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Mark Twain's autobiography – after a century's delay – becomes a bestseller

Mark Twain wrote his biography a century ago. Finally released, it's stirring plenty of interest.

By / October 18, 2010

Mark Twain's autobiography is high on bestseller lists at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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Mark Twain completed his autobiography – which he called "a complete and purposed jumble" – more than a century ago. But he told his publishers that they would not be able to publish it till 100 years after his death – which happens to be this year.

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Why the delay? "Mark Twain had a very tender heart," Robert Hirst, curator of the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley, told "CBS Sunday Morning." "He liked to say nasty things – he's really good at it – but he didn't like the idea of being there when the person heard them, and was hurt by them!"

Also, said Hirst, the century-long embargo freed Twain "to say exactly what he [thought], and so in a way he doesn't have anyone looking over his shoulder."

It would appear, however, that waiting 100 years has done nothing to dampen interest in the life of the author of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." On the contrary, the book – which has an official publication date of Nov. 15 – is already high on the bestseller lists of both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

There is nothing dainty about Twain's project. The 760-page book now being released is just the first volume of the complete "Autobiography of Mark Twain."

Within five years, two more volumes will appear from the University of California Press. The entire work will eventually also be available online.
According to Hirst, Twain's accounting of his own life – which he offers in a "random," rather than chronological, order – is candid but is not "a tabloid tell-all."

"In the third month of the dictation [Twain] says, 'You know, I can think of a thousand shameful things I've done in my life, and I've not got one of them to go on paper yet,' " says Hirst.

As for the public's impatience to get their hands on the book, Hirst says that Twain "knew how to market."

"You gotta love him," agrees comedian Lewis Black. Asking the public to wait 100 years was "one of the most brilliant marketing schemes outside of Facebook."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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