The reader of the recently published "unexpurgated" autobiography of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is seldom moved to say "Tell us what you really think, Clemens". Rather, "Easy does it, old boy" might be more apt. This self-portrait in words was published in late 2010 by the University of California Press to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of Twain's death, following the man's own wishes. "A book that is not to be published for a century," he observed, "gives the writer a freedom which he could secure in no other way." In these pages, he takes advantage of that freedom by skewering sacred cows—the church, Congress, industrialists, Teddy Roosevelt—and, most bitterly, acquaintances he perceived to have wronged him.
Thus the vitriolic character sketch of the Countess Massiglia, the Clemens family's American-born landlady at the Villa Quarto in Florence, whom he accused, essentially, of ruining his life as an expatriate in Italy: "She is excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward."
Twain was usually sure of the rightness of his opinions, but on the subject of the Countess they were colored by especially unfortunate circumstances: his wife Olivia ("Livy") died in the Villa Quarto in 1904. Although her weak heart had long been a concern, Twain partly blamed the meddling Countess Massiglia for her death. Perhaps this explains his invective: he had lost not only his wife but his beloved Florence, too. He had described his view of the city from the villa as "the fairest picture on our planet, the most enchanting to look upon, the most satisfying to the eye and the spirit." Livy's death cast it all in shadow.
Samuel Clemens, born in Missouri in 1835, is so often seen as the quintessential American that we forget how cosmopolitan he became as Mark Twain. He read German, French and Italian, dined with the Kaiser and King Edward VII, and (despite having dropped out of school at age 11) was awarded a Doctor of Letters by Oxford University. But he was a bad businessman. In 1891, after some disastrous investments, he moved his family—Livy and daughters Clara, Susy, and Jean—to Florence, which at that time was considerably cheaper than their stateside home of Hartford, Connecticut. Olivia's health was a concern, and the Tuscan climate was fortifying.
For all his no-nonsense Midwestern realism, he was a romantic. And for all his sardonic asides in "The Innocents Abroad", about crumbling buildings and ugly women, he was awestruck by the beauty of Italy. Upon glimpsing Milan Cathedral, he positively gushed. "What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems ...a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!"
Yet on the same trip, he got up on his Midwestern Protestant hind legs in Rome, which he called "a great fair of shams, humbugs, and frauds." But it was the Catholic Church, not Rome itself, that bothered him. He always reserved his mockery for unthinking worship—of God, or of Mammon, or of Art. In the process he came across as something of a blowhard; forever warring within him were the down-home scoffer and the world artist, the author of both "Huckleberry Finn" and "Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc", which Twain maintained, against all evidence, was his best book ("It is the best; I know it perfectly well.") But at least Joan proved that he was more than a provincial storyteller. He also found fascinating the wider world and distant times.
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness," he once wrote, "and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." It is a Romantic view: Goethe or Byron, both of whom also contemplated Italian exile, could have said the same thing. Despite the setbacks of his life, the man who did say it never ceased to relish the sight of new horizons.
"Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1", is out now in the United States
~ ROGER BOYLAN