In which the greatest of American writers goes into the night—and not such a good night at that, and not at all gently.
Covering just the last couple of years in Twain’s long life, this is the concluding volume of the masterful University of California edition of his autobiography: unexpurgated, cross-referenced, and richly annotated. (Few modern readers would understand, for instance, that Twain was alluding to a Thackeray story in calling one unfortunate fellow “Jeames.”) The swan song reinforces things well established by its predecessors. For one, Twain lived a whirlwind life, interested in almost everything, particularly when it was cool, modern, and gadgety; he was always investing in tools and toys, sometimes losing his shirt thereby. For another, Twain, cynic though he appeared to be, tended to trust people, sometimes at great cost. A large section of this volume is devoted to an aggrieved account of a yearslong episode in which members of Twain’s staff bilked him of money, land, and jewels, taking advantage of the old man. Even when angry, though, the author puts humor to work, writing of one of them, “the first thing I ever noticed about Miss Lyon was her incredible laziness. Laziness was my own specialty, & I did not like this competition.” Elsewhere, Twain, a jet-setter before jets, writes with both humor and a certain archness of people like Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Carnegie, the latter of whom he sends up for philanthropy from the supposed kindness of his heart: “He has bought fame and paid cash for it,” Twain writes, “he has deliberately projected and planned out this fame for himself; he has arranged that his name shall be famous in the mouths of men for centuries to come.”
Of considerable interest to all readers of Twain but especially to working writers following Twain’s habit of tracking his astonishing writing income—even though, as he writes, “if I should run out of all other nourishment I believe I could live on compliments.”