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Dec 24 / Jonathan

Mark Twain on autobiography, memory

Mark Liberman quoted these two passages from Mark Twain’s autobiography last month. Twain’s writing, especially in this mood, inspires in me a pang of fondness that finds an echo in my response to some of Vonnegut. Not so strange, I guess.

From Mark Twain’s autobiography

Like half of the U.S., I’ve been reading the first volume of Mark Twain’s recently-published autobiography. I’m sure that there’s some sociolinguistics in it somewhere, but for now you’ll have to be content with this rumination about discourse structure, which I present to you just in case you’re in the half that hasn’t bought the book yet:

Finally, in Florence in 1904, I hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography: start it at no particular time of your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.

Also, make the narrative a combined Diary and Autobiography. In this way you have the vivid things of the present to make a contrast with memories of like things in the past, and these contrasts have a charm which is all their own. No talent is required to make a combined Diary and Autobiography interesting.

And so, I have found the right plan. It makes my labor amusement — mere amusement, play, pastime, and wholly effortless. It is the first time in history that the right plan has been hit upon.

This is also the right plan for successful blogging, in my experience.

OK, one more quotation:

For many years I believed that I remembered helping my grandfather drink his whisky toddy when I was six weeks old, but I do not tell about that any more, now; I am grown old, and my memory is not as active as it used to be. When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying, now, and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the latter. It is sad to go to pieces like this, but we all have to do it.


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