Mark Twain’s Autobiography

Ask a humorist to write his autobiography, and you just might end up with a short story such as Mark Twain’s Burlesque Autobiography. This short story is entirely fictional, and is not intended to be taken seriously.


by Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) 1871

Two or three persons having at different times intimated that if I would write an autobiography they would read it, when they got leisure, I yield at last to this frenzied public demand, and herewith tender my history:

Ours is a noble old house, and stretches a long way back into antiquity. The earliest ancestor the Twains have any record of was a friend of the family by the name of Higgins. This was in the eleventh century, when our people were living in Aberdeen, county of Cork, England. Why it is that our long line has ever since borne the maternal name (except when one of them now and then took a playful refuge in an alias to avert foolishness), instead of Higgins, is a mystery which none of us has ever felt much desire to stir. It is a kind of vague, pretty romance, and we leave it alone. All the old families do that way.


Mark Twain, c. 1907, photograph taken by A. F. Bradley; courtesy of the Steamboat Times website.

Arthour Twain was a man of considerable note  a solicitor on the highway
in William Rufus’ time. At about the age of thirty he went to one of
those fine old English places of resort called Newgate, to see about
something, and never returned again. While there he died suddenly.

Augustus Twain, seems to have made something of a stir about the year
1160. He was as full of fun as he could be, and used to take his old
sabre and sharpen it up, and get in a convenient place on a dark night,
and stick it through people as they went by, to see them jump. He was a
born humorist. But he got to going too far with it; and the first time
he was found stripping one of these parties, the authorities removed one
end of him, and put it up on a nice high place on Temple Bar, where it
could contemplate the people and have a good time. He never liked any
situation so much or stuck to it so long.

Then for the next two hundred years the family tree shows a succession
of soldiers–noble, high-spirited fellows, who always went into battle
singing; right behind the army, and always went out a-whooping, right
ahead of it.

This is a scathing rebuke to old dead Froissart’s poor witticism that
our family tree never had but one limb to it, and that that one stuck
out at right angles, and bore fruit winter, and summer.

||                  |
||                  |
||                 O
||              / || \
||                 ||
||                 ||


Early in the fifteenth century we have Beau Twain, called “the Scholar.”
He wrote a beautiful, beautiful hand. And he could imitate anybody’s
hand so closely that it was enough to make a person laugh his head off
to see it. He had infinite sport with his talent. But by and by he took
a contract to break stone for a road, and the roughness of the work
spoiled his hand. Still, he enjoyed life all the time he was in the
stone business, which, with inconsiderable intervals, was some forty-two
years. In fact, he died in harness. During all those long years he gave
such satisfaction that he never was through with one contract a week
till government gave him another. He was a perfect pet. And he was
always a favorite with his fellow-artists, and was a conspicuous member
of their benevolent secret society, called the Chain Gang. He always
wore his hair short, had a preference for striped clothes, and died
lamented by the government. He was a sore loss to his country. For he
was so regular.

Some years later we have the illustrious John Morgan Twain. He came over
to this country with Columbus in 1492, as a passenger. He appears to
have been of a crusty, uncomfortable disposition. He complained of the
food all the way over, and was always threatening to go ashore unless
there was a change. He wanted fresh shad. Hardly a day passed over his
head that he did not go idling about the ship with his nose in the air,
sneering about the commander, and saying he did not believe Columbus
knew where he was going to or had ever been there before. The memorable
cry of “Land ho!” thrilled every heart in the ship but his. He gazed a
while through a piece of smoked glass at the penciled line lying on the
distant water, and then said: “Land be hanged, — it’s a raft!”

When this questionable passenger came on board the ship, he brought
nothing with him but an old newspaper containing a handkerchief marked
“B. G.,” one cotton sock marked “L. W. C.” one woollen one marked “D.
F.” and a night-shirt marked “O. M. R.” And yet during the voyage he
worried more about his “trunk,” and gave himself more airs about it,
than all the rest of the passengers put together.

If the ship was “down by the head,” and would not steer, he would go and
move his “trunk” farther aft, and then watch the effect. If the ship
was “by the stern,” he would suggest to Columbus to detail some men
to “shift that baggage.” In storms he had to be gagged, because his
wailings about his “trunk” made it impossible for the men to hear the
orders. The man does not appear to have been openly charged with
any gravely unbecoming thing, but it is noted in the ship’s log as a
“curious circumstance” that albeit he brought his baggage on board the
ship in a newspaper, he took it ashore in four trunks, a queensware
crate, and a couple of champagne baskets. But when he came back
insinuating in an insolent, swaggering way, that some of his things were
missing, and was going to search the other passengers’ baggage, it
was too much, and they threw him overboard. They watched long and
wonderingly for him to come up, but not even a bubble rose on the
quietly ebbing tide. But while every one was most absorbed in gazing
over the side, and the interest was momentarily increasing, it was
observed with consternation that the vessel was adrift and the anchor
cable hanging limp from the bow. Then in the ship’s dimmed and ancient
log we find this quaint note:

“In time it was discouvered yt ye troblesome passenger hadde
gonne downe and got ye anchor, and toke ye same and solde it to
ye dam sauvages from ye interior, saying yt he hadde founde it,
ye sonne of a ghun!”

Yet this ancestor had good and noble instincts, and it is with pride
that we call to mind the fact that he was the first white person who
ever interested himself in the work of elevating and civilizing our
Indians. He built a commodious jail and put up a gallows, and to
his dying day he claimed with satisfaction that he had had a more
restraining and elevating influence on the Indians than any other
reformer that ever labored among them. At this point the chronicle
becomes less frank and chatty, and closes abruptly by saying that the
old voyager went to see his gallows perform on the first white man ever
hanged in America, and while there received injuries which terminated in
his death.

The great grandson of the “Reformer” flourished in sixteen hundred and
something, and was known in our annals as, “the old Admiral,” though in
history he had other titles. He was long in command of fleets of swift
vessels, well armed and manned, and did great service in hurrying up
merchantmen. Vessels which he followed and kept his eagle eye on, always
made good fair time across the ocean. But if a ship still loitered
in spite of all he could do, his indignation would grow till he could
contain himself no longer — and then he would take that ship home where
he lived and, keep it there carefully, expecting the owners to come for
it, but they never did. And he would try to get the idleness and sloth
out of the sailors of that ship by compelling them to take invigorating
exercise and a bath. He called it “walking a plank.” All the pupils
liked it. At any rate, they never found any fault with it after trying
it. When the owners were late coming for their ships, the Admiral always
burned them, so that the insurance money should not be lost. At last
this fine old tar was cut down in the fulness of his years and honors.
And to her dying day, his poor heart-broken widow believed that if
he had been cut down fifteen minutes sooner he might have been

Charles Henry Twain lived during the latter part of the seventeenth
century, and was a zealous and distinguished missionary. He converted
sixteen thousand South Sea islanders, and taught them that a dog-tooth
necklace and a pair of spectacles was not enough clothing to come to
divine service in. His poor flock loved him very, very dearly; and
when his funeral was over, they got up in a body (and came out of the
restaurant) with tears in their eyes, and saying, one to another, that
he was a good tender missionary, and they wished they had some more of

adorned the middle of the eighteenth century, and aided Gen. Braddock
with all his heart to resist the oppressor Washington. It was this
ancestor who fired seventeen times at our Washington from behind a tree.
So far the beautiful romantic narrative in the moral story-books is
correct; but when that narrative goes on to say that at the seventeenth
round the awe-stricken savage said solemnly that that man was being
reserved by the Great Spirit for some mighty mission, and he dared not
lift his sacrilegious rifle against him again, the narrative seriously
impairs the integrity of history. What he did say was:

“It ain’t no (hic!) no use. ‘At man’s so drunk he can’t stan’ still long
enough for a man to hit him. I (hic!) I can’t ‘ford to fool away any
more am’nition on him!”

That was why he stopped at the seventeenth round, and it was, a good
plain matter-of-fact reason, too, and one that easily commends itself to
us by the eloquent, persuasive flavor of probability there is about it.

I always enjoyed the story-book narrative, but I felt a marring
misgiving that every Indian at Braddock’s Defeat who fired at a soldier
a couple of times (two easily grows to seventeen in a century), and
missed him, jumped to the conclusion that the Great Spirit was reserving
that soldier for some grand mission; and so I somehow feared that the
only reason why Washington’s case is remembered and the others forgotten
is, that in his the prophecy came true, and in that of the others it
didn’t. There are not books enough on earth to contain the record of the
prophecies Indians and other unauthorized parties have made; but one may
carry in his overcoat pockets the record of all the prophecies that have
been fulfilled.

I will remark here, in passing, that certain ancestors of mine are so
thoroughly well known in history by their aliases, that I have not felt
it to be worth while to dwell upon them, or even mention them in the
order of their birth. Among these may be mentioned RICHARD BRINSLEY
TWAIN, alias Guy Fawkes; JOHN WENTWORTH TWAIN, alias Sixteen-String
Jack; WILLIAM HOGARTH TWAIN, alias Jack Sheppard; ANANIAS TWAIN, alias
Baron Munchausen; JOHN GEORGE TWAIN, alias Capt. Kydd; and then there
are George Francis Train, Tom Pepper, Nebuchadnezzar and Baalam’s
Ass–they all belong to our family, but to a branch of it somewhat
distantly removed from the honorable direct line–in fact, a collateral
branch, whose members chiefly differ from the ancient stock in that, in
order to acquire the notoriety we have always yearned and hungered for,
they have got into a low way of going to jail instead of getting hanged.

It is not well, when writing an autobiography, to follow your ancestry
down too close to your own time — it is safest to speak only vaguely of
your great-grandfather, and then skip from there to yourself, which I
now do.

I was born without teeth — and there Richard III had the advantage of
me; but I was born without a humpback, likewise, and there I had the
advantage of him. My parents were neither very poor nor conspicuously

But now a thought occurs to me. My own history would really seem so tame
contrasted with that of my ancestors, that it is simply wisdom to leave
it unwritten until I am hanged. If some other biographies I have read
had stopped with the ancestry until a like event occurred, it would have
been a felicitous thing, for the reading public. How does it strike you?


Many thanks to Finn from the Steamboat Times website ( for graciously allowing us to use the author image on this page. We appreciate the work he has done to digitally clean the image. To the best of our knowledge, the original photograph is free of any copyright restrictions.

Back to Top

More Mark Twain prose