Mark Twain is back! Volume II of his autobiography just out

October 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The second volume of The Autobiography of Mark Twain has just been published -- a scant 113 years after his death. Volume One, published in 2010, was a bestseller. The 700-page book is filled with the author's pictures and letters and thoughts he dictated to a stenographer.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  And now to an important literary development … The publication of Volume 2 of The Autobiography of Mark Twain. The 700-page book is filled with the author’s pictures and letters and thoughts he dictated to a stenographer. Among the highlights: Twain’s recollections of a dinner with Helen Keller, whom he described as the “8th Wonder of the World.” joining me now is Ben Griffin, the book’s associate editor.

So the first volume of the autobiography of Mark Twain, it was in 2010. It was a bestseller, and one reviewer wrote how strange, alluring, but less sure-footed Twain seemed. What does the second volume reveal about Mark Twain?

BEN GRIFFIN: In the second volume there is less revelation of his early life and less stories about his making his mark on literature and society and more talk about his concerns of the moment in 1906-07 when he was writing it.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So what discoveries have you made putting together this autobiography? You guys have been plowing through these documents, literally for decades.

BEN GRIFFIN:  That’s right so i don’t know if the discoveries are new to us, i think a lot will be new to general readers. A lot of general readers probably don’t, realize that Mark Twain’s life was a life lived on the grand scale. He didn’t spend his whole life in Hannibal, Missouri and the kind of Tom Sawyer setting that we picture him in. He lived in Hartford, Connecticut, and that he lived in Europe, consorted with kings and emperors.  A lot of that is chronicled in Volume Two and it’s very absorbing.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  When you discovered some of the material in volume 2, what made you go, “wow, i didn’t know that”?

BEN GRIFFIN:  I was fascinated by the depth of his engagement with developing technologies. There’s a lot of that in volume two especially. He was one of the first people to put a telephone into his private home. He was very interested around this time in the developing possibilities s around flight. This was just being pioneered. This is the period of those fabulous contraptions that you see in black and white silent. He was fascinated by the telharmonium, which was an early attempt to create synthesized music that could be piped into homes, before the radio.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So are there viewpoints that Mark Twain had that we are going to be surprised by?

BEN GRIFFIN:  I think undoubtedly. If you are not aware already that he’s a committed anti—imperialist, then that will come as a surprise and there a good deal of that. His agitation against the exploitation of the Belgian Congo and his opposition to us imperialism in the Philippines; there’s a great deal of that. What else will surprise? It’s hard for me to guess.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, Twain shares a lot of views about his politics and politicians, we’ve just come from a time where we were on the brink of a fiscal disaster and government shutdown. What would he say about politicians and politics today?

BEN GRIFFIN:  Well, I have to believe that he would say about recent events that he would be appalled.

HARI SREENIVASAN:  So, he died in 1910, why have his memories only been published in recent years?

BEN GRIFFIN:  Well parts of this memoir have been published before. Parts of them were published in 06-07. Despite Clemens’s statements in the book about keeping it back for a hundred years and other parts of it have been published in dribs and drabs throughout the twentieth century, but this is the first time the full work has appeared without editorially alteration.

HARI SREENIVASAN:   Ben Griffin thanks for joining us.

BEN GRIFFIN:  Thank you.