A nasty cold took me captive, and I was home for a couple weeks. Fortunately, I had a good companion while housebound -- Mark Twain.
The "Autobiography of Mark Twain" filled my Christmas stocking.
Twain (1835-1910) is one of the most accessible writers in the English language, but the "Autobiography," at 700 pages and more than four pounds, presents a challenge. I found myself arm wrestling Twain as much as reading him.
Twain dictated part of the "Autobiography," and any reader familiar with "Huckleberry Finn," "Roughing It" or "Life on the Mississippi" will immediately recognize his voice: clear, smooth and direct employing perfect diction.
It's a voice that relishes the wisecrack -- as when he describes the wallpaper in the bedroom of his Italian villa as "cheap beyond the dreams of avarice." And enjoys the waggish metaphor -- as when he says his childhood home Hannibal, Mo., had two town drunks and they "made as much trouble in the village as Christendom experienced in the fourteenth century when there were two popes. ..."
It's a voice appalled by vanity, which like crabgrass seems to flourish everywhere. Recalling Gen. David Sickles, who lost a leg at Gettysburg, Twain wrote "The general valued his lost leg away above the one that is left. I am pretty sure that if he had to part with either of them he would part with the one that he has got."
Twain doesn't spare himself either. He describes his fellow man as selfish and foolish -- then confesses he is the same.
Self-knowledge is an essential virtue for Twain. You will never know how the universe began or will end, but you can know the truth -- or approximate truth -- about who you are.
After meeting a colleague from yesteryear's son at a New York dinner party, Twain became morose, asking himself for the remainder of the evening "What was he born for? What was his father born for? What was I born for? What is anybody born for?" Questions like these were never far from his mind no matter how often he received applause for his humor.
Mark Twain was generous -- with his affection, his assistance and his money. It's unclear how many people he helped support financially, but there were a number, including his brother Orion.
Some readers will be put off by the construction of the autobiography. It's not linear, birth to old age. After a few paragraphs on his youth to open the book, he leaps forward to how he became Ulysses S. Grant's publisher in the 1880s. Twain explains that he prefers to tell his story episodically -- when I am ready to write about a portion of my life, I will write about it, he says. He also says writing an autobiography in any form presents a struggle because "The man has yet to be born who could write the truth about himself."
Other readers may feel he devotes too much time to the details of family life, going on for pages about family games, family dinners, family outings. I found reading about the Twains difficult for another reason. Mark Twain outlived three or his four children and his wife, Olivia. Each death was crushing in its own way and engulfed him in greater darkness.
If the future became increasingly bleak for Mark Twain as he aged, he continued to gain sustenance from memories of his childhood in Missouri, especially from his days on uncle John Quarles' farm.
"The life which I led there with my cousins was full of charm, and so is the memory of it yet. I can call back the solemn twilight and mystery of the deep woods, the earthy smells, the faint odors of the wild flowers, the sheen of rain-washed foliage, the rattling clatter of drops when the wind shook the trees, the far-off hammering of woodpeckers and the muffled drumming of wood-pheasants in the remoteness of the forest, the snap-shot glimpses of disturbed wild creatures skurrying (sic) through the grass -- I can call it all back, and make it as real as it ever was, and as blessed."
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at email@example.com.