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'Who is Mark Twain?,' Mark Twain

Not ready for 2,000 pages of Mark Twain? Here’s an appetizer instead.

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Consider this slim edition an appetizer for the 760-page main dish arriving on bookshelves later this month. That volume — the first in a three-part series — is The Autobiography of Mark Twain, the dictated memoirs of one of America’s greatest writers. By Twain’s own decree, it’ll be the first time his reminiscences are published in their complete, unexpurgated form. (He demanded they not be released until 100 years after his death, which occurred in April 1910.) 

But it’ll also be one hell of a long book.

Thus, the existence the amuse-bouche before us. Who is Mark Twain?, published in April, collects 26 of Twain’s letters, stories, personal papers and unpublished essays. At a slim 256 pages, it’s a quick — though challenging — read.

In fact, nearly half of the book consists of challenges fired at one group or another. Twain, celebrated in life for his acerbic wit, is even more tart here, sharing unpublished “unpopular convictions which common wisdom [forbade] him to utter” in life, as he writes in one of the book’s essays, “The Privilege of the Grave.”

In three separate pieces, he lambastes the American press for editorializing and sensationalism. He digs into class struggle and the meaning of Jefferson’s “All men are created equal.” While acknowledging the importance of faith in one essay, he blasts the prudish hypocrisy of organized religion in several others.

Of course, it’s not all fighting words. There’s some gentler fiction here, too, including a darkly humorous story about a family of undertakers struggling to make ends meet during healthy times, or the tale of a dog who barks Morse code on the battlefield.

There are also a handful of pieces that could’ve been left unpublished, or, at least, are of interest only to the most devout fans: a short critique of Jane Austen, a rant about manuscript postage rates, a promising interview with Satan that meanders into a pointless discussion of cigars.

Still, even in these incomplete pieces, there are moments of brilliance — certainly enough to whet the appetites of those moving on to the entrée in a few weeks.

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