Seeking Samuel Clemens

Editing Mark Twain's autobiography was mainly a matter of giving the author back his own voice.

Benjamin Griffin. Credits: Melissa Barnes

When he was editing the material that became Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1, what surprised Benjamin Griffin the most was “the degree to which Twain’s early editors had strained themselves censoring the innocuous.

“It strikes you all the more forcefully when you’re actually looking at the page, with Clemens’ word struck out in pencil and the editor’s word written over it,” said Griffin, who will be at University Press Books (2430 Bancroft Way, Berkeley) on Thursday, December 16. “I expected them to censor the obvious things — but, for example, Albert Bigelow Paine, the first editor of the Autobiography, substituted ‘innards’ for Clemens’ word ‘guts.'”

Clemens’ official biographer and literary executor at the time of the famous writer’s 1910 death, children’s-book author Paine manipulated the autobiography significantly — for example, giving a passage about a faith-healer “a Christian tinge that is totally absent in Clemens’ account. His project of ‘baptizing’ Clemens, who said that the Christian and all other religions are ‘lies and swindles,’ seems pretty quixotic to me,” Griffin said. In the 21st century, “we’re shocked by censorship, where the 19th century was shocked by not censoring.”

Among the book’s most moving revelations is its dark, self-recriminating undercurrent. Calling his own soul “too disgusting” for protracted examination, Clemens blamed himself for his son’s death and his wife’s unhappiness. Self-deprecation is standard stand-up-comic shtick — and although Clemens was a master of that precursor to stand-up, the after-dinner speech, Griffin believes this self-deprecation was heartfelt.

“It’s just that Clemens, like others, has many things in his heart and they don’t all fit together neatly. … I think he felt responsible, genuinely, and in that context of his family’s sufferings he wouldn’t have admitted any excuse. Yet elsewhere in the Autobiography he explains that man is a machine, that we lack free will and are no more responsible for our acts than amoebas. How do you reconcile these attitudes? I don’t think it occurred to him to try.”

Griffin landed his plum gig as an associate editor at the Bancroft Library’s Mark Twain Project not through his expertise about Twain, but through his expertise about editing.

“I’ve been interested in how editions are created since I was a kid — I wanted the best edition of every Beatles album,” he said. “If I read that the UK LP had the authors’ preferred song-sequencing, I wanted to know more about that. And if the German LP was closer to the master tape, I needed that.

“These are really ‘editorial’ issues, and this fascination eventually transferred from music to literature. Cambridge, where I got my doctorate in English in the Nineties, was a center for editorial theory. I must be one of very few people who get to put this training to use. You could say a personal obsession got upgraded from ‘harmless’ to ‘life-preserving.'” 5:30 p.m., free.