Mark Twain

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'Two Fathoms Deep' Samuel Clemens

While readers are on waiting lists for the print edition I had the good fortune to download the 'Autobiography of Mark Twain' onto my Kindle and start reading. It cost me only $ 4.99. If and when the printed edition comes to Sri Lanka, it would cost a few thousand rupees. That is what I meant last week, that the e-book is the future. Anyway for readers who have waited for one hundred years to read this book, a few more weeks or even months would not be too long.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens has written his autobiography in the same style he wrote his other creative work, and even those who knew him then, or have studied his life and works may not be able to know if he is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, or if Clemens is laughing himself to death in his grave. He called it the autobiography of "Mark Twain", so we would be reading the character he had created within himself. May be we should consider it a 'Biography of Mark Twain' written by Samuel Clemens.

Mark Twain, as we know him, came to life in 1863, picking up the Mississippi river term meaning 'Two fathoms deep', from his brief spell working on the Mississippi as a steamboat pilot.

According to Julie Bosman in the New York Times, the $35, 500,000 word, 736 page, 2 kg book is been turned out at the rate of 30,000 copies a week, and still unable to meet the demand around the country, even though the publisher had initially planned to print only 7,500 copies. Already 275,000 copies had been sold. And this is only the first volume, with two more volumes to come.

"My works are like water. The works of the great masters are like wine. But everyone drinks water", was what he said then.

In the introduction he had written that his autobiography "would live a couple of thousand years, without any effort, and would then take a fresh start and live for the rest of the time".

Mark Twain had made many attempts to write an autobiography, but it was only in 1906 that he had begun to dictate it to his stenographer. He had laid down a condition that it should not be published till one hundred years after his death, even though he himself had published parts of the biography in the North American Review during his life time.

As quoted in the introduction to the autobiography, in a 1889 interview, Twain had said "a man cannot tell the whole truth about himself, even if convinced that what he wrote would never be seen by others", and again "A book that is not to be published for a century gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way." In 1905 he had written, "We suppress an unpopular opinion because we cannot afford the bitter job of putting it forth....None of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned"

In 'The Guradian', Sarah Churchwell captioned her column about the autobiography "Mark Twain: not an American but the American", quoting from one of Twain's own notebooks. Then went on to remind us of what Hemingway had said in 'Green Hills of Africa', "All American literature comes from one book...called Huckleberry Finn". Churchwell says that Mark Twain was so famous, that letters addressed to him "Mark Twain, God knows where", and "Mark Twain. Somewhere (try Satan) found their way to him and that the White House had forwarded one letter addressed to "Mark Twain, c/o President Roosevelt". Twain himself had written once, "My address is simply New York City - I have no other that is permanent and not transient"

When 'Huckleberry Finn' was published in 1885 and was banned by the library in Concord, Massachusetts, Mark twain had said that the banning was worth the sale of 25,000 copies just by the free publicity alone, and that "for a library to ban a book makes it necessary for many people to buy the book because they could not borrow it for free".

Samuel Clemens died on April 21, 1910, but there were false rumors of his death on several occasions. Once when he was in London, it had been reported in America that he was dead. When the 'Evening Sun' reporter had asked for comment, Mark Twain had replied "Say the report is greatly exaggerated". There are many versions of this story, but this is what the authorized biography has recorded. 100 years later, the question is how much of his life has been exaggerated by him. Incidentally another death that was "greatly exaggerated" was that of Steve Jobs in 2008, on August 27th, 4.27 p.m., by Bloomberg, and immediately retracted. ( )

Today, President William Howard Taft's words on hearing of Mark Twain's death has been proven once again. "Mark Twain gave pleasure - real intellectual enjoyment - to millions, and his works will continue to give pleasure to millions yet to come...".

As reported by Russel Smith, Mark Twain had tried to shoot himself in 1866, and years later he had said, "Many time I have been sorry I did not succeed, but I was never ashamed of having tried". Yet if he had succeeded, then we would not have been able to read all his great works and his biography. Perhaps destiny did not let him die because his wit and creativity was badly needed by mankind.

If we collected all of Mark Twain quotes, it could fill another volume like his autobiography. To end this note with one such quote, "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to."

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