Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


Working with Mark Twain

On Tuesday, January 9, 1906, I was on hand with a capable stenographer — Miss Josephine Hobby, who had successively, and successfully, held secretarial positions with Charles Dudley Warner and Mrs. Mary Mapes Dodge, and was therefore peculiarly qualified for the work in hand.

Clemens, meantime, had been revolving our plans and adding some features of his own. He proposed to double the value and interest of our employment by letting his dictations continue the form of those earlier autobiographical chapters, begun with Redpath in 1885, and continued later in Vienna and at the Villa Quarto. He said he did not think he could follow a definite chronological program; that he would like to wander about, picking up this point and that, as memory or fancy prompted, without any particular biographical order. It was his purpose, he declared, that his dictations should not be published until he had been dead a hundred years or more — a prospect which seemed to give him an especial gratification.170

170 [As early as October, 1900, he had proposed to Harper & Brothers a contract for publishing his personal memoirs at the expiration of one hundred years from date; and letters covering the details were exchanged with Mr. Rogers. The document, however, was not completed.]

He wished to pay the stenographer, and to own these memoranda, he said, allowing me free access to them for any material I might find valuable. I could also suggest subjects for dictation, and ask particulars of any special episode or period. I believe this covered the whole arrangement, which did not require more than five minutes, and we set to work without further prologue.

I ought to state that he was in bed when we arrived, and that he remained there during almost all of these earlier dictations, clad in a handsome silk dressing-gown of rich Persian pattern, propped against great snowy pillows. He loved this loose luxury and ease, and found it conducive to thought. On the little table beside him, where lay his cigars, papers, pipes, and various knickknacks, shone a reading-lamp, making more brilliant the rich coloring of his complexion and the gleam of his shining hair. There was daylight, too, but it was north light, and the winter days were dull. Also the walls of the room were a deep, unreflecting red, and his eyes were getting old. The outlines of that vast bed blending into the luxuriant background, the whole focusing to the striking central figure, remain in my mind to-day — a picture of classic value.

He dictated that morning some matters connected with the history of the Comstock mine; then he drifted back to his childhood, returning again to the more modern period, and closed, I think, with some comments on current affairs. It was absorbingly interesting; his quaint, unhurried fashion of speech, the unconscious movement of his hands, the play of his features as his fancies and phrases passed in mental review and were accepted or waved aside. We were watching one of the great literary creators of his time in the very process of his architecture. We constituted about the most select audience in the world enjoying what was, likely enough, its most remarkable entertainment. When he turned at last and inquired the time we were all amazed that two hours and more had slipped away.

“And how much I have enjoyed it!” he said. “It is the ideal plan for this kind of work. Narrative writing is always disappointing. The moment you pick up a pen you begin to lose the spontaneity of the personal relation, which contains the very essence of interest. With shorthand dictation one can talk as if he were at his own dinner-table — always a most inspiring place. I expect to dictate all the rest of my life, if you good people are willing to come and listen to it.”

The dictations thus begun continued steadily from week to week, and always with increasing charm. We never knew what he was going to talk about, and it was seldom that he knew until the moment of beginning; then he went drifting among episodes, incidents, and periods in his irresponsible fashion; the fashion of table-conversation, as he said, the methodless method of the human mind. It was always delightful, and always amusing, tragic, or instructive, and it was likely to be one of these at one instant, and another the next. I felt myself the most fortunate biographer in the world, as undoubtedly I was, though not just in the way that I first imagined.

It was not for several weeks that I began to realize that these marvelous reminiscences bore only an atmospheric relation to history; that they were aspects of biography rather than its veritable narrative, and built largely — sometimes wholly — from an imagination that, with age, had dominated memory, creating details, even reversing them, yet with a perfect sincerity of purpose on the part of the narrator to set down the literal and unvarnished truth. It was his constant effort to be frank and faithful to fact, to record, to confess, and to condemn without stint. If you wanted to know the worst of Mark Twain you had only to ask him for it. He would give it, to the last syllable — worse than the worst, for his imagination would magnify it and adorn it with new iniquities, and if he gave it again, or a dozen times, he would improve upon it each time, until the thread of history was almost impossible to trace through the marvel of that fabric; and he would do the same for another person just as willingly. Those vividly real personalities that he marched and countermarched before us were the most convincing creatures in the world; the most entertaining, the most excruciatingly humorous, or wicked, or tragic; but, alas, they were not always safe to include in a record that must bear a certain semblance to history. They often disagreed in their performance, and even in their characters, with the documents in the next room, as I learned by and by when those records, disentangled, began to rebuild the structure of the years.

His gift of dramatization had been exercised too long to be discarded now. The things he told of Mrs. Clemens and of Susy were true — marvelously and beautifully true, in spirit and in aspect — and the actual detail of these mattered little in such a record. The rest was history only as ‘Roughing It’ is history, or the ‘Tramp Abroad’; that is to say, it was fictional history, with fact as a starting-point. In a prefatory note to these volumes we have quoted Mark Twain’s own lovely and whimsical admission, made once when he realized his deviations:

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter.”

At another time he paraphrased one of Josh Billings’s sayings in the remark: “It isn’t so astonishing, the number of things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so.”

I do not wish to say, by any means, that his so-called autobiography is a mere fairy tale. It is far from that. It is amazingly truthful in the character-picture it represents of the man himself. It is only not reliable — and it is sometimes even unjust — as detailed history. Yet, curiously enough, there were occasional chapters that were photographically exact, and fitted precisely with the more positive, if less picturesque, materials. It is also true that such chapters were likely to be episodes intrinsically so perfect as to not require the touch of art.

In the talks which we usually had, when the dictations were ended and Miss Hobby had gone, I gathered much that was of still greater value. Imagination was temporarily dispossessed, as it were, and, whether expounding some theory or summarizing some event, he cared little for literary effect, and only for the idea and the moment immediately present.

It was at such times that he allowed me to make those inquiries we had planned in the beginning, and which apparently had little place in the dictations themselves. Sometimes I led him to speak of the genesis of his various books, how he had come to write them, and I think there was not a single case where later I did not find his memory of these matters almost exactly in accord with the letters of the moment, written to Howells or Twichell, or to some member of his family. Such reminiscence was usually followed by some vigorous burst of human philosophy, often too vigorous for print, too human, but as dazzling as a search-light in its revelation.

It was during this earlier association that he propounded, one day, his theory of circumstance, already set down, that inevitable sequence of cause and effect, beginning with the first act of the primal atom. He had been dictating that morning his story of the clairvoyant dream which preceded his brother’s death, and the talk of foreknowledge had continued. I said one might logically conclude from such a circumstance that the future was a fixed quantity.

“As absolutely fixed as the past,” he said; and added the remark already quoted. 171 A little later he continued:

“Even the Almighty Himself cannot check or change that sequence of events once it is started. It is a fixed quantity, and a part of the scheme is a mental condition during certain moments usually of sleep — when the mind may reach out and grasp some of the acts which are still to come.”

171 [Chap. lxxv]

It was a new angle to me — a line of logic so simple and so utterly convincing that I have remained unshaken in it to this day. I have never been able to find any answer to it, nor any one who could even attempt to show that the first act of the first created atom did not strike the key-note of eternity.

At another time, speaking of the idea that God works through man, he burst out:

“Yes, of course, just about as much as a man works through his microbes!”

He had a startling way of putting things like that, and it left not much to say.

I was at this period interested a good deal in mental healing, and had been treated for neurasthenia with gratifying results. Like most of the world, I had assumed, from his published articles, that he condemned Christian Science and its related practices out of hand. When I confessed, rather reluctantly, one day, the benefit I had received, he surprised me by answering:

“Of course you have been benefited. Christian Science is humanity’s boon. Mother Eddy deserves a place in the Trinity as much as any member of it. She has organized and made available a healing principle that for two thousand years has never been employed, except as the merest kind of guesswork. She is the benefactor of the age.”

It seemed strange, at the time, to hear him speak in this way concerning a practice of which he was generally regarded as the chief public antagonist. It was another angle of his many-sided character.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05