Mark Twain’s Amazing Embargo

The brilliant brand management behind the handling of his autobiography.

In 1906, Mark Twain wrote to his friend and frequent correspondent, William Dean Howells, updating him on the progress of his autobiography:

To-morrow I mean to dictate a chapter which will get my heirs & assigns burned alive if they venture to print it this side of A.D. 2006—which I judge they won’t. There’ll be lots of such chapters if I live 3 or 4 years longer. The edition of A.D. 2006 will make a stir when it comes out. I shall be hovering around taking notice, along with other dead pals. You are invited.

Twain did live four years longer, working on the autobiography, hinting that it might be his masterpiece, and emphasizing its embargo. “In this Autobiography I shall keep in mind the fact that I am speaking from the grave,” he wrote in the preface he prepared for his book. “I speak from the grave rather than with my living tongue, for good reason: I can speak thence freely.” When he died in 1910, the clock started—which means this year we finally get to feel Twain and his dead pals hovering over our shoulders.

But you probably knew that. Later this month, the Mark Twain Project will publish “the complete and authoritative edition” of Twain’s autobiography. The news has been simmering all summer, and Twain’s impending autobiography has occupied media outlets both high (Granta got the exclusive first excerpt) and low (Gawker investigated his “vibrating sex toy“). The coverage has gotten so thick that the Onion ran a story poking fun at it. And everyone has worked from the same set of talking points: Here, after a century of silence, we will meet a realer, darker Mark Twain. He will get his dying wish honored; we will get him uncensored and at a time when we need him more than ever.

It’s all very exciting. It’s also nonsense. There have been three previous editions of Twain’s autobiography—published in 1924, 1940, and 1959—and each of them has selectively ignored Twain’s 100-year embargo. This makes sense—first, because Twain’s instructions remain confusing and contradictory; he wrote 50 years by some passages, 75 by others, and even, by the stuff he warned Howells about, 500 years. But it also makes sense from a marketing standpoint. In fact, each edition of Twain’s autobiography, thanks in large part to Twain’s embargo, has become a literary event, with scads of reviews, bestseller status, and a side-helping of scandal. With the new edition parked on the top of Amazon’s sales rankings, it looks like Twain will go 4 for 4. Never mind speaking from the grave: Twain is probably laughing in it, pleased to see some cagey brand management—and the American public—go his way yet again.

From the beginning, Twain knew his material would sell. “I have never yet allowed an interviewer or biographer-sketcher to get out of me any circumstance of history which I thought might be worth putting some day into my AUTObiography,” he told his brother in 1887. Twain had been working on his autobiography, off and on, since 1870, and money was never far from his mind. In 1906, Twain commissioned Albert Paine to write an authorized biography, and, privately, he agreed with Paine that the autobiography’s less inflammatory sections might be “published sooner, either serially or in book form.” In fact, that same year, Twain authorized publishing 25 “Chapters from My Autobiography” in the North American Review. Already, Twain was walking back his own rules, but with good reason: The Review paid him $30,000.

In 1912, when Paine finished his biography of Twain, he folded in some juicy extracts from the autobiography—including, 498 years early, some of the stuff Twain had mentioned to Howells, which turned out to be a series of chapters detailing Twain’s problems with organized religion. Paine had the power to do so because Twain’s will specified that he, along with Clara Gabrilowitsch, Twain’s surviving daughter, would handle his “literary productions.” Paine also had the power, 12 years later, to publish the first edition of the autobiography—and to quietly hold back some of its nastier social and political criticisms, as well as the chapters on religion.

The Los Angeles Times predicted Twain’s autobiography would be “the season’s most widely discussed book.” That didn’t quite come true, but most reviewers praised it—and just about all of them mentioned Twain’s mysterious embargo. In fact, the embargo worked a little too well, stirring up suspicions that Paine had pulled some of the dead author’s punches. “Are there still further candors to be expected?” one reviewer asked. “Or was Mark Twain really so cautious that the occasional objurgations of this book seemed to him untempered violence?”

Further candors did await, though Paine wasn’t interested in sharing them. When Bernard DeVoto, a novelist and critic writing a book about Twain, asked to look at the author’s papers, Paine told him they were “refuse” and that “nothing more need ever be written about Mark Twain.” DeVoto’s book, Mark Twain’s America, came out a few years later, and in it he described the whole exchange, deadpanning that “public benevolence constrains me to offer the [Twain Estate] my services.”

After Paine’s death in 1937, Clara took DeVoto up on his offer, then promptly set about making his life miserable. The Twain estate had become a big business, selling the rights to so many Mark Twain movies, musicals, comic books, translations, and radio programs that its lawyers had trouble keeping them all straight. DeVoto planned to do his part—and to start correcting Paine’s portrait of Twain as grandfatherly humorist—by forging two new books from the “refuse”: Letters From the Earth, a collection of short fiction and satire, and Mark Twain in Eruption, a new edition of the autobiography compiled from everything Paine had left out. When DeVoto showed Clara the manuscript for Letters From the Earth, though, she demanded he remove the title piece, which Twain had written from Satan’s point of view. DeVoto could not sway her, and Harper’s had to scrap the book.

With his first project dead, DeVoto turned to Mark Twain in Eruption. Again, Harper’s told him to piece together the best book possible. Paine had used about half of Twain’s autobiographical material; DeVoto planned to use about half of what remained and to organize it topically, under sections like “Theodore Roosevelt” and “The Plutocracy.” Soon after the publisher signed off on the manuscript, however, Clara was overcome by “insurmountable objections.” She refused to approve anything attacking anyone “whose relatives are still living.” (DeVoto’s exasperated response: “On that basis half or more than half of our book is suppressed.”) And she refused to include Twain’s chapters on religion.

For the first (but not the last) time, DeVoto angrily offered his resignation. After calming down, he decided to write Clara a long letter, appealing to her ability to see beyond Harper’s “lowly commercial” motives and, most of all, to her patriotism. In 1940, DeVoto pointed out, when the liberty they enjoyed was “becoming increasingly impossible elsewhere in the world, we are all the more constrained to hold by it and facilitate it in America.”

DeVoto never made clear how ignoring Twain’s embargo struck a blow for freedom of speech. But Clara was partly convinced. She gave in on much of the social and political stuff, though not on the chapters on religion. The new edition of the autobiography came out in 1940, and, again, the reviewers loved it. “Mark Twain in Eruption ends forever the legend of the genial Mark, the lovable, cigar-smoking humorist,” Clifton Fadiman wrote in The New Yorker. In particular, Fadiman praised DeVoto for uncovering what Twain really thought of his contemporaries—for allowing Andrew Carnegie to be “the repulsive windbag of conceit he undoubtedly was.” DeVoto had to smile at a line like that. He also had to think of those chapters on religion, still sitting in a safe, now with his note: “Edited, for publication in Mark Twain in Eruption, by BDV, but omitted at the request of Mme. Gabrilowitsch.”

A few years later, Clara’s protective approach backfired in a big way, bringing Twain’s autobiography the most publicity yet. Charles Neider, another novelist and critic, was preparing a new edition of Twain’s autobiography for the Twain estate—this one more reader-friendly, with a chronological organization in place of Twain’s intentional chaos. Clara gave Neider permission to publish another 40,000 words, but held firm on the chapters on religion. At least Clara updated her reasons: “We certainly are not going to place my blessed father and superior character on the side of the all-good-destroying Communists.”

While Neider got exactly what he wanted—his 1959 edition of Twain’s autobiography has become the most widely read and even made the Modern Library’s list of the100 best nonfiction books—Clara got exactly what she didn’t. Throughout the Cold War, Twain remained enormously popular in the Soviet Union, where 11 million copies of his books were in print. The Soviets prized Twain both for his criticisms of America and for the opportunity he provided to attack his country’s literary establishment. Neider’s new edition of the autobiography gave the Soviets a perfect opening.

And so, in August of 1959, Literaturnaya Gazeta, the official organ of the Union of Soviet Writers, ran Yan Bereznitsky’s short but brutal review of Neider’s edition. Seizing on his omissions of Twain’s sociopolitical views and his chapters on religion (which, of course, were Clara’s omissions), Bereznitsky argued that this was yet another example of “the relationship of official America to its greatest writer.”

Neider decided it was his patriotic duty to respond. After appealing directly to Premier Khrushchev, Neider got the go-ahead to write a rebuttal in the Gazeta. It wasn’t a fair fight—Bereznitsky got a second essay, twice as long as Neider’s first—but it was something. Neider became the first American writer to publish his uncensored views in a Soviet organ, and the exchange made front-page news throughout the United States. Harper’s even included the two men’s essays as an appendix to the autobiography’s paperback edition.

Mark Twain didn’t end the Cold War, but this skirmish, along with some more patriotic prodding from Neider, finally convinced Clara to lift the ban on her father’s unpublished writings. Harper’s published Letters From the Earthin 1962, seven years after DeVoto’s death (and two months before Clara’s). Neider prepared to update his edition of the autobiography with Twain’s chapters on religion—only to have a Harper’s editor step in and say the publisher wanted it to remain “a family book.”

The Hudson Review agreed to publish the chapters in its Autumn 1963 issue. Even in the pages of a literary quarterly, they became national news. The AP and UPI both covered the story, and their dispatches ran across the country, complete with headlines like “Twain’s Attack on God, Written as Sick, Bitter Old Man.” Reporters pressed various clergy for a reaction. The best one came from Norman Vincent Peale, himself an author ( The Power of Positive Thinking). “It is a highly emotionalized outburst by a man sick with hate and anger,” Peale said of Twain. “The disappointing thing is his spinelessness; his pathetic lack of guts to publish this diatribe in his lifetime.”

That’s one way to spin “speaking from the grave.” It’s also the kind of publicity you can’t buy, which brings us back to the latest edition of Twain’s autobiography. The editors at the Mark Twain Project have happily played along with the excitement surrounding Twain’s embargo—even though, at this point, it’s been violated so many times that only 5 percent of this “new” volume will be unpublished material. (The project’s next two volumes will contain more unpublished material, but they’re still five years away.) In the midst of another squabble with Clara, DeVoto wrote that “if Mark Twain is to go on selling, he must go on being discussed, and if he is to be discussed books about him, especially controversial books, must continue to be written.” It seems they must continue to be edited, as well. The cultural amnesia greeting this latest edition of Twain’s autobiography only underscores that the book has not become a major part of his canon. Maybe this time around, the hype will take.

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