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Mark Twain: in His Own Words

UC Berkeley drops a literary bomb, releasing Twain’s 100-year-old autobiography.


This month, a literary event 100 years in the making happens right here in the East Bay. The first part of the three-volume Autobiography of Mark Twain, which the great American novelist, journalist, and humorist declared should not be published until 100 years after his death, hits the shelves.

Published by University of California Press, the book was edited by the experts at the Mark Twain Papers and Project at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. Diablo spoke with Robert Hirst, the curator and general editor of the Mark Twain Papers and Project, to get the scoop on the last major work from one of America’s greatest writers.

Diablo: How did UC Berkeley end up with Twain’s autobiography? Did you always know it was there?

Hirst: The manuscript has been part of the Mark Twain Papers since they came to UC Berkeley in 1949, and it is large enough—about 10 file feet—that we would have had to be pretty dense not to know about it. … But what no one could know until very recently was that large chunks of the “manuscript” were preliminary experiments not intended for the final text. In fact, no one knew that Mark Twain [whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens] had finished it and had decided exactly what it should contain and what should be left out of it.

Twain’s stories are often hilarious. My favorite is when he challenges a rival newspaper editor to a duel, realizes he is incompetent with a pistol, and then manages to feign being a crack shot to get out of it.

What’s your favorite anecdote?

How he escaped from that duel is one of the marvelous stories in this text, but I can’t in all honestly say that I have a favorite. I will say that when I go out into the world to describe what we’re doing, I have no difficulty keeping them laughing by simply reading aloud some of the stories Mark Twain tells. It’s like being a stand-up comedian with 100-year-old jokes that still work.

Can you explain Twain’s decision to withhold the book for 100 years?

His earliest plans for an autobiography—dating from about 1876, some 30 years before he began the final form—always included the requirement that it be published after his death. Under such a condition, he could be as frank and honest and uninhibited as possible while composing it, since he would not be around to suffer the consequences when it was made public. And if publication were delayed long enough after his death, neither would his surviving family or the sons or even grandsons of the people he wrote so frankly about.

Are there things in the book that people would still find offensive today?

Well, I can imagine that some of the things said about Christianity could offend Christians today. [Example: “Measured by our Christianity of to-day, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the Deity nor his Son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilt.”] But it was of course Mark Twain’s assumption that when it was published in full, his then-radical notions would seem commonplace and unexceptional, and therefore inoffensive.

Can you explain the unique fashion in which Twain wrote this book?

Mark Twain says that it was only in 1904, after almost 35 years of trying and failing to compose his autobiography, that he discovered the right way to do it. That entailed two things: (a) dictating rather than writing it out longhand, and (b) ignoring completely the conventional notion that the narrative should be a chronological one. Instead, he proposed to talk about what he wanted to talk about at any given time, to change the subject when he grew the least bit tired of it, and really to feel free to ignore chronology completely.

How long have you been working on the book?

We’ve been working on this edition of the autobiography for five or six years. But it should be said that we have been pondering how to edit and publish it for much longer. Indeed, most Mark Twain scholars who have seen the manuscript would tell you that it was unfinished, unorganized, and really a great unsolvable puzzle of a text, something that could not be edited in a coherent way. Six years ago, we would have said the same thing. But we were so excited to discover that Mark Twain had actually completed his text, decided exactly how to begin and end it, how to introduce it, and most important, which of his earlier attempts to leave out.

The Mark Twain Project seems like an interesting place to work. How did you end up there?

I failed my German reading exam. I was a graduate student in English at UC Berkeley. The department required that you make steady progress toward a degree, and one of the signs of such progress was to pass the foreign language reading exams [French, German, Latin] at a regular pace, which I failed to do, and which meant that I lost my job with the department as a teaching assistant.

I had to get another job if I wanted to stay in graduate school, which I wasn’t at all sure I did. In 1967, they were just beginning to get going on the edition known as the Mark Twain Papers, and they advertised for “checkers and proofreaders.” I applied, got the job, and got completely hooked on the pleasures of historical research and scholarly editing, something that was completely frowned upon by the English department.

The Mark Twain Papers are open to the public; can you give me a couple of examples of cool artifacts a visitor would see?

There’s a carved marble head of a woman broken off from a bas-relief frieze of some kind that Clemens ostensibly brought back with him from the Acropolis in 1867. It’s a genuinely ancient artifact, but when I had it examined by real experts in Greek archaeology, they told me it wasn’t Greek. They could tell by the—get this—smell of the marble itself. It probably came from Smyrna and was in any case not something that the Greek government needed to repossess. We’re glad to have it still. 


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