Twain Mocked Virgin Birth in Memoir He Kept Secret: Interview

The cover jacket of "Autobiography of Mark Twain." The book was edited by Harriet Elinor Smith. Source: University of California Press via Bloomberg

Mark Twain wanted his autobiography kept under wraps for 100 years after his death. That was 100 years ago. While much of the book has dribbled out in bits and pieces in the decades since, the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley, has just released Volume 1 (of three) of an authoritative edition, and it’s turning up on best-seller lists.

I telephoned the volume’s editor, Harriet Elinor Smith, at her office in Berkeley.

Seligman: Were you expecting this level of sales?

Smith: We’re certainly surprised. It’s fascinating that Twain is still so very popular. Of course, it was a great marketing strategy to say that it had been withheld for 100 years. We always try to clarify that almost all of it has been previously published elsewhere.

There are a couple of pieces that haven’t been published before. They’re not by any means his best work, but even the stuff that would make me want to turn the page people have called out as interesting. There are always gems of language; there’s always something distinctly Mark Twain there.

Seligman: Do you think any of it would really have gotten him into trouble?

Smith: I do. There are some statements coming up in the next volume that he said he wanted suppressed for 500 years. His popularity was important to him. He was vain, and he definitely didn’t want to be attacked.

Joseph of Nazareth

The most “shocking” thing, quote-unquote, is his remarks about Christianity. I was working on a part the other day in which he’s talking about the virgin birth. He says that Joseph believed Mary’s story because he was born in Nazareth -- no carpenter in New York today would have taken that statement at par.

Seligman: What about personal attacks?

Smith: He could get pretty vicious. Of course, he always managed to be funny in the process. He had unpleasant things to say about his former publisher, Elisha Bliss, whom he called a “bastard monkey” and a “skinny, yellow, toothless, bald-headed, rat-eyed professional liar and scoundrel.” He accuses people of being malicious, venal and stupid.

Seligman: What are your favorite parts?

Roots of Thanksgiving

Smith: There’s a passage I read to my family on Thanksgiving, in which he says that the holiday “originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for -- annually, not oftener -- if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous 12 months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians.”

I found the family vignettes the most moving. I’ve always wondered about Twain’s wife. She seems like such a timid, sweet person -- I can’t imagine what it would be like for her to be married to him.

Seligman: What does he say about politics?

Smith: He attacks President Theodore Roosevelt for his character. He liked him as a person but felt he was an ineffective statesman.

‘Uniformed Assassins’

In general he was very anti-imperialist. His strongest language is for what he calls our “uniformed assassins,” the U.S. troops in the Philippines battling the Moros, indigenous people who were basically fighting with bows and arrows:

“The completeness of the victory is established by this fact: that of the 600 Moros not one was left alive. The brilliancy of the victory is established by this other fact, to wit: that of our 600 heroes only 15 lost their lives.”

Seligman: Anything about the new book you’re particularly proud of?

Smith: I’d like for people to know there’s an online edition available for free at There’s also a Kindle version -- which allows you to look at the text with larger print -- and an audio book.

Seligman: How long have you been working on the Mark Twain Project?

Smith: Thirty-three years, and I’m not even the most senior person here!

“Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1” is published by the University of California Press (736 pages, $34.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Craig Seligman is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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