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Informal Autobiography


ISSUE:  Spring 1925

Mark Twain’s Autobiography. With an Introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine, 2 vols. New York: Harper & Bros. $10.

Jane Welsh Carlyle: Letters to Her Family, 1829-1865. Edited by Leonard Huxley, LL.D. New York: Doubleday, Page & Co. $5.

In his seventy-first year, Samuel L. Clemens dictated what he calls “a combined diary and autobiography,” in which, now nearly fifteen years after his death, he speaks with posthumous frankness. His idea of an autobiography came to him in Florence, in 1904: “Start at no particular time of 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 upon your mind meanwhile.” Thus whimsically executed, the Autobiography might be named Mark Twain’s Memorabilia, although little things share its pages equally with the great. The irregular narrative is relieved by comments, humorous, satirical, serious, sometimes poetic, on men and events, drawn from the memories of a rich and varied life.

It cannot be said that the Autobiography throws any new light on the character and opinions of Mark Twain; the biography of Paine, the letters, and the reminiscences by Howells and others, to say nothing of the autobiographical matter in his own books, have left little to be revealed in the life-story of the best known American of his generation.

After all, it is the emphasis, the confirmation, that counts for most in this latest human document of him. From it alone, even if the rest should perish, the future reader would get a definite spiritual picture of the man—his prejudices, his virtues, and his joy of living despite the deepening disillusion and the painful sense of the essential futility of the human lot. There bubbled up in him to the end a fountain of youthful ebullience which abundantly justified his wife’s pet name of “Youth” for this incurable big boy. Mrs. Clemens was, indeed, his unfailing critic, by whose vigilance he was kept fairly within the bounds of propriety of speech whenever he too strongly inclined toward Rabelaisian mirth.

Mark Twain’s tributes to his mother, his wife, and his daughter Susy, who died at twenty-four, form the lyric notes of the Autobiography. Susy’s “biography” of her father, with its whimsical spelling, is scattered along like a continued story, or linking thread, in much of the second volume, approved or corrected with extended comment. The other persons who were near his heart, such as Joe Twichell, H. H. Rogers, W. D. Howells, and sundry friends of his western days who turned up from time to time, come in for bits of serious portrayal. The public men of his day who apparently appealed to him most were General Grant and Grover Cleveland. His attendance at a White House reception and the amusement he afforded Mrs. Cleveland by requesting her to sign a statement to the effect that he had not worn his arctics in the White House, to be sent to his wife; his successful letter to little Ruth Cleveland requesting her to ask her father to retain a certain efficient Republican official—are less familiar instances of his unconventional manners and his political independence. He was, of course, an independent in politics as in everything else, ready to defy public opinion wherever he scented social injustice.

Nothing, indeed, so aroused Mark Twain to indignant protest as tyranny. His diatribes against slavery are well known, his sympathy with the Russian revolutionists (alas! what would he say today?), his repeated harping upon the “Morris incident” at the White House in the Roosevelt administration, his scathing criticism of General Wood for the slaughter of the Moros, his ironic comment upon the exclusion of “Huckleberry Finn” from certain libraries as unfit for youthful reading, are among the outstanding examples of his hatred of oppression or intolerance. No less cordial was his dislike of literary romancers and other purveyors of shams, though heaven knows he was himself one of the biggest romancers that ever lived! And he was also, be it said, one of the best users of the English language that ever lived.

He is, however, unsparing of himself in his ironically humorous revelations of his lifelong gullibility on “promising” schemes and his interest in mechanical inventions like typesetting machines and burglar alarms. This is again the boy in him, or better perhaps, an inheritance from his visionary father or his sanguine cousin, James Lampton, the original of Colonel Mulberry Sellers and his “there’s millions in it” enterprises. Still, one gathers that Mark Twain, for all his dreaminess and impulsiveness, was the sanest and the most sagacious of the Clemens tribe. Though in the course of a long life he had met many men of many minds in many lands, from peasants to emperors, from fools to philosophers, he still kept fresh his provincial interest in the common man, in spite of the world-weariness and the disenchantment which personal sorrow and wider knowledge brought to him.

Aside from her involvement in literary history as the wife of a great dyspeptic genius, Jane Welsh Carlyle long ago became famous on her own account through some six hundred letters edited by Froude and by Alexander Carlyle. Now over two hundred more have come to light, nearly fifty years after her death, from which one hundred and sixty-five have been selected and edited by Leonard Huxley, son of the eminent scientist. These letters were long in the keeping of Miss Chrystal, daughter of Jeannie Welsh, “Babbie,” Mrs. Carlyle’s cousin, to whom most of them were written. Others are addressed to Jeannie’s sister Helen who was also a favorite of her older cousin.

In these familiar letters a clever and not over-happy woman unlocked her heart to two understanding souls, one of whom in particular, Jeannie, though eighteen years her junior, was her spirit’s sister. The centre of a coterie, including Mazzini, Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s brother), Tennyson, Harriet Martineau, Thackeray, and other Victorians, Jane Welsh Carlyle often held her little court. There was good talk whether her dour husband was present or not. Were he absent at one of Lady Ashburton’s conversaziones, where shone political lights as well as literary, or dining with “the stupid Chadwicks,” his wife could make Tennyson feel at home with pipes and infinite tobacco, brandy and water, and “a deluge of tea over and above,” “talking like an angel, only exactly as if he were talking with a clever man!” But one gathers that she was happiest with her feet on the fender, less manfully conversing with the exiled Mazzini and the kindly ironical Darwin or with the witty Cavaignac. Her world, indeed, was in the privacies of 5 Cheyne Row, not in the splendors of Lady Ashburton’s salon where Carlyle’s errant knighthood had drawn her into a somewhat fitful favor. Nothing in the letters is finer than Mrs. Carlyle’s comments upon this intellectual liaison of Carlyle and Lady Ashburton. If there was jealousy, she had the humor effectually to conceal it. She, too, had admirers as well as younger Lady Harriett! Laughingly she quotes the reply of the old Countess of Essex at eighty to a young gentleman who had inquired “when does a woman have done with love?” “Ask some one older than me!”

But these charming letters are not mainly concerned with society and celebrities. The domestic tribulations of the sprightly mistress of 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea, were considerable; what with a husband who could bear no noise indoors and next door when in the throes of biographic and historic birth, and a maid whose efficient loyalty was punctuated with periodic drunkenness, Mrs. Carlyle led no life of high serenity. Feeding a bilious man required great dietary tact, and keeping his room sound-proof demanded daily vigilance. Meeting and getting rid of the bores who often invaded the great man’s domain required no small degree of diplomatic grace. It was no easy task to make things go smoothly with a temperamental author who was made cross, for instance, by the announcement from his publisher!? that a new edition of his Cromwell must be issued, though this would bring him in three hundred pounds. He abhorred the trouble of correcting proofs! With inward laughter his wife exclaims in a letter to “Babbie”: “There is no satisfying of that man.” And yet there is little or no complaint about her domestic vexations, and certainly no more than half-humorous allusions to the great Thomas’s absorption in authorship and her own consequent loneliness. One is a tittle surprised, however, to read how often Carlyle was dining out or spending week-ends away from London and how infrequently she accompanied him. But then she was for many years an invalid and sought relief perhaps too often in morphia and, along with her husband, in the drastic solace of blue pills.

These last letters only confirm the impression of Jane Welsh Carlyle gained from the earliest volumes—an intellectual woman of personal charm, common sense, and playful humor. The comments on the day’s tasks and the persons of the Carlylean coterie make these hastily written, intimate letters memorable bits of bright gossip and sketchy portraiture. The tone is predominantly cheerful, but in many of them one catches a different undertone. At forty-two she wrote to her younger cousin Jeannie: “Not very gay certainly, not happy—who in a world like this that has any more reflection than the Brutes can be what they call happy at my age?—but I am better than happy in having learned to do without happiness.”

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