What is Mark Twain's literary style

“This autobiography meanders as much as your own brain convolutions. And that's why it's very easy to read. He [Mark Twain] does it in the order in which it rushes past the synapses. Not chronologically, but organically. " 
Harry Rowohlt

“My parents moved to Missouri in the early 1930s: I'm not sure when, because I wasn't born then and didn't care about that sort of thing. At that time it was a long journey and a bumpy and arduous one on top of that. They settled in the tiny village of Florida, Monroe County, and that's where I was born in 1835. There were a hundred people in the village, and I increased the population by 1 percent. That's more than the best man in history has ever done for a city. Maybe it's not humble of me, but it's true. There is no evidence that any man ever did so much - not even Shakespeare. But I did it for Florida, and that proves I could have done it for any other place - probably even London. "

If this autobiographical bon mot from the pen of Samuel Langhorne Clemens alias Mark Twain sounds familiar, you are not mistaken, because it owes its place in the literature to a pre-publication from January 1906 in the journal "North American Review". At the same time, it can now be found in a book, or rather: in an autobiography by the creator of "Tom Sawyer's Adventure" (1876) and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" (1885) with the title "My Secret Autobiography", which was published for the first time in 2010 has been released in the USA. The German translation of the book was recently published by Aufbau-Verlag in Berlin, which stated:
“We had to wait 100 years because Mark Twain had decreed that his autobiography, his last and greatest work, could not be published until 100 years after his death - and he created a sensational success with it. As soon as it was published, the book landed at the top of the American bestseller lists, and so far over half a million copies have been sold in the USA.

In contrast to Franz Kafka, for example, who had refused to publish his works posthumously, Mark Twain's request was aimed exactly in the other direction. But the American writer, richly blessed with bizarre ideas, would not have been himself if he had not taken one or the other special feature into account when creating and publishing his autobiography. On the one hand, he decreed that his memoirs should only be put into the hands of 100 years after his death; on the other hand, he thought little of organizing his autobiographical work on a chronological plan, "which begins with the cradle and drives you straight to the grave without you being allowed to make a side trip on the way."

On the genesis of the "Secret Autobiography"

The latter approach would also have been too unimaginative and normal for an unconventional mind like Mark Twain, who between 1870 and 1905 had already worked on an autobiography, sometimes with long interruptions, and produced around thirty to forty fragmentary manuscripts without confirmation from his own judgment to be able to find. Much that had been put on paper up to that point was appended to the beginning or the end of a larger narrative without any further execution or completion.

But then Mark Twain changed his approach. It was triggered on January 3, 1906, when Albert Bigelow Paine (1861-1937), a writer, editor and admirer of Twain, visited the Players Club in New York. A reception was held there in honor of the Tom Sawyer inventor. Paine and Twain scheduled a meeting during which Paine asked if he could write Mark Twain's biography.
What happened next is reported in the book "Backgrounds and Additions" to the German edition of "Meine Geheime Autobiographie":
After brief preliminary negotiations, Twain turned to Paine and asked, "When would you like to start?"
Paine then suggested hiring a stenographer to jot down Twain's answers to his questions. Twain said that he would "enjoy" dictating to a stenographer "with someone opposite who gives me keywords and serves as an audience," and gave Paine space to work and access to "a box or two" of his manuscripts, Notes and letters to. “What you need will be brought to you. We can dictate here in the morning and you can spend the rest of the day as you wish. You will be given a key and come and go as you wish. "
It was agreed that work should begin on January 9th. That Saturday morning, Paine appeared accompanied by the experienced stenographer Josephine S. Hobby, who wrote an excellent typewriter. Hobby asked for a dollar an hour of dictation and five cents for a hundred words of typescript. She immediately began with a transcript of the morning's conversation.
“So let's try,” Twain said to Paine, “see if it's boring or interesting, or if we're bored and want to commit suicide. I hate getting down to business. I hate to start, but I can imagine that when you are here and make suggestions from time to time we will get things going instead of dragging them on. "

Mark Twain suggested a schedule of four to five days of work per week, about two hours each morning. The writer narrated while Josephine Hobby was writing everything in shorthand and Paine listened enthusiastically. Paine later recalled that during these early sessions Twain used to dictate from bed, "dressed in a beautiful silk dressing gown with a rich Persian pattern and propped up against large snow-white pillows."
By the time Twain had finished dictating in 1909, he and Josephine Hobby and three other typists had produced more than five thousand typewriter pages. Since Twain's death, this enormous stock of material has represented the majority of the manuscript, which is now also being presented to the German public for the first time.
The late success of the autobiographical project, which for thirty-five years was reluctant to complete, was due, on the one hand, to the fact that Twain had found a capable stenographer and attentive listener in Hobby who encouraged him to make dictation his method of writing; on the other hand, by dictating the texts, it was easier for him to implement a writing style that he had increasingly made his own over the past twenty years.
The writer himself found the procedure for writing his memoirs:
“Start at any point in your life; wander through your life like you are funny; only talk about what interests you at the moment, drop the subject as soon as your interest threatens to wane; and bring the conversation to the newer and more interesting thing that has now forced itself on you. "

The unusual combination of dictation and dialogue had a surprisingly liberating effect on Twain, which did not lead him mentally from the cradle to the grave, but instead had a refreshingly spontaneous chat and comment about school friends and contemporaries in a mocking, funny, biting and sarcastic manner.
The thought of a very late posthumous publication, which afforded the advantage of not having to be too considerate of the sensitivities of the bereaved, inspired him enormously and had been in it for a long time. Twain said in an interview in 1899:
“A book that is not allowed to be published for a century gives the author liberties that he cannot achieve in any other way. It enables him to describe people as he knows them without reservation, without having to worry about hurting their feelings or those of their sons or grandchildren. "

And it sounds like a literary-intellectual relationship to Goethe when Twain, based on his autobiography “From my life. Poetry and Truth "(1808 to 1831) admitted in the same interview:
"No one can tell the whole truth about himself, even if he were convinced that no one would ever see his written word."

Mother Clemens and Uncle Dan’l

The refreshingly disordered foray through this poet's life offers the reader alternating insights into Mark Twain's private and public life. This shows, among other things, the close interweaving of life and work, when it says, for example:
“My mother never made big words, but she had a natural talent for making small words big. She was almost ninety years old and had a quick-witted tongue to the end - especially when a meanness or injustice aroused her anger. She has come to my advantage several times in my books, where she appears as Tom Sawyer's "Aunt Polly". I gave it a dialect and tried to think of other improvements for it, but couldn't find any. "

The despicable attitude of white-dominated American society towards colored people is also discussed. It becomes clear how Twain, as a child of his time, was shaped by the "normality" of his society:
“All negroes were our friends and those our age were really comrades. I say "in reality" and use the term as a qualification. We were comrades and yet not comrades; Skin color and social status drew a dividing line, which both parties were subliminally aware of and which made a complete fusion impossible. We had a loyal and loving good friend, ally, and advisor in "Uncle Dan'l," a middle-aged slave whose mind was the best in the Negro quarter, whose compassion was deep and warm, and whose heart knew no malice. He has served me well for all these many, many years. I haven't seen him for more than half a century, and yet I mentally enjoyed his welcome company for a good part of this time, immortalizing him in books under his name and as "Jim" and carting him everywhere - after Hannibal [in "Tom Sawyer's Adventure"], on a raft down the Mississippi [in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"] and even in a hot air balloon across the Sahara [in "Tom Saywer's Adventurous Balloon Ride"] - and he did it all with that one To endure patience and kindness and loyalty that was his birthright. On the farm my deep affection for his breed and my appreciation of its special characteristics grew. This feeling and this appreciation have withstood every test for sixty years and more and have not experienced any restriction. A black face is as welcome to me today as it was then. In my school days, I had no aversion to slavery. I didn't realize there was anything wrong with it. I heard nothing of the kind; the local newspapers did not denounce them; From the pulpit we were taught that God approves of it, that it is a sacred cause, and that a doubter need only look at the Bible to calm his mind - and to close the matter the texts were read aloud. If the slaves themselves disliked slavery, then they were wise and said nothing. In Hannibal we rarely saw a slave being treated badly, never on the farm. "

Twain and some of his books were later accused of racism, an accusation that was unjustified insofar as the writer never felt himself to be ethnically superior and did not propagate intolerance or disadvantage towards colored people in his works.

Forays through politics and economy

In his "Secret Autobiography" too, the author denounces the particular wickedness of the human species when it is directed against peoples with different skin colors and religions:
“Kill all creatures - there seem to be no exceptions; but on the list man is the only one who kills for pleasure; he is the only one who kills out of malice, the only one who kills out of revenge. So - he's the only creature on the whole list who has a low mind. "

He demonstrates this low sentiment, among other things, with an incident from the Philippine-American war. On March 10, 1906, US Army forces under the command of Major General Leonard Wood, consisting of a Marine Division with 540 soldiers and local police, armed with artillery and small firearms, had a village on the island of Jolo in the south of the Philippines attacked the Muslim Moro tribe, who were mostly unarmed and asleep in the crater of the Bud Dajo volcano. More than 600 mostly unarmed villagers (including many women and children) were killed by the Americans. Mark Twain strongly and bitterly condemns such a slaughter. He comments on the congratulatory telegram from President Theodore Roosevelt:
“He knew very well that it was no great feat to encircle six hundred helpless and unarmed savages in a hole like rats in a trap and massacre them one by one from a safe position up on the hill within a day and a half - that it wasn't even Then it would have been a great feat if Christian America, represented by its paid soldiers, had shot them down with Bibles and the Golden Rule instead of bullets. He knew perfectly well that our uniformed assassins had not upheld the honor of the American flag, but acted as they have done in the Philippines for eight years - that is, they had dishonored it. "

Just as politics gets "its fat" away, Twain in his "Secret Autobiography" does not shy away from dismantling the American money nobility. At the same time, the writer condemns the uncritical veneration of mammons in the spotlight of bigotry:
“The world thinks old Rockefeller is worth billions. He only pays taxes for two and a half million. He is a serious uneducated Christian and has been an admiral of a Sunday school in Cleveland, Ohio for many, many years. For many, many years he has lectured in this Sunday school about himself and how he got money; and over the years his Sunday School has listened ecstatically and divided their worship between him and his Creator - in equal parts. "

Tribute to "Susy" Clemens

In the course of the »Secret Autobiography«, the viciousness of his pen or his dictation repeatedly gives way to the mildness in memory of his daughter Susy (Olivia Susan), who died early on August 18, 1896, and to whom Mark Twain is a literary monument. The girl, an excellent connoisseur of Twain’s work, had started as a young teenager to write a biography about her famous father. Mark Twain quotes from this youthful biography full of spelling mistakes and all her family secrets in his "Secret Autobiography". The father gently corrects the daughter's passages, praises her ability to observe and uses her notes as an opportunity for his own comments and additions. In these moments, however, the great Mark Twain takes a back seat. It is the grand literary gesture of the grieving father.

In addition to events in connection with his mother, Uncle Dan'l, Theodore Roosvelt, John D. Rockefeller and Susy, Twain sketches in his "Secret Autobiography" numerous experiences with other people from his family, his circle of friends and acquaintances or professional colleagues such as Robert Louis Stevenson , Lewis Caroll or Harriet Beecher-Stowe; Occasionally he undertakes intellectual excursions into the political and economic, jokes about important US politicians and polemics against the greed for money on Wall Street.


As mentioned at the beginning, despite Mark Twain's original intention and announcement, some parts of the "Secret Autobiography" found their way into the public even before the lapse of 100 years after the writer's death on April 12, 1910.

The writer himself had already partially published the text collection that had been created up to that point seven months after he had started the autobiographical dictations in 1906. So it came about that about twenty-five short excerpts from the autobiographical manuscripts and dictations were published in advance for publication in the "North American Review".And not long after Mark Twain's death, his instruction to wait a hundred years before publication was completely ignored: Albert Bigelow Paine in 1924 and his successor Bernard DeVoto in 1940 and most recently Charles Neider in 1959 published larger parts of the autobiographical text collection.

»The different approaches of the editors meant that none of the previously published texts of the autobiography is even remotely complete or even corresponds to the intentions of the author. It is therefore the aim of this edition to publish the complete text as well as possible and in the form in which Mark Twain wanted it to be published after his death «, say the editors of the German edition.

Mark Twain
My secret autobiography

Part 1:
My secret autobiography
from the American English by Hans-Christian Oeser and Andreas Mahler
with a foreword by Rolf Vollmann
736 pages, 46 illustrations, linen,

Volume 2:
Additions and backgrounds,
Translated from American English and supervised at the universities of Munich, Graz and Berlin
Structure of the publishing house
397 pages, 21 facsimiles, paperback,
Introductory price 49.90
(Price from 1.1.2013: 59.90)

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