Mark Twain’s Last Stunt

Suppressed for one hundred years, Autobiography of Mark Twain has become one of UC Berkeley's biggest literary events of all time.

As it turns out, Mark Twain had one more joke up his sleeve.

Scholars at UC Berkeley are having the moment of their careers as they prepare to release Autobiography of Mark Twain. Appearing in three hardcover volumes from UC Press starting November 15, the autobiography reveals the iconic American novelist’s true feelings about his family and associates, as well as his frustrations with Christianity, Wall Street, and US foreign policy. The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is so candid in the half-million dictated pages that he mandated that the unedited text be suppressed until one hundred years after his death. On November 15, that date arrives, and with it worldwide attention to the dozen or so members of the Mark Twain Project, headquartered at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

“It’s hard to describe,” said project head Robert Hirst, who is currently on a worldwide press junket usually reserved for the Justin Timberlakes and Clive Owens of the world. “We’ve never had interest like this. This has broken all the records, all the expectations. Really, I had no real clue about how much interest there would be.”

But Twain was a former journalist and master of self-aggrandizement who innately understood the draw of such a document. And it appears he’s used his final dictations to orchestrate one last, cheeky publicity stunt from beyond the grave.

No pens are allowed in the Mark Twain Papers & Project. Situated at the center of the campus in a $29-million, newly refurbished wing of the Bancroft Library, it’s guarded by a student security guard who sits behind a twelve-foot-tall, roll-down metal gate and confiscates any pens or markers from the wing’s few visitors.

The guard trades them for identification and ushers guests into a gilded elevator. Four floors up, the elevator opens onto a sterile, white hallway lined with electronically locked doors. The air smells clean, cool, and climate-controlled, and down the hallway a nondescript door marked Mark Twain Papers is locked next to an intercom.

Once buzzed in, guests are greeted by a receptionist from behind a glass partition, who escorts them to the vault where they may find the Autobiography‘s lead editors behind another electronically locked door, pouring over priceless original manuscripts from one of America’s foremost authors. “People are often surprised the vault is not a metaphor,” notes Benjamin Griffin, one of the lead editors at the Project.

The story of how UC Berkeley came to have a heavily guarded, multimillion-dollar climate-controlled stash of Twain’s most intimate correspondence is a long one.

Twain is, of course, the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and is widely considered to be the father of American literature. A huge celebrity in his own time, and good friends with people like Ulysses S. Grant, Twain died in 1910, yet grew in fame, while many of his contemporaries faded away.

“The whole literary canon has been reshaped since then in ways that would very much surprise Mark Twain,” said Griffin, sporting black, thick-rimmed glasses, a single-tone tie, white button-down shirt, and slacks, evoking a bit of Mad Men-esque class. “But he’s still in it. He’s a lone survivor.”

When Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) died, the amount of his unpublished letters and papers could fill a file cabinet measuring eleven feet long. Twain bequeathed the documents to his daughter Clara Clemens Samossoud, but his agent managed them until he died as well. Scholarly interest drew the papers to the West Coast, first to UCLA, and then to UC Berkeley, where fanatical researchers convinced Clara to bequeath all of them to the University of California. She had planned to give them to Yale, so it was a huge coup for Cal.

The property of the Regents since 1962, the Twain Papers Project has been dedicated to sorting through the entirety of the unpublished works. Even though Twain had strong East Coast ties, he got his start as a newspaper man in Nevada and San Francisco, Griffin notes. “It’s always been seen as appropriate that California should be the home of this project and this edition even though Clemens, after leaving in 1868, never did come back.”

Since the Sixties, the Project has published volumes of Twain’s letters, a new edition of Huckleberry Finn based on new manuscripts found in the Nineties, and a popular book of Twain quotes. But sitting in the background was the half-million-word Autobiography and the impending expiration of the one hundred-year-long embargo on it.

Small, blond, with a wavering voice, Autobiography lead editor Harriet Smith gives off the aura of an extreme bibliophile, steeped for the last thirty years in one of the funniest, coolest authors of all time. It might be impossible to fit all of Twain’s work into a single brain, but Smith is the functional equivalent.

“Most people don’t know Mark Twain even wrote an autobiography,” she said. “There’s never been a chance to read it in full until now.”

Smith says Twain spent 35 years making false starts on his life story until the invention of the typewriter. The device enabled him to take a new approach. Instead of typing out his life story, Twain dictated it to an interviewer while an assistant furiously banged away at the cutting-edge machine.

“I’ve struck it!” Twain wrote in a 1904 letter to a friend. “And I will give it away — to you. You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography.”

The speed of the typewriting enabled a transcriber to capture the flow of human speech, Twain found. He directed that the final product not be rearranged into any type of chronological order, but reflect the freedom of association of pure thought. “Talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment,” Twain wrote of the method.

Fifty years before Beat poets would popularize the idea of narrative “flow,” Griffin says, “He had great faith in the power of free association to bring up hidden resonances and congruences that he hoped will be more illuminating because they’re psychologically more illuminating than a temporal sequence would be.”

The narrative proved so revealing that Twain instructed his lawyers to hold the publication for one hundred years and then stagger the release of the sensitive material. “From the first, second, third and fourth editions all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be left out,” Twain instructed in 1906. “There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now. There is no hurry. Wait and see.”

Editors didn’t, Griffin says. Versions of the autobiography came out in 1924, 1940, and 1959, but the original editor, Albert Bigelow Paine, cut out entire sections he found offensive or incongruent. Later editors re-cut and re-edited the piece chronologically, sometimes adding parts to smooth over the transitions between rough cuts. “Which was exactly what Mark Twain, didn’t want,” Griffin said. “He did mention, ‘it is often — in a manner necessary — to kill an editor.'”

The one-hundred-year edition comprises what could be called a director’s cut, says Griffin. It includes everything Twain wanted, in the order he wanted it to appear.

“This is what Clemens had in mind for you,” said Griffin. “It hasn’t been cut to size or made to fit the requirements of the market or brought into line with notions of public decency. This is the first time that anyone has tried to publish it as it was left by Clemens.”

Assembling the autobiography has taken the team of about a dozen around six years. They used never-before-seen directions from Clemens on how to assemble the text, and put it together using the processing power of computers, in way similar to how Twain used the latest technology available to realize his vision.

Smith says the project largely consisted of hand-copying the half-million typed manuscript pages and handwritten notes into a computer database, one at a time. The Project then used custom software to compare four versions of the autobiography. Comparing the drafts, the team discovered one version constituted the master document, and three comprised copies with revisions and handwritten notes.

“It’s like making a huge document before there were word processors,” said Griffin. “It’s versions upon versions upon versions.”

Prior editors had also written on the priceless documents. The Project had to sort out their handwriting from Twain’s and Twain’s assistants.

An expert in “textual editing,” Griffin cut his teeth going through different surviving versions of Shakespeare’s plays like Hamlet. He was specifically brought on the job because of his knowledge of the field and his ability to work in the computer code XML. Once all the versions could be looked at side by side, the team came up with a consistent policy about which version to use, and then showed how they came to that decision. The choices are collected in a massive digital tome that if printed would comprise a book in and of itself. With a policy in place, the text was assembled and edited for the first time.

“What I found myself doing was uniting the two separate halves of a manuscript, which I realized belonged together,” said Griffin. “And so they are being published in this form for the first time, and I feel this is a work of genuine restoration. It’s not the greatest literature in the world — the piece I’m talking about is one of Clemens’ venting manuscripts, and he has several of those — but it’s quite entertaining and it’s just fun for a critic to be working in an area where there are still discoveries to be made.”

The team also annotated the final text with information on all the people, places, and things Twain refers to in the main narrative — a monumental work of cross-referencing that draws on the Project’s unparalleled supply of personal information on the man. Hard-core Twain nerds will be able to geek out on the details of the writer’s business deals for the first time, Griffin notes.

The final product went to the printer in the fall of 2009, and in the ensuing year interest in Twain has skyrocketed. The New York Times, NPR, PBS, and what seems like every other mainstream publication has seized on the uncensored, centennial work, making it the book of a lifetime for Project staff.

“It’s never even been remotely like this,” said Smith, a bit exasperated from all the interviews, photo shoots, and foot traffic in her normally quiet halls. “It’s a big surprise. I didn’t anticipate that this year would turn out like this.”

It’s also one of the biggest moments in the history of the University of California Press, Hirst notes. A bevy of events are scheduled around the release, including a $150-a-ticket library fund-raiser featuring a Twain reading by author Michael Chabon and others.

Smith and Griffin say an odd catalyst in Twain interest came from a controversial article published online last year stating that Twain bought his assistant a vibrator, and the two were having an affair. The Project insists there’s no evidence of an affair, but they appreciate the interest it helped spark. “It was a curious catalyst,” Griffin said.

Smith says don’t expect to find any sexual stuff in the Autobiography, though. Twain was profoundly discrete, given the Victorian era. “I get that all the time,” Smith said. “There’s nothing sexual in here, much as people want to think there is.”

Twain’s most bawdy works appear elsewhere, she notes. And Griffin says times have changed so much that many of Twains indiscretions would pale compared to, say, an episode of The Jersey Shore. “There’s been several social revolutions since he died,” she said.

Most people are now interested in what Twain had to say about issues still pressing to Americans. Twain is candid on his objection to American imperialism, speaking of “our uniformed assassins” and describing the killing of “six hundred helpless and weaponless savages” in the Philippines as “a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory.”

He takes shots at his lawyer, his publisher, and long-forgotten literary figures of his time, as well as critics. “I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value,” Twain said. “However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden.”

On Thanksgiving: “Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man’s side, consequently on the Lord’s side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it.”

On the rich: “The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars,” Twain said. “He pays taxes on two million and a half.”

“The multimillionaire disciples of Jay Gould — that man who in his brief life rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died — have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that; that our people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration; that our Christianity which we have always been so proud of — not to say vain of — is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy; that we have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things.”

Sex and politics aside, Hirst says Twain continues to resonate because he’s so funny. Smith points out that he was simply astonishingly gifted and even his hastily crafted letters show an effortless, inimitable ability to express emotion.

Money from the sale of the autobiography will flow to the UC Press and the administrators on Twain’s estate. Twain has no surviving family, Griffin notes, “just lawyers.” But, eventually, some of it may flow back to the Project, which is working on volumes two and three.

Asked what Twain might think of the Project and all the attention he’s getting, Smith says he would be pleased. “He was not a modest person who shrank from the limelight,” she said. “He would have been very gratified to know that one hundred years from now his work was getting such attention. He clearly expected there to be interest at five hundred years. Some passages that talk about Christianity say, ‘This should be printed in 2406.’

“He also stated that by the fifth edition, the whole of the Autobiography can go unexpurgated,” Smith continued. “Now, any author that’s expecting five editions of his work one hundred years after his death is cheeky. But justifiable, as it turns out.”


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