Friday, March 4, 2011

Autobiography: Food for Thought!

Last night, Dr. Kerry Driscoll led a riveting discussion on Mark Twain's latest literary sensation, the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1.  Our museum center was packed with first-time Nook Farm Book Club members, as well as loyal returnees, and of course, the staffs of the Twain House and the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. In our hour together, we meandered through so many rich topics that I thought I'd put them into discussion-question form for your own book reading pleasure. Enjoy! No spoilers!

1. Mark Twain, in his story "Sociable Jimmy," described a character as "an inexhaustable talker." The same could be said for Twain himself! How do you feel about his rambiling, casual (almost chatty) style?

2. Twain undertook the dictation of this book as an experiment-- to see if he could blow apart the traditional autobiographical structure. At the same time, cubism and other artistic experimentations were on rise. What do you think the relationship was between these artistic forms? Do you think this particular bold experiment was a success?

3. Twain doesn't seem too concerned with his reader's ability to follow along with the narrative. Who do you think he was writing this book for? Did you, as a reader, feel that you were being positively challenged, or cheated out of a traditional story?

4. Since Twain abandoned chronology, did you feel free to do the same? Did you read the book in a linear fashion or did you skip around?

5. There are some beautiful passages in this work- for example, the description of narrative moving along like a stream (on page 224 of the University of California Press version). Which passages did you find most interesting or moving?

6. Many people in our discussion group felt that Twain had a manic/depressive quality about him. While it is impossible to diagnose someone 100 years after his death-- what do you think? Does his memoir exhibit a range of attention or emotion that you found surprising or remarkable?

7. One of Twain's motivations for delaying the publication of this autobiography was to air his grievances against politicians and acquaintances he didn't much like. We were particularly impressed with the vitriolic takedown of the Countess Massiglia. Any favorite smackdowns? Is it fair to take down enemies 100 years in the future, or is all fair in love, war, and autobiography?

8. One of the most amazing things about this autobiography is the fact that it was entirely dictated. Mark Twain has accomplished a rare and remarkable feat- being both a great writer and a great speaker. How do you think his conversational tone has affected his writing style, and vice versa?

9. For historians and history lovers, this book is a treasure trove of information. Any details you found enlightening or just plan interesting? Did the book give you a sense of everyday life in that time period?

10. Finally-- this book still manages to be downright hilarious. Read aloud your favorite funny passages, and marvel in the genius of humor that lasts over 100 years.

-- Julia Pistell
Communications & Membership Associate

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