Mark Twain’s recently released ‘autobiography’ (Samuel Clemens)

-assessed by Miles W Mathis.

The further I got into this “autobiography”, the more I realized it is no such thing. It is a mass and mess of disjointed and unedited recollections, with no form and no possibility of form. No one has tried to edit it because it is uneditable. And no doubt Twain required it wait a century for publication to keep the mess from tarnishing his reputation. Beyond that, the stories have no ring of truth. They taste like one part remembrance, one part tall tale, and six parts bald lies. I will give you one example of hundreds. Twain repeats the story of the death of his brother Henry in a boat explosion. But this time he adds the fact that he had foretold the death in a dream. Afterwards he says he has told that story

seventy or eighty times. We know he told it in Life on the Mississippi. Problem is, it is different everytime he tells it. They admit in footnotes that he had never told the part about the dream before— not eighty times, not even once. And here he adds a part about Henry not dying from his injuries, but from an overdose of morphine given by young and inexperienced doctors. Perhaps he realized his old stories weren’t believable, so he came up with a second form. But this form is just as transparently a lie as the other forms. It is beyond belief that any trained doctors, young or not, would give a patient like Henry “a vast quantity heaped on a knife blade”. Besides, why wouldn’t Twain just match his dictation on this story to the story he told in one of his most famous books? If he has told the story eighty times, he should know it by heart. But no: it is different not only in the details, but in the main lines, meaning it is fiction. I never bought these stories about Henry before doing my research, but now I have to tell you I don’t believe in Henry. . . at all. Why not? Well, because one, we know almost nothing about him; and two, in a later section where Twain is telling about his older brother Orion [p. 451], he lists all his siblings, including those who died young. He forgets to mention Henry. Henry was closest in age to Twain, and being brothers (and Henry described as a sweetheart) they should have been close. We should have a lot more stories about Henry than we do. Instead, Henry dies at 21 in a cinematic explosion, and that is about all we know. I also beg you to reread Twain’s initial telling of the story inLife on the Mississippi, and notice how detached he is in the telling. There is no least swell of emotion in these pages. In fact, Twain spends far more time selling us the heroics of George Ealer and the chief mate than in talking about his brother. The character Henry is just a stub, far less fleshed out than those characters around him—which of course makes no sense. It gives us the clue. Also strange that a priest is the one who gets a crowbar through his body, dying slowly and horribly: a typical invention of Twain, who hated clergy of any kind. A close reading will give you many other signs this is all invention.

I had written that and moved on, but came back to it from a sense of obligation. So I reread the chapters leading up to Henry’s death. In the chapter just before the Pennsylvania blows up and Henry is killed, we are told the story about Twain beating the pilot Brown. Twain hits him with a stool and then pummels him, but this tall and fierce pilot doesn’t fight back. Remember, Twain is just 23 here, and is not a big man. He is about 5’5” at most, and probably about 130 pounds. When Twain is brought before the captain for insubordination and assault, what does the captain do? He laughs, congratulates Twain, and tells him to assault the pilot again onshore. When the pilot demands that Twain be removed from the boat, the captain refuses. When the pilot says “it is either him or me,” the captain tells the pilot he can leave. Does any of that sound believable? Not in the least. The captain wouldn’t choose this temporary cub apprentice over his own pilot. Also convenient for Twain’s narrative is that despite that, he is put on a following boat, Henry remaining with Brown on thePennsylvania. So within days of Twain’s assault on Brown, Brown is dead, Henry is dead, and Twain miraculously avoids the explosion. Meaning, not only is Henry’s story not believable, none of the surrounding story is believable, either. It all reads like bad fiction.

Also interesting is the name of the captain killed on the Pennsylvania: Kleinfelter. You may wish to look that up.

In support of my reading here, we can look at the other boat explosion in Life on the Mississippi. On page 397, we are told a similar story of boilers exploding on the Gold Dust, killing the pilot Lem S. Gray. Although only two pages long, Twain’s account of this disaster is filled with numerology markers. The preceding page has an illustration of a poker hand with four aces. The date is August 8, which gives us two 8s to go with our aces. 47 persons were scalded and 17 were missing. These missing are then declared dead, which, with the captain, gives us 18. Aces and eights again. So this Lemuel Gray probably faked his death, and Twain was hired to back up the story. Was Lemuel’s

middle name Stanley?

Then I noticed something exceedingly strange about the book Life on the Mississippi, which I had not read since I was a teenager. After the story about Henry dying, it suddenly switches gears. On page 246, chapter XXI, Twain moves ahead 21 years all at once, jetting past his time as an actual pilot. He simply states that he got his license at last, but he doesn’t tell us any stories about that. He says his time as a pilot was uneventful, with “no misfortunes resulting”. Except the coming of the Civil War, which soon ended his time as a pilot. So although you might expect Life on the Mississippi to tell us something about Twain’s time as a pilot, it actually tells us. . . nothing. We are supposed to believe that all these interesting things happened to him as a cub, but nothing happened in his 18 months or so as a actual pilot? Very, very weird.

But back to the Autobiography. There Twain gives up some interesting information about Orion’s early years. From the age of 15, Orion was the protégé of Edward Bates in St. Louis. Bates was already a distinguished lawyer, and would become Lincoln’s Attorney General. Twain says Orion was a terrible dilettante, studying law for a week, studying oration for a week, but sticking to nothing. So we have to ask why Bates put up with it. We also have to ask why Orion’s parents agreed to let him connect with this man so far away, while still in his teens. Frankly, it stinks of the usual thing. But even if it was above board, it proves the Clemens were moving in high circles from the beginning. Besides, Orion was supposed to be a printer’s apprentice in St. Louis, not a lawyer’s apprentice. In those years, one didn’t commonly apprentice a trade like printing during the day and then study oration with a prominent local attorney in the evenings. The story has no continuity.

On p. 398 of the Autobiography, we get yet another connection to the railways. Twain’s niece Julie Langdon married Edward Loomis, who just happened to be the Vice President of the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad. Remember, Twain’s father-in-law Jervis Langdon was a railroad tycoon and coal merchant: it may have been he who set up Loomis in the business. Our connection to Life on the Mississippi is this: at the end of chapter XV, Twain admits the riverboats were driven out of business almost overnight by the railroads. So, although I have never seen comment on it, it has to be somewhat obscene to find Twain—a scion and son-in-law of railroad men—writing the most famous account of riverboats. Now that we have spotted at last this irony, we have to ask if it is really ironic. In other words, is it really just a coincidence? Life on the Mississippi came out in 1883, so it was too late to be railroad-paid propaganda against riverboats. Or was it? It is curious that so much of the book is given over to wrecks, sinkings, and other tragedies. A naïve reader would quickly come to the conclusion that riverboats were unsafe and that relying on them as freighters was foolhardy. Twain ends chapter XV by telling us that one tug could pull a dozen steamer cargoes: why have steamers? So was the question still up for debate as late as the 1880s? My guess is yes. My guess is that someone prominent was arguing that river transport was far more economical in many instances than rail transport. Especially down river, where little fuel was required. The railmen needed to bury this argument, and they hired Twain to do it. It appears to me that Twain may have invented a brother and killed him off in order to do it.

In the appendix of the Autobiography, we learn that Twain’s daughter Clara married the Russian pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch, Jewish of course. Studying that appendix, we notice something else strange: Henry Clemens is again not listed as a sibling of Twain.


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5 Responses to “Mark Twain’s recently released ‘autobiography’ (Samuel Clemens)”

  1. Protestant says:

    Wow, you are right! I followed your advice and looked up Kleinfelter & Henry Clemens, and found that Horatio Nelson Kleinfelter was not the captain, but the pilot of the “Advance” steam tug, not the “Pennsylvania”, that blew up in 1862, four years after Samuel’s younger brother Henry Clemens died age 20 in 1858! Have a look at these links, which show actual photocopies of the newspaper articles at the time, listing the fatalities, with no Clemens name at all. It seems Twain invented it all to insert himself heroically into one of the most famous riverboat tragedies of his day. Fascinating stuff, and well done to you for discovering it!,2,6

    • Protestant says:

      I got the wrong Klinefelter, it seems! On the list of casualties of the “Pennsylvania” steamboat explosion 1858, “Henry Clements, of St. Louis, third clerk, scalded” appears, so it must be that the newspaper spelled his name wrong. My mistake— it seems there were two Klinefelters involved in steamboat explosions four years apart, one Captain John Klinefelter in 1858, the other Pilot Horatio Nelson Klinefelter in 1862. And the Pilot Brown that Twain quarrelled with ended up as famous African American politician Jeremiah A. Brown.

      An astonishingly detailed newspaper description of the explosion is here:

  2. Protestant says:

    Well, after more digging on this interesting subject, it turns out that Horatio Nelson Klinefelter, killed on the “Advance” in 1862, was the nephew of Captain John Klinefelter whose gallant actions saved as many lives as possible in the 1858 explosion on the “Pennsylvania”. And that there is some mystery about how crew member Jeremiah Brown escaped uninjured while pilot William Brown was killed, and the name of the uninjured engineer blamed for the disaster, who had suddenly left his post before the explosion to go aft to chat to some women. That information is in a New York Times article I couldn’t access.
    But Henry Clemens definitely did exist, as you can see from this newspaper article, which even shows a photo of him:

    • Tapestry says:

      It must be true. It’s in the newspapers. Mathis believes ‘Henry’ Mark’s brother was fabricated for the political propaganda against navigating the Mississippi as required by the railroads who paid Twain to write.

  3. Protestant says:

    Yes, I understand what Mathis is saying, but Twain didn’t need to invent his own brother for railroad propaganda, because the railroads were already winning. “Railroads were rebuilt in the south after the Civil War, the disconnected small roads, of 5-foot broad gauge, were amalgamated and enlarged into big systems of the southern Illinois Central and Louisville & Nashville. Track was changed to the American Standard of 4 feet 8 and one half inches. This ways cars could travel from Chicago to the south without having to be reloaded. Consequently, rail transport became cheaper than steamboats. The boats could not keep up.
    The first railroad bridge built across the Mississippi River connected Davenport and Rock Island, IL in 1856, built by the Rock Island Railroad. Steamboaters saw nationwide railroads as a threat to their business. On May 6, 1856, just weeks after it was completed, a pilot crashed the Effie Afton steamboat into the bridge. The owner of the Effie Afton, John Hurd, filed a lawsuit against The Rock Island Railroad Company. The Rock Island Railroad Company selected Abraham Lincoln as their trial lawyer.”

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