Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mark Twain, blogger

It's been observed before (I made the link myself recently) that in dictating the Autobiography, Mark Twain was essentially blogging. A recent CBS story on the release of the Autobiography quotes Bob Hirst putting it like this:
"Mark Twain wants this autobiography to be random," Hirst said. "You know, he's going to talk about what he wants to talk about on this day, change his mind and move onto the next thing."

You heard that right . . . talk. One of the greatest writers in American history decided the best way to tell his own story was NOT to write it, but SPEAK it.

Daily dictations over four years, about whatever he found interesting that day.

So was Mark Twain the first BLOGGER?

"I would say that is exactly right," Hirst said. "Partly a journal, partly a diary, and partly recollection. So yeah, I think of it as a kind of blog, a blog without a web!"
The thing about blogs, though, is that whether or not they are particularly plugged into the Zeitgeist, they're timely by virtue of the way they're parceled out in time. A post today, a post tomorrow. But the Autobiography's dailiness actually isn't so clear, for a number of reasons.

This was a guy, let me just say, whose sense of timeliness was very different from the rationalized, homogeneous empty time of the RSS feed. As you'll find out if you read the Autobiography (and I'm pretty sure I've blogged about this before, it's so incredible), Twain thought it would be brilliant to have a periodical devoted entirely to old newspaper articles. It would be called The Back Number, and it would publish an assortment of news articles of yore without comment or context. In a way that's just what the Autobiography is like as well. Newspapers to Twain aren't "one-day best-sellers," as Benedict Anderson cleverly put it; they're more like flies in amber--interesting, enduring, a little gross. How do we square that kind of mentality with the logic of blogs?

Let's put aside the fact that the Autobiography is over a hundred years old (the dictations in Volume I, the only volume that's out, are mostly from 1906, I believe). Quite often one day's dictation will leave off and pick up immediately the next day. Sometimes Twain spends five days' dictation telling one story, and the dates are no more than interruptions. This obscures the sense of parceling out that we get from blogs.

Moreover, these dictations are mostly reminiscences, progressing day by day but alluding to different points in time. Like a blogger, Twain is talking about whatever he feels like talking about on that day, but because he's also recounting his life (in a very haphazard way), the day-by-day progression of his dictations butts up against the scrambled chronology of their contents.

And finally, Twain's dictations aren't actually always produced day by day. For one thing, he does edit, introducing the recursivity always implied by editing. His stenographer, Josephine Hobby, would make a typescript, which Twain would then edit and Miss Hobby would re-type. Often this process happened twice. And the dictation itself? Well, it wasn't always dictation. Sometimes he would instruct Miss Hobby to insert an old newspaper article, or a letter. And not infrequently, he would instruct her to insert an old piece of writing. For instance, most of "In Memory of Olivia Susan Clemens. 1872-1896," a piece written in memory of his daughter Susy not long after her death, was inserted into the February 2, 1906 dictation. Which is to say that he did not compose the 2/2/1906 dictation on 2/2/1906 at all, but rather decided it was the right point in his writerly timeline to introduce an older piece.

I'm sure this is noted in the explanatory notes (I don't have the volume on me at the moment; it's in my office, being too heavy to schlep around casually), but you wouldn't necessarily know it from reading. Sometimes Twain points out when he is quoting himself, usually when presenting and commenting on funny set-pieces. Sometimes he doesn't. In other words, I think the blog comparison makes sense for the book as published, but it breaks down in the archive.

The temporality of blogs is complicated, but the temporality of Twain's Autobiography is more complicated still.


Sharon K. Goetz said...

I think you're right about the distinctions, generally--but RSS feeds are not so dry and mechanized, either. For various reasons I roll one by hand, which means that I can force the datestamp to be whatever I want. (That isn't why I do it manually, but it's still a consequence.)

The text runs pp. 61-467. There's a bit of 1906 spliced in before the Florentine dictations (1904), but 1906 proper begins on p. 250.

Sharon K. Goetz said...

Thinking about this slightly more, I wonder whether you could expand on the "breaks down in the archive" aspect. Some bloggers edit posts after the posts have gone public; some queue up posts for public view and write little or nothing "live." Queuing/"publishing" can be backdated, such that an unwary reader would never know whether they'd missed reading a given post the first time around or whether that post had been added after the fact. Thus, while agreeing with your final line about complicated temporalities, I'm interested in why the Autobiography's temporality seems to you more complicated, rather than differently complicated due to the differences in available media.