For reasons known only to the author himself, Mark Twain ordained that his complete autobiography – all five thousand pages of it – should not be printed in its entirety until one hundred years after his demise. Since he died in 1910, that makes 2010 the year for which many have been waiting so impatiently and for so long.
No one is completely sure why Twain made such an extraordinary embargo on his life story though many suspect that it was because he needed to feel free to write about things such as US intervention abroad and organised religion that some would have found unpalatable at the time. Others believe that he did not want to embarrass friends and relations – at least not until after they too had shrugged off this mortal coil.
The creator of much loved characters such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer may not have wanted his reputation tarnished by the early twentieth century preconceptions of what should and should not be said. His autobiography has been referred to as four hundred pages of bile in which he throws various metaphorical daggers at friends and family alike. Perhaps it didn’t fit the image of the benign(ish) white haired southern gentleman he wished to leave behind him.
What many (perhaps more prurient) readers are waiting for, however, is revelation. After his wife’s death Twain took up with his secretary, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, and enjoyed a close (ahem) relationship with her until 1909. In that year he abruptly ended his relationship, accusing his mistress of hypnotising him in to signing over the rights to his estate and calling her a variety of not terribly kind names.
Although parts of Twain’s autobiography have seen the light of day before, publishers, authors and his estate have chosen between them what to release. This (with full permission of his estate which has no living benefactors but funds projects and places that ensure his enduring legacy) will be the very first time the autobiography has been published as Twain intended it – complete and a hundred years postmortem.
The first in a set of three volumes will be published by the University of California, Berkeley, in November of this year. It is hoped that this will shine a new light on Mark Twain for a new generation of admirers. One thing is for sure already – he certainly knew how to keep his readers waiting. This makes JD Salinger’s reluctance to publish look positively short term.