Mark’s Twain’s effort to produce an autobiography brings a number of ideas to mind for me. He provides a hint of post-modern potential. By post-modern, I think I mean post-maudlin. And that means (or perhaps just suggests) something at least straying from the sentimental.
In Boswell’s Life of Johnson (can we say that the diary of Samuel Pepys is the life of his johnson? Okay, moving on), we repeatedly hear Johnson speak of the fine sentiments of certain great works (Oliver Goldsmith et al.), as if enunciation of a good program were the heart of literature. No slander on the author of “The Deserted Village, 20 pages of observation and social concern. The fine sentiments and instigation,—viz., for further instance, Shelley’s rollicking “The Mask of Anarachy”—can certainly be the field of poetry. It just cannot describe the whole of poetry’s possibilities. We have found, have we not, that dickheads and ding dongs produce fine literature too. I mean, allow that our modernist anti-Semites did, despite their scuzz, create nerve endings of interest. Artists are like people, and they vary and disappoint at times.
And so I have taken a round trip to my point, if indeed it is sharp enough to be so called. Twain’s autobiography, the so far of which can be found here (2 more volumes await the light of day), illustrates post-maudlin attitude, I think.
For some 40 years, Mark Twain laboured with the idea of autobiography. He clearly envisioned a work putting “it all” in, like he was channeling John Ashbery. He aimed for “complete honesty”, like the woebegone incorporated of the so called Confessionals. His seriousness in this exercise shows in his willingness to wait a century before full publication of whatever he produced. Libel laws might be an influence, of course, but still.
He enjoyed enough clarity to forswear chronology. He wanted to retail memories and episodes strictly as they came to him, disorderly and important. Isn’t that the practice of many of our post-modern stepping stones?
Twain’s accumulation of autobiography slogged thru assorted ideas of attack. The newfangled typewriter tempted him, not so much for composition as for the logistical labour relief. Dictation became a tool, because he wanted that flighty garrulity of memory and occasion. He even utilized Thomas Edison’s invention, declaiming his stories to a phonograph. Not a great success, but look how open he was to the new.
His project endured numerous false starts. Call what we receive via the Mark Twain Project a false finish, since (like Charles Olson’s 3rd volume of Maximus), the author did not live to see the final version. Not, really, to say what I am reading now accepts the mantle of finality. It consists of what a bunch of editorial myrmidons collated into a functional army for the relief of I dunno what poor franchise.
The big ass post-modern markers like The Cantos, Maximus, and name your poison, shine with inclusion. Not a new idea. Virginia Woolf wrote about moments and moments and moments, gravely endured and noted. Henry James pushed plot aside to envelope the words between the actions. And so on. Proust, we know, had a life to live as he relived the life. Melville interlarded Moby Dick, and the rest of his oeuvre, with telltale importations from his curiosity. My list of examples stands far from complete. Hello, Montaigne, DonQuixote, Tristram Shandy, and so on.
What Twain wrote does not read strange, if maybe neatniks may squawk about structure. He recounts, for instance, how he garnered the rights to Ulysses Grant’s memoir, Grant dying as he wrote. Twain writes of being skinned by an inventor of a typography machine. I actually have not gotten to the part officially designated the autobiography: I still reside in the introductory front matter. I see not the shape but the functional approach. I like it. I will keep reading.
Poetry, you see, clambers towards some opening. What, we wonder as we read, could be within that opening?