its sixth printing. The autobiography contains no new revelations about Twain, but Hirst believes it's the closest thing to having a conversation with one of America's best-loved authors.

"Of course you don't get to do any of the talking," he says, "but most of us would be content just to listen."