Is the Twain Autobiography the First Blog?

As I’ve been making my way through Mark Twain’s autobiography, I’ve been continually put in mind of something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something about the style. What you should know about the autobiography is that Twain didn’t write it–he dictated it, in rambling fashion. Some people, like grouchy-pants and obviously envious Garrison Keillor, hate this. (Keillor might not be Twain’s equal in novel-writing, but the two have this in common: They love the sounds of their own voices and when they get going on politics it can sometimes verge into the sort of rant that would do Bill O’Reilly proud).

I, for one, like the style of the autobiography. As Twain said, it’s a rambling mishmash of whatever jumps to his mind that particular morning as he’s sitting in his swank Manhattan apartment. Twain’s remarks about the slaughter in the Philippines came between ramblings about his childhood school house.

And maybe I like it because of my experience with blogging. When I came across this passage this morning, it put me in mind of a blog.

It is a deliberate system, and the law of the system is that I shall talk about the matter which for the moment interests me, and cast it aside and talk about something else the moment its interest for me is exhausted. It is a system which follows no charted course and is not going to follow any such course. It is a system which is a complete and purposed jumble–a course which begins nowhere, follows no specified route, and can never reach an end while I am alive, for the reason that, if I should talk to the stenographer two hours a day for a hundred years, I should still never be able to set down a tenth part of the things which have interested me in my lifetime. I told Howells that this autobiography of mine would live a couple of thousand years, without any effort, and would then take a fresh start and live the rest of the time. . . .

Howells applauded, and was full of praises and endorsement, which was wise in him and judicious. If he had manifested a different spirit, I would have thrown him out of the window. I like criticism, but it must be my way.

Doesn’t that sound just a little like a blog? Writing whatever he sees fit to write about at any particular time? Indeed, those who’ve followed me for some time may remember the name of my first blog was “As I Please”–which was actually cribbed from George Orwell’s columns about, well, whatever pleased him to write about. But Twain’s ramblings are much looser than Orwell’s columns.

On the day Twain dictated the above remarks, he was literally going through newspaper articles and commenting on them. BLOG! And what really tickled me was the following remark about the society that newspaper readers were obsessed with. It was almost like reading modern-day lamenting about reality shows.

Conspicuousness is the only thing necessary in a person to command our interest and, in a larger or smaller sense, our worship.

That’s right. In 1906, Mark Twain prophesied “The Jersey Shore”!

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3 thoughts on “Is the Twain Autobiography the First Blog?

  1. So what about Montaigne? Or Pascal? Or St. Augustine? Or Pepys? They rambled. Is it that Twain’s conversational tone is more modern that makes it echoic of blogging?

  2. The tone, yes, and, as I said in the post, he’s inserting that day’s newspaper clippings — or other notices and what many would consider ephemera — then riffing on them. It’s the early 20th century equivalent to a hyperlink to nytimes.com!

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