Would Samuel Clemens Blog?

The first volume of Mark Twain's much-anticipated autobiography arrived the other day. At 700-plus pages, there is a telephone directory-like feel to it. It was the work of the second half of the author's life. He conceived it as an experiment, trying to determine whether he could be completely honest about his own life. To ease the inhibitions against candor, he would not let it be published until 100 years after his own death, the anniversary of which was on April 21 of this year.

There is a quaint quality to the preoccupation with candor and self-revelation. I find myself wondering what the confrontation between Sigmund Freud and Samuel Clemens, Twain was but a pseudonym, would have been like. The question of truth is far more complex than simple narrative suggests, as Freud knew. It was a truth Clemens knew but only inchoately. He wrote, edited, rewrote, edited again, and was constantly about the work of revision. We all edit the self we present to the world.

The introduction by Harriet Elinor Smith reconstructs the process by which Clemens worked and reworked the autobiography, experimenting with dictation, editing, revising, setting things aside, and never really completing a narrative that flowed seamlessly from beginning to end. His autobiography is really something like psychoanalysis. His method was what Smith calls discursiveness, the practice of striking where the iron is hottest, and writing what comes to mind when it comes to mind. It's not quite the analyst's free association, but it is a recognition that memory is sparked randomly. None of us can recall the life we have lived from first memory to the present, stacked in chronological and interweaving order. All autobiography, like biography and history, is a work of creation.

Reading the autobiography made me wonder whether Clemens would have been a blogger. Something suggests he would have viewed this new medium with more than a little suspicion. A man who dictates that his autobiography not be published until he has been dead for 100 years is a man unconcerned with the instant gratification of the send button. He worried about lawsuits, the repercussions of what he said about others. Candor was best served by delayed publication, a close cousin of the forgotten virtue of discretion.

The blogger's world is one driven by pace. Who can be first to utter even the most banal truth? What cutting comment can frame an issue or adversary. Forget the concept of a draft. Online, immediacy is key. I have from time to time received comments from folks observing that they had already written about a topic I stumbled upon, as though the obvious could be claimed as a property.

Twain could be stinging, and often was. He was quick to call a fool a fool. And he did not soft pedal his views of those who behaved like idiots because they were, in fact, idiots. He writes of the editors and publishers of the Century Company, "I know they had no such base intentions [as to take advantage of Ulysses Grant with whom they had contracted to publish memoirs] as these but were simply making their offer out of their boundless resources of ignorance and stupidity." But he seemed to weigh each word carefully. He was a writer, not a blogger.

I draw the distinction between writing and blogging with some trepidation. I am writing this, am I not; yet it will appear as a blog as soon as I finish composing it. Am I not writing? I am not so sure. Blogging seems more like letter writing than the composition of words intended to last longer than a moment.

So would Mark Twain blog? Perhaps. Although Twain wrote for a living. This business of casting pearls into the void would have struck him as odd. There are no royalties here. No copyright worth defending, at least not yet. When Twain traveled the country to speak and read from his works he did so to earn a livelihood. The blogosphere is free, open and episodic. I suspect Twain would have avoided blogging for the same reason we do not see our great authors, Philip Roth, for example, appearing online. Sand castles etched on this riotous electronic shore don't build legacies. Easy notoriety isn't fame.

But Clemens would have been tempted to blog, I am sure. He liked to needle, poke and provoke. Blogging is the tool of provocateurs. Where better to tell someone off? Gather like-minded friends to cast stones in unison? This virtual playground gives us the ability to pick up where we left off in grade school, whispering, wheedling, pushing and shoving in the greater service of self. That is the forum's great strength and weakness. 

On balance, I think Twain would have eschewed the Internet. He was a stylist and cared not just about striking his mark, but doing so with artfulness and wit. He wanted his words to last, hoping to build a great wall of American letters, not a series of take-away containers cast aside as soon as the egg rolls were eaten. And he had the sense to realize that just because something could be said it did not mean it must be said. I marvel at the great bitterness, even craziness, of the anonymous comments posted online. There's a doctoral dissertation to be written about the social significance of this unbounded aggression.

One hundred years is a long time to wait between pressing the send button and then releasing your words to the world. For all that Clemens wrote for immediate publication, he knew that when it came time to uttering deeper truths, he needed the insulation of a century to provide the best incentives to tell the truth about himself, and a few others. We bloggers? We can't wait to press the send button. There's something suspicious about this.

Also listed under: Must Reads, Blogging


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