I felt myself the most fortunate biographer in the world, as undoubtedly I was, though not just in the way that I first imagined.
It was not for several weeks that I began to realize that these marvelous reminiscences bore only an atmospheric relation to history; that they were aspects of biography rather than its veritable narrative, and built largely--sometimes wholly--from an imagination that, with age, had dominated memory, creating details, even reversing them, yet with a perfect sincerity of purpose on the part of the narrator to set down the literal and unvarnished truth. It was his constant effort to be frank and faithful to fact, to record, to confess, and to condemn without stint. If you wanted to know the worst of Mark Twain you had only to ask him for it. He would give it, to the last syllable--worse than the worst, for his imagination would magnify it and adorn it with new iniquities, and if he gave it again, or a dozen times, he would improve upon it each time, until the thread of history was almost impossible to trace through the marvel of that fabric; and he would do the same for another person just as willingly. Those vividly real personalities that he marched and countermarched before us were the most convincing creatures in the world; the most entertaining, the most excruciatingly humorous, or wicked, or tragic; but, alas, they were not always safe to include in a record that must bear a certain semblance to history. They often disagreed in their performance, and even in their characters, with the documents in the next room, as I learned by and by when those records, disentangled, began to rebuild the structure of the years.
His gift of dramatization had been exercised too long to be discarded now. The things he told of Mrs. Clemens and of Susy were true-- marvelously and beautifully true, in spirit and in aspect--and the actual detail of these mattered little in such a record. The rest was history only as 'Roughing It' is history, or the 'Tramp Abroad'; that is to say, it was fictional history, with fact as a starting-point. In a prefatory note to these volumes we have quoted Mark Twain's own lovely and whimsical admission, made once when he realized his deviations:
"When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it happened or not; but I am getting old, and soon I shall remember only the latter."
At another time he paraphrased one of Josh Billings's sayings in the remark: "It isn't so astonishing, the number of things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren't so."
I do not wish to say, by any means, that his so-called autobiography is a mere fairy tale. It is far from that. It is amazingly truthful in the character-picture it represents of the man himself. It is only not reliable--and it is sometimes even unjust--as detailed history. Yet, curiously enough, there were occasional chapters that were photographically exact, and fitted precisely with the more positive, if less picturesque, materials. It is also true that such chapters were likely to be episodes intrinsically so perfect as to not require the touch of art.
In the talks which we usually had, when the dictations were ended and Miss Hobby had gone, I gathered much that was of still greater value. Imagination was temporarily dispossessed, as it were, and, whether expounding some theory or summarizing some event, he cared little for literary effect, and only for the idea and the moment immediately present.
It was at such times that he allowed me to make those inquiries we had planned in the beginning, and which apparently had little place in the dictations themselves. Sometimes I led him to speak of the genesis of his various books, how he had come to write them, and I think there was not a single case where later I did not find his memory of these matters almost exactly in accord with the letters of the moment, written to Howells or Twichell, or to some member of his family. Such reminiscence was usually followed by some vigorous burst of human philosophy, often too vigorous for print, too human, but as dazzling as a search-light in its revelation.