One Hundred Years Later, Twain finally speaks his piece

After waiting 100 years at the author's request, this November the University of California Press will publish the first of three volumes of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain."

Mark Twain never struck me as someone afraid to say what was on his mind. And yet, Samuel Clemens, the cranky, opinionated author of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” decided that his real views about a host of matters, from war to Wall Street, were too incendiary to be published until a century after his death.

The 100 years are finally up, and this November the University of California Press will publish the first of three volumes of the “Autobiography of Mark Twain.” The finished project runs a whopping 500,000 words, and completists (and college students working on their theses) will be able to see all original 750,000 online at the Mark Twain Project Online.

For those who can’t wait four months more for a taste, yesterday, Britain’s literary journal, Granta, printed the first excerpt, “The Farm,” which includes Twain's reminiscences of visiting his uncle’s farm in Missouri, in its issue titled “Going Back.” While you’ll need to purchase a copy to read the entire article, Granta does include an excerpt in Twain’s own handwriting.

Britain’s Guardian newspaper also offers excerpts of the childhood memories that Alison Flood writes informed Twain’s most well-loved novels, “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.”

Twain’s method of “writing” his autobiography created a few challenges, his editors say. He dictated most of it to a stenographer in the last four years before his death in 1910. She took his words down in shorthand and then copied the whole thing out.

While that decision may have led to a more colloquial and spontaneous style, it was long considered “uneditable,” as Benjamin Griffin writes in “A Voice from the Vault.” For one thing, the stenographer’s original record has been lost, and for another, she apparently got a few things wrong here and there, such as substituting “cocoa” for “coca.”

But figuring out Twain’s original intent wasn’t even the most daunting challenge his editors faced, as Griffin writes:

“I can’t refrain from describing one of the most intractable editorial tasks I ever came across. In the piece called “Private History of a Manuscript That Came to Grief,” Clemens wishes to present a manuscript of his own that got incompetently revised by an editor (one of the recurring motifs of the Autobiography is that you can’t trust an editor). So, Clemens wants to reproduce the manuscript showing not only his original but also the editor’s revisions. Except, he has had the whole affair re-copied by a typist, showing the editor’s editing, but making his own revisions. So we had to edit Clemens’s editing of the editor’s editing….”

The mind reels. And the hands itch to get a hold of a copy.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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