Twain wanders about his life

"Finally," Mark Twain writes in his autobiography, "in Florence in 1904, I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography, start it at no particular time in your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime."

There are several interesting things to note about this passage: First, Twain's wife, Olivia, his beloved Livy, died of heart disease on June 5, 1904, in Florence, and Twain immediately lost interest in the autobiography, not for the first time.

Second, Twain had been trying to write his autobiography since 1876, the year he published "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," his fictionalized autobiographical children's book inspired by and dedicated to the American bad boy, certainly a more rough-hewn, satirical, memorable yet flawed book than his good friend Thomas Bailey Aldrich's "The Story of a Bad Boy" from 1870. Twain remembers Aldrich in his autobiography as "always witty, always brilliant ... never had a peer for prompt and pithy and witty and humorous sayings."

According to his own testimony, Twain did not finally arrive at getting a handle on how he should write an autobiography for 28 years. Granted, he worked on his autobiography in fits and starts over these years. Indeed, most of the attempts were aborted.

This new, completist edition of the "Autobiography of Mark Twain," with all its outtakes and false starts, comes on the 100th anniversary of Twain's death — per his instructions.

As its editor, Harriet Elinor Smith, points out, Twain had autobiography on his mind in much of his writing: "The Innocents Abroad," "Roughing It" and "Life on the Mississippi," as well as "Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and several stories and sketches.

He was also responsible for getting Ulysses S. Grant to write his memoirs, one of the truly great American autobiographies and military books. His failure of a brother, Orion, wrote an autobiography that Twain read. Twain adopted the persona of a French memoirist for his "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc." He had more than his share of direct literary experience with autobiography.

Moreover, according to Mrs. James T. Fields' diary of 1876, Twain had worked out how he would do it: "I shall not limit myself as to space and at whatever ever age I am writing about even if I am an infant and an idea comes to me about myself when I am forty I shall put that in." This is essentially the approach he is describing in 1904, a kind of autobiographer's version of free association. Did he really think that his eureka moment in 1904 was substantially different from his thinking in 1876? From the very beginning, he never wanted to write a linear or chronological, clockwork autobiography. That much is clear.

Was there a refinement in his thinking, in the technique, in the approach that took him 28 or so years to figure out? Was part of the struggle trying to work out the voice, trying to blend the literary with the oral as, in the end, the autobiography was successfully dictated, after several unsuccessful attempts at this method?

To be sure, Twain wanted to explicitly embed in his autobiography his theory for writing autobiography, and he kept expressing fundamentally the same idea in different ways. The ways he thinks about autobiography became as much a subject of the book as Twain's life and relationships. And for Twain, conventional, linear autobiography is not a life story.

This University of California Press edition, with its more than 200 pages of notes, is something like the director's edition of the autobiography, with virtually all the extant failed efforts before the full 1906 dictation, with all of Twain's textual interpolations and scrapbook effects.

Reading the book is fine as long as one does not mind the effect of being constantly interrupted with digressions, asides and commentary by the author on his need to interrupt.

At times, this can feel innovative, postmodernist, at other times like someone burlesquing an autobiography with varying results, at still other times annoying. Portions feel like a diary. Twain was right that some portions feel stilted. At times, the book can be downright boring.

It is an enormously self-conscious book in a way that is distinct from virtually any other autobiography I have read. It is not, by any means, the stylishly intricate narrative accomplishment that is "The Education of Henry Adams," a transformative text in American literary history.

Yet, "Autobiography of Mark Twain" is an extraordinarily rich and engaging book. There are a couple of tiny vignettes about Sandy, the little slave boy of the Clemens family who was the model for Jim the slave boy in "Tom Sawyer." Twain talks about Uncle Dan'l, the model for the adult Jim in "Huckleberry Finn." Twain's brief descriptions of his relationships with blacks as a child are immensely helpful in understanding why he depicted them as he did in his books.

The sections on Grant are revealing about how Twain got the general to write his memoirs. Indeed, I found Twain's depiction of military figures among the more fascinating portraits of the book.

His battles with the evil countess whose villa he is renting during his stay in Florence in 1904 are illuminating, if a bit too long. The conflict with the countess over having a phone installed at the villa is hilarious, yet one feels Twain's anger and frustration.

And the story about Mrs. Minor Morris' rude and rough expulsion from the White House when she refused an audience with Theodore Roosevelt winds up being more compelling than, by any rights, it should be.

"The thing uppermost in a person's mind is the thing to talk about or write about," Twain writes, and this is exactly what he does in his autobiography, most of the time to remarkable effect.

When he was bad, Twain was worse than a mediocre writer, but when he was good, he was one of the greatest American writers who ever lived. In the autobiography he is not always good, but he is good more times than not, and the book itself is a curiously grand literary accomplishment. Thank God it is now published the way it was meant to be.

"Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1," edited by Harriet Elinor Smith (University of California Press, 708 pages, $34.95)