Mark Twain felt certain a man could never tell the whole truth about himself. So when he went about writing his autobiography, he determined to reveal what was most compelling to him in the moment and then present those observations in the order in which they occurred. Additionally, he asked his estate to wait 100 years before publishing the work, a condition that would allow him to be more honest about himself and his contemporaries, as neither they nor their immediate heirs would be around to protest.
A century later, it’s clear these gambits were effective. While recounting his life, each distraction leads Twain to recount tangential adventures, draw portraits of people both famous and common, and explain the genesis of well-known stories. But with more than 450 pages of introduction, manuscripts and supporting materials, only about half of Volume 1 is actual autobiography.
There is a true reward in reading this work: feeling as though you’ve spent an afternoon in Twain’s warm company. While some descriptions do drag on, such as the room-by-room presentation of an Italian villa, Twain’s extraordinary powers of observation—of both the physical and the metaphysical—are essential to his brilliance. Here’s hoping the future volumes arrive in a format that lets readers simply enjoy the man’s words without caveat.