Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine


“What is Man?” And the Autobiography

Clemens decided to publish anonymously, or, rather, to print privately, the Gospel, which he had written in Vienna some eight years before and added to from time to time. He arranged with Frank Doubleday to take charge of the matter, and the De Vinne Press was engaged to do the work. The book was copyrighted in the name of J. W. Bothwell, the superintendent of the De Vinne company, and two hundred and fifty numbered copies were printed on hand-made paper, to be gradually distributed to intimate friends. 176 A number of the books were sent to newspaper reviewers, and so effectually had he concealed the personality of his work that no critic seems to have suspected the book’s authorship. It was not over-favorably received. It was generally characterized as a clever, and even brilliant, expose of philosophies which were no longer startlingly new. The supremacy of self-interest and “man the irresponsible machine” are the main features of ‘What Is Man’ and both of these and all the rest are comprehended in his wider and more absolute doctrine of that inevitable life-sequence which began with the first created spark. There can be no training of the ideals, “upward and still upward,” no selfishness and unselfishness, no atom of voluntary effort within the boundaries of that conclusion. Once admitting the postulate, that existence is merely a sequence of cause and effect beginning with the primal atom, and we have a theory that must stand or fall as a whole. We cannot say that man is a creature of circumstance and then leave him free to select his circumstance, even in the minutest fractional degree. It was selected for him with his disposition; in that first instant of created life. Clemens himself repeatedly emphasized this doctrine, and once, when it was suggested to him that it seemed to “surround every thing, like the sky,” he answered:

176 [In an introductory word (dated February, 1905) the author states that the studies for these papers had been made twenty-five or twenty-seven years before. He probably referred to the Monday Evening Club essay, “What Is Happiness?” (February, 1883). See chap. cxli.]

“Yes, like the sky; you can’t break through anywhere.”

Colonel Harvey came to Dublin that summer and persuaded Clemens to let him print some selections from the dictations in the new volume of the North American Review, which he proposed to issue fortnightly. The matter was discussed a good deal, and it was believed that one hundred thousand words could be selected which would be usable forthwith, as well as in that long-deferred period for which it was planned. Colonel Harvey agreed to take a copy of the dictated matter and make the selections himself, and this plan was carried out. It may be said that most of the chapters were delightful enough; though, had it been possible to edit them with the more positive documents as a guide, certain complications might have been avoided. It does not matter now, and it was not a matter of very wide import then.

The payment of these chapters netted Clemens thirty thousand dollars — a comfortable sum, which he promptly proposed to spend in building on the property at Redding. He engaged John Mead Howells to prepare some preliminary plans.

Clara Clemens, at Norfolk, was written to of the matter.

A little later I joined her in Redding, and she was the first of the family to see that beautiful hilltop. She was well pleased with the situation, and that day selected the spot where the house should stand. Clemens wrote Howells that he proposed to call it “Autobiography House,” as it was to be built out of the Review money, and he said:

“If you will build on my farm and live there it will set Mrs. Howells’s health up for sure. Come and I’ll sell you the site for twenty-five dollars. John will tell you it is a choice place.”

The unusual summer was near its close. In my notebook, under date of September 16th, appears this entry:

Windy in valleys but not cold. This veranda is protected. It is peaceful here and perfect, but we are at the summer’s end.

This is my last entry, and the dictations must have ceased a few days later. I do not remember the date of the return to New York, and apparently I made no record of it; but I do not think it could have been later than the 20th. It had been four months since the day of arrival, a long, marvelous summer such as I would hardly know again. When I think of that time I shall always hear the ceaseless slippered, shuffling walk, and see the white figure with its rocking, rolling movement passing up and down the long gallery, with that preternaturally beautiful landscape behind, and I shall hear his deliberate speech — always deliberate, save at rare intervals; always impressive, whatever the subject might be; whether recalling some old absurdity of youth, or denouncing orthodox creeds, or detailing the shortcomings of human-kind.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00