Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, died a century ago today, but he is still publishing books. He wanted it that way—he specified that his full autobiography not be published for 100 years after his death, and other writings for another 400 years after that.
“When a man is writing a book dealing with the privacies of his life—a book which is to be read while still alive—he shrinks from speaking his whole frank mind”, he wrote.
The hundred-year embargo is up, and UC Press will publish the first of three volumes of his complete and uncensored autobiography, edited by the Mark Twain Project, in November. New editions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Adventures of Tom Sawyer, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and Roughing It will also be published in 2010.
Twain’s characters Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are classics, but his legacy reaches far wider than their adventures. Interviewed in USA Today, Jerome Loving, author of the biography Mark Twain, called him “America’s most iconic writer”. Shelley Fisher Fishkin added that this year, new editions of Twain’s work will be published in French, German, Japanese and Portuguese.
Born in 1835 (two months premature), he worked as a printer, a riverboat pilot, a silver and gold prospector, a journalist, lecturer, and publisher, as well as an author. He is said to have taken the pen name “Mark Twain” from the riverboat call announcing when the water was two fathoms deep.
As Fishkin shows in Mark Twain’s Book of Animals, Twain was also an early and outspoken animal welfare advocate, and wrote about creatures from flies and frogs to cats and camels. His mother was kind to animals, collecting stray cats and refusing to kill flies, but Twain seems to have developed the sentiment through experience, says Fishkin. She cites a passage from Twain’s “A Family Sketch”, in which he recalls shooting a bird out of a tree and feeling immediate, crushing remorse at the senseless act. She echoes this episode with a passage from “Tom Sawyer Abroad”, where Huck Finn describes a similar devastating experience, and vows to never harm a creature again.
In 1866 Twain traveled through Hawaii writing articles for the Sacramento Union, which were the basis for several chapters in Roughing It. He described coconut trees as “a feather duster struck by lightning”, and reportedly planted a monkey pod tree in the southern town of Waiohinu, on the Big Island. The original tree fell down long ago, but a fallen branch sprouted and grew into a new tree. Twain also sampled Hawaiian fruits and found cherimoyas to be “deliciousness itself”, but said of tamarinds: “I found, afterward, that only strangers eat tamarinds—but they only eat them once.”
Why is Twain’s voice, especially his humor, still relevant today? In an interview with npr.org, Jerome Loving says it’s because “his jokes go to the roots of human nature. It’s humor that doesn’t depend on its own time. It’s universal.”
This universal humor and cutting, satirical wisdom have endured for a century already, making Mark Twain a beloved voice and valued advisor to generations of readers. Now, long after he and everyone who knew him are gone, he is free to speak his true mind—and tell us what he was really thinking.