When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter.
— Mark Twain, a Biography

Samuel Clemens had experimented with autobiographical writing and first-person narrative since 1870, but in his later years he focused his attention on making a series of dictations to his chosen biographer, Albert Bigalow Paine. In these private, informal sessions, Clemens wandered through his memories and spoke frankly about the things that interested him at the moment. He requested that these recollections be published, “in the order in which they were written, regardless of the chronology of events.”

Clemens also insisted that these musings not be made public until he had been dead for one hundred years. “Writing from the grave” allowed him to be as free and open, or as scathing, as he wanted to be without embarrassing his family or offending other living persons. By publishing his work in the distant future, he hoped to extend his literary legacy—and to provide a lucrative estate to his heirs.

More immediate financial needs altered these plans. George B. Harvey, owner and editor of several magazines, offered Clemens $30,000 for selections from this material. Clemens used the money to build “Stormfield,” his last home in Redding, Connecticut, and Harvey’s North American Review published “Chapters from My Autobiography” in twenty-five installments between September 1906 and December 1907.

In November 2010, the Mark Twain Project and the University of California Press will publish the first volume of a complete and authoritative edition of Mark Twain’s Autobiography.

Andrew Dickson White. Diary. 1905.

Andrew Dickson White records this observation about Mark Twain in his diary on May 14, 1905:

Rev. Dr. Twitchell preached and lunched with us. He was as delightful as ever. He tells me that “Mark Twain” has grown very pessimistic regarding American affairs and has written a book on the subject which is not to appear until after his death. T says that M. T.’s habit is to write in bed until noon and that he receives compensation from the Harpers at the rate of thirty cents per word.

Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
Cornell University Library

William Allingham. A Diary. London: Macmillan, 1907. Mark Twain’s copy, with a signed inscription: “S. L. Clemens from Clara, Xmas 1907.”

Irish poet William Allingham (1824-1889) wrote vivid portraits of the writers Tennyson, Carlyle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others in his diary. The book contains a number of annotations, marginalia, and text underlined by Clemens to mark passages of interest to him. On page 150, we find that drops of black ink have been spilled across the page, with Clemens’s note scrawled between two stains: “Oh, damn!”

From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane

Photograph of Mark Twain in Bed.

From an album containing nineteen autograph letters from Mark Twain to Elisha and Frank Bliss of the American Publishing Company.

From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane

Mark Twain. “Chapters from My Autobiography.” In The North American Review. New York, September 1906.

Nearly 100,000 words of Mark Twain’s autobiography were published in The North American Review between September 1906 and December 1907. These installments were the only sections of his autobiographical writings that were published in his lifetime.

From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane

Mark Twain. “The Autobiography of Mark Twain.” Excerpt in The St. Louis Republic. St. Louis, October 27, 1907.

In 1907, The North American Review’s selections of Twain’s Autobiography were republished in The Sunday Magazine, a supplement to many newspapers, including this one from St. Louis.

From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane

Mark Twain. Mark Twain’s Autobiography. New York: Harper, 1924. First edition. Two volumes. Introduction by Albert Bigelow Paine.

While preparing notes for his autobiography in 1906, Mark Twain dictated a section entitled "Mr. Clemens tells how he became a business man." He recalled his meeting in 1870 with Cornell trustee and benefactor, Henry Williams Sage, an old friend and former business partner of his late father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, at which they discussed financial matters. Sage was so impressed with Clemens that he asked:

Mr. Clemens, you’ve got as clear a business head on your shoulders as I have come in contact with for years. What are you an author for? You ought to be a business man.

Mark Twain knew better, but diplomatically declined to say so. It was a compliment that “supplied a long-felt want.”

From the collection of Susan Jaffe Tane

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