Thursday, January 14, 2010

An Extraordinary Biographer

In 1906-1907, Mark Twain published “Chapters from My Autobiography” in the North American Review. He concluded the series with a hilarious story of how he once earned the three dollars he desperately needed by selling another man’s dog—for three dollars—and then buying the dog back—for the same three dollars—to return the dog to its rightful owner (and accept a three dollar reward!)

He ended the story:

Now, then, that is the tale. Some of it is true. MARK TWAIN

Twain was famous for drawing on his own life as inspiration for his humorous writing, and equally frank about his comfort in mixing fiction in with fact to make a funny story funnier.

For the biographer researching someone’s life, any autobiographical source is both utterly true and also, utterly suspect: we all tend to polish ourselves up a bit before putting ourselves on display. Twain just stated it up front.

So, what’s a biographer to do?

I’d been fascinated with Twain for years when, in 2007, I stumbled across an intriguing historical tidbit: when Susy Clemens was 13, she wrote a biography of her famous father. That tidbit was my angle in to exploring Twain, in The Extraordinary Mark Twain (According to Susy.)

In the opening pages of her biography, Susy explained her motivation for writing it.

She was “annoyed.” Greatly.

“It troubles me to have so few people know papa, I mean really know him. They think of Mark Twain as humorist joking at everything.”

Susy wanted to set the record straight, revealing his “kind, sympathetic nature.” Papa was a humorist, but he also had a serious side. “When we are all alone at home nine times out of ten,” Susy wrote, “he talks about some very earnest subject…. He is as much a philosopher as anything, I think.”

Susy described his fine qualities (“He does tell perfectly delightful stories…”) and his not-so-fine qualities (“Papa uses very strong language.”) She described his work habits and how he often stayed up all night playing billiards. “It seems to rest his head,” she explained.

She also painted a revealing portrait of Twain as a husband and father—how he played tennis with Susy and her sisters, made up silly arithmetic problems for them to solve, and relied on his wife’s keen editorial eye and moral compass to clean up what Susy called the “delightfully dreadful” passages in his novels.

I knew when I stumbled across Susy’s diary that it would be a rich counterpart to Twain’s own ‘polished up’ version of his life’s story.

And Twain agreed. He was so delighted with the diary that he later quoted liberally from it in his series for the North American Review, praising Susy for her even-handed portrait, and for being “loyal to her position as historian.”

“This is a frank biographer and an honest one; she uses no sandpaper on me,” Twain wrote in admiration.

Susy declared her father to be “extraordinary.” Susy’s biography reveals a girl who was pretty darn extraordinary, herself.

For more information on Susy’s writing process, see my web page flyer, Writing an Extraordinary Biography.


Deborah Heiligman said...

Extraordinary take on Mark Twain, Barbara. I love the book. And I think your back matter on how to write a biography will be such a usual tool for kids and teachers. I'm reading someone's autobiography right now (for research) and I do wonder how much she is polishing herself up. So soon the digging will begin.

Doraine said...

Lovely! I look forward to reading this. Mark Twain has always been a favorite.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Thoroughly entertaining post as usual...I'm a huge fan of Mark Twin too. Good luck with this fine twist on his story.