Mark Twain's autobiography to be finally published, 100 years after his death

Goodblood sez, "Just before he died, Mark Twain stipulated that his autobiography should only be published 100 years after he died, and that's now. Exciting!"

ZOMG. Want to read right now!

The creator of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and some of the most frequently misquoted catchphrases in the English language left behind 5,000 unedited pages of memoirs when he died in 1910, together with handwritten notes saying that he did not want them to hit bookshops for at least a century.

That milestone has now been reached, and in November the University of California, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume of Mark Twain's autobiography. The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words, and shed new light on the quintessentially American novelist...

"He had doubts about God, and in the autobiography, he questions the imperial mission of the US in Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. He's also critical of [Theodore] Roosevelt, and takes the view that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. Twain also disliked sending Christian missionaries to Africa. He said they had enough business to be getting on with at home: with lynching going on in the South, he thought they should try to convert the heathens down there."

In other sections of the autobiography, Twain makes cruel observations about his supposed friends, acquaintances and one of his landladies.

After keeping us waiting for a century, Mark Twain will finally reveal all (Thanks, GoodBlood!)

(Image: Mark Twain picture from Appleton's Journal July 4, 1874, Wikimedia Commons)


  1. Insert probably already raised subject of Public Domain and does this work fall into Public Domain?

  2. I love the idea of the authorial or institutional prophesy; it’s myth-making on such a pleasant scale. Of course, now his pithy observations about Teddy Roosevelt and US imperialism are probably a little dated.

    On the plus side, if he had anything nasty to say about anyone, they’re almost certainly not going to mind that much.

    1. which is to say, I think his pithy observations about everything else have managed to weather history pretty well, why would his opinions on imperialism be less likely to?

  3. I’m a fan of Twain’s from childhood on, and I worry this release will only sully his reputation. Twain suffered some terrible losses late in life (outliving his beloved wife, losing a daughter to illness, financial turmoil, a tumultuous affair with much younger woman) and he became quite a dark and bitter man. He came to truly hate the character of Mark Twain, which had, he felt, become a creature more powerful than the creator.

    I hate to think his eloquence on life, meaning, religion, politics and common humanity might get overshadowed by some very angry words written by a lonely man at the end of his days.

    1. I find myself disappointed that you are concerned **what really happened** to Mr. Twain might “sully” the portions of his life that you find more charming or inspirational.

      President Lincoln freed the slaves. Spoiler alert: He also got shot in the head. Oops…now you might find the earlier parts of his life story less moving.

      P.S. If Mr. Twain had become bitter, don’t you think he had the right to feel the way he did? He had lost his family, his wealth, his home, and more.

  4. I guess his estate ‘owns’ these papers, and can assert a modern copyright to them.. or did the copyright start when the documents were written? Probably not against any law to have these secret documents locked up.

    I dunno, but to keep these from scholars and such for 100 years, shitty.

    1. From TFA:

      “Only academics, biographers, and members of the public prepared to travel to the university’s Bancroft research library have previously been able to read it in full.”

  5. Re: #2 and #5, did either of you read the article? Parts of it have been published before, and scholars and such have had access until now. But this is the first time the whole shebang is going to be published.

  6. ” . . . angry words written by a lonely man at the end of his days.”

    Clemens’ observations are full of irony and sarcasm from the first. I can’t imagine that his wit would decline into bitter pessimism. Ironic and sarcastic pessimism, yes! But not bitter.

    Besides which, whatever his papers hold, they’re likely to contain insight, and a century of perspective hindsight.

  7. During his lifetime a two volume autobiography was published and is part of most of the Twain sets.
    There was plenty of unpublished material. During the 1960s “Letters From the Earth” was published and it included fragments of projects started but never finished. One of them was “At the Funeral” which was to go into a proposed book on etiquette. When I read it the first time it took me a half hour to stop from laughing.
    Worth looking up is a collection of newspaper articles he wrote while in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii).

  8. The copyright status of the autobiography is complex, at least in the US.

    The chapters that were published during his lifetime are in the public domain, since the copyrights were secured early enough to have expired by now.

    There was a version of the autobiography edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, and first published in 1924. The copyright to this edition was renewed, so the portions that first appeared there are still under copyright in the US (and are due to expire at the end of 2019). The particular selection and arrangement of materials in that edition is also copyrighted, with the same term.

    Material in the new autobiography written by Twain, and never published in any form prior to 2003, should be in the public domain in the US.

    Other countries may treat this work differently, depending on how their copyright laws handle posthumously published materials.

    Any editorial notes or original editorial selection or arrangement in the newly published autobiography may be subject to a new copyright.

    (I am not a lawyer, and there may be special cases I’ve missed above; but that should cover most of what’s in there, I think.)

  9. Since a great number of biographies of Clemens have already been written, by scholars who had access to those papers, do you still expect many surprises.

    Just do a search on “Clemens on imperialism” for example.

  10. I’m not a copyright lawyer or anything, and neither is the writer friend who I asked about this, but my friend said that when a work is newly edited, the edited work is considered a new, copyrightable whole for the purpose of publication.

    If true, this would mean that, if you somehow snuck the manuscript out of Berkeley and published it verbatim, that would be in the public domain—but the newly edited edition counts as a whole new, fully-copyright-protected work (probably published by the corporate entity of Berkeley and/or the Clemens estate).

    In a way, the confusion is a bit ironic—Clemens was one of the first strident advocates for perpetual copyright. During a speech he gave in 1906 on the occasion of congress considering a life + 50 copyright term, he said:

    When I appeared before that committee of the House of Lords the chairman asked me what limit I would propose. I said, “Perpetuity.” I could see some resentment in his manner, and he said the idea was illogical, for the reason that it has long ago been decided that there can be no such thing as property in ideas. I said there was property in ideas before Queen Anne’s time; they had perpetual copyright.

    Clemens might well think that the confusion was our just dessert for not doing the “sensible” thing and implementing perpetual copyright!

  11. Mark Twain fans! There’s good news! is about to publish Twain’s “The Treaty with China”, a long un-published article from 1868.
    Here’s the librivox intro for the recording:

    “A good candidate for ‘the most under-appreciated work by Mark Twain’ would be ‘The Treaty With China,’ which he published in the New York Tribune in 1868. This piece, which is an early statement of Twain’s opposition to imperialism and which conveys his vision of how the U.S. ought to behave on the global stage, has not been reprinted since its original publication until now.” (the online, open-access “Journal of Transnational American Studies” published it in the spring, 2010). (Introduction by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Twain scholar and Director of American Studies at Stanford University, used by permission)
    (Transcription by Martin Zehr for the Journal of Transnational American Studies, American Cultures and Global Contexts Center, UC Santa Barbara –

  12. Does anyone else find this to be a refreshing change of pace given how many modern celebrities put out autobiographies well before they’ve managed to say or do anything truly notable?

    It makes me happy to think that so many folks are actually interested in what Twain had to say 100 years after his death (and I’m definitely going to pick up a copy of this once it’s released)

  13. nod at John Greenman,
    I was going to say that this is arguably one of the biggest deals in American Lit this century. Cool, i’d also recommend that short essay he did on the German Language which is in the Librivox archives, really satyrical.

  14. He may have had doubts about religion, but Mister Clemens obviously thought about trying to be raised from the dead. Leastwise his words, that is.

    1. Twain’s arrogance was certainly justified.

      If I were to say, “Don’t publish this until 100 years after my death.” The answer–even from those who love me the most–would be, “Nobody will remember or care who you were 100 years after you’re dead.”

  15. I’m another person who found the headline confusing since I already own a paperback edition of “The Autobiography of Mark Twain.” Maybe there should be a “complete” in that post somewhere.

    When you read some parts of what has already been published you understand why he wanted some parts of his life kept secret for decades after his death. For one thing, he blamed himself for accidentally causing the death of his infant child (by exposure-induced pneumonia) but couldn’t bear the idea of his family knowing that it had been his fault.

  16. Anyone who’s read “Letters from the Earth” will likely be unsurprised.

    Twain was ahead of his times in many ways, and was a freethinker in an America that, if anything, was more determinedly ignorant and parochial than it is today.

    He also had a much more wicked sense of humor than his editor (and Wife) allowed him to publish. Witness the anonymized work “1601.” You’ll never think of fart humor the same way again after reading that!

  17. His estate still manages some of works. No public domain. The last release of unpublished work was 1960. That was the 50th anniversary of his death

  18. The autobiographical notes must be compiled into a readable format. Twain did not leave a book to be published but the raw material that will become the three volume book. Therefore, once created as a finished work it will receive a new copyright and will not be public domain. (hence the reference to the libraries and museums that will be supported by the proceeds from the sales).

    The raw material are “public domain” only to the extent it was made “public”. He reserved this material secluded from the public and therefore public domain law will not apply.

  19. I read a paperback version of Twain’s Autobiography several years ago and look forward to the newly released papers.

    I was intrigued that both he and his family had mixed feelings about the Mark Twain persona with some close family members hating Twain while loving Clements.

    Apparently his sensitive side won the internal debate and deferred the extended autobiography publication for one hundred years so that posterity could better judge its value.

    Ed Warsaw
    Cheyenne, Wyoming

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