Wry and cranky, droll and cantankerous — that’s the Mark Twain we think we know, thanks to reading “Huck Finn” and “Tom Sawyer” in high school. But in his unexpurgated autobiography, whose first volume is about to be published a century after his death, a very different Twain emerges, more pointedly political and willing to play the role of the angry prophet.
Whether anguishing over American military interventions abroad or delivering jabs at Wall Street tycoons, this Twain is strikingly contemporary. Though the autobiography also contains its share of homespun tales, some of its observations about American life are so acerbic — at one point Twain refers to American soldiers as “uniformed assassins” — that his heirs and editors, as well as the writer himself, feared they would damage his reputation if not withheld.
“From the first, second, third and fourth editions all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be left out,” Twain instructed them in 1906. “There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now. There is no hurry. Wait and see.”
Twain’s decree will be put to the test when the University of California Press publishes the first of three volumes of the 500,000-word “Autobiography of Mark Twain” in November. Twain dictated most of it to a stenographer in the four years before his death at 74 on April 21, 1910. He argued that speaking his recollections and opinions, rather than writing them down, allowed him to adopt a more natural, colloquial and frank tone, and Twain scholars who have seen the manuscript agree…