BOOKS OF THE TIMES
by Ralph Thompson
MARK TWAIN IN ERUPTION: Hitherto Unpublished Pages About Men and Events. Edited by Bernard DeVoto. 402 pages. Harper. $3.75
Some time back we all learned, if we read the newspapers, that Bernard DeVoto was going through a huge drift of unpublished Mark Twain manuscripts and typescripts. This was at the request of the Twain estate and Harper & Brothers, the idea being that Mr. DeVoto would prepare for publication such items as, in his opinion, were worth the necessary ink and effort.
The first product is now available in the bookstores, under the title of "Mark Twain in Eruption." I call it the first product, although it might as well be called the first prize, for Mr. DeVoto has struck gold as surely as Jim Marshall ever did that day in January, 1848. What else he will dig out and dredge up in the course of time is apparently still an editorial secret, but if the rest proves to be anywhere near as genuinely 24-carat as this, then he has hit on a bonanza indeed and for fair.
The new book is not fiction, history, poetry or anything along that line. In simplest terms, it is autobiography, more autobiography - "More" because it is in fact a selection made by Mr. DeVoto from he material Albert Bigelow Paine passed by in preparing his two-volume edition of the "Autobiography" in 1924.
When Mark died in 1910, that is, he left behind his memoirs in typewritten form. Paine, as literary executor, went through them and picked out the portions he liked best or thought most appropriate for the public to read. He printed less than half, it appears, of the typescript as Mark left it. Mr. DeVoto gives us part of the material that Paine wouldn't- or at any rate didn't- use.
Part of it, not all of it; for la, lo and behold, Mr. DeVoto has followed in Paine's footsteps in more senses than one. But we shall come to that matter when we come to it in, anyhow, there is ample to be thankful and grateful for in the book as it stands. Mr. DeVoto has added hundreds of inimitable pages to what scholars would call the canon - and not only for the use of scholars but for the delectation and edification of all readers of Mark Twain.
Specifically, he has added Mark's sulphurous comments on certain people he knew - Theodore Roosevelt, for one, Bret Harte, for another, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, Marie Corelli and a dozen more. He has added certain observations on God and the Good Life that evidently were too strong for Paine's stomach, and remarks on publishers and the publishing business that would doubtless have sounded scandalous once upon a time.
He has added several amusing reminiscences of Hannibal days, a few exchanges of correspondence, and assorted gripes, groans and blasts against this or that. On the more strictly professional side, there are comments on the pains of writing, and getting into print, a number of the works that made Mark famous, including the immortal "1601" ("Put on your tombstone," someone advised him, "these words, and these alone: 'He wrote the immortal 1601' "). These are social notes, anecdotes, quips, stories, yarns and even statements of a cosmological or philosophical cast.
Now why Paine, being Paine, omitted all this from his edition is in most cases easy to see, although it makes perfectly safe reading and, again in most cases, thoroughly refreshing reading today. Some particularly bitter passages now sound a little quaint - the political passages, notably, in which Mark went off time after time half-primed or half-cocked - but he isn't listed among the political thinkers, and he never was. As Mr. DeVoto points out, "artists are the least analytical of men, and he was the least analytical of artists." As he dictated the chapters of his memoirs he felt that he was blowing the gaff on half the secrets of the world. As a matter of fact, what he was doing instead was giving out sparks and letting off steam.
Some of the effects were too warm for Paine to handle, so he left them alone - and to the extent that he did, of course, he left incomplete the picture of the real Mark Twain. Mr. DeVoto, in spite of his excellent and enlightened editing otherwise, has done essentially the same thing, with a different scale of hot and cold values. In his foreword he tells us calmly that he has omitted not only the uninteresting parts of the unpublished typescript - which was surely his privilege and is as surely our gain - but also certain passages that struck him as "fantastic," injurious" or exaggerated to the point of "trivial rage."
In one passage he has even "worked over the text ...to reduce its vindictiveness," although elsewhere it is stated flatly that "what is printed here is printed in Mark Twain's own words." There is no need to be pietistic about Mark's "own words," or any one else's this side of Shakespeare, but unless they were obscene or indecent, which Mr. DeVoto says they were not, or grossly libelous, which they could scarcely be after an interval of thirty or forty years, why shouldn't they be printed as they were found? What is this? Mark in eruption, or Mark Twain erupting by the copyright owners' and Mr. DeVoto's leave?
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