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Talking Mark Twain on Monday

November 15, 2010 |  6:46 am

Marktwain_nov2010Mark Twain's autobiography -- well, the first 738 pages of it, anyway, the first of three volumes -- is appearing on shelves this month, 100 years after the author's death. That was the way he wanted it. And it's paid off -- Twain, who was born 175 years ago, has made our nonfiction bestseller list for two weeks running.

In our review, Twain scholar and Pitzer College President Laura Skandera Trombley writes:

Twain's "Autobiography" offers a mélange of childhood reminisces, vitriolic diatribes, portraits of individuals admired and despised, eulogies (most movingly of his daughters Susy and Jean), political and religious exegesis and, everywhere, evidence of his astonishing, lightning-quick wit.

Twain is one of America's most enduring authors, and in our pages Sunday, David L. Ulin looks at why "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is an essential American novel.

Twain's great rolling river of a novel set the stage for everything that was to come. It's not just the writing, although the decision to tell the story in the voice of a country boy enabled Twain to experiment with language in a way few works of fiction had before. "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer'; but that ain't no matter," he begins. "That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth."

Here, we see the setup in a nutshell. This is a novel meant to be read as if it were a found document: a personal history, a bit of testimony. This is the first-person point-of-view taking root in American literature, the voice of the outsider, cut adrift from all he thought he knew. This is the lost boy going on the road (or the river), living beyond the strictures of society, while in the service of a bigger truth.

Join Ulin -- who also has a list of Twain's most overrated and underrated books -- for an online chat Monday at 11 a.m.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Mark Twain, undated. Credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum / Associated Press

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