Keeping Up with Mark Twain.

 Berkeley researchers, under Chief editor Robert Hirst (shown below) toil to stay abreast of Samuel Clemens’ enormous literary output, which appears to continue unabated. By: Ron Powers

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(from left, Michael Frank, Victor Fischer and Lin Salamo).(Robert Hirst)



NINETY-THREE YEARS AFTER HIS DEATH IN 1910, Samuel LANGHORNE CLEMENS has been making some ambitious career moves. It’s almost as though the old sage of the Mississippi, better known as Mark Twain, is trying to reposition himself as the King, as friends and colleagues called him long years before Elvis was even born.


In July, 2003, an American Sign Language adaptation of the 1985 musical Big River, based on Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and featuring deaf and hearing actors, opened in New York City to enthusiastic reviews. A recently rediscovered three-act play by Twain, Is He Dead? (written in 1898), will be published next month, October 2003, and has been optioned by a Broadway producer. In 2001, the Atlantic Monthly published a “new” Twain short story, ‘A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage,” which he’d submitted to the magazine 125 years earlier. He was the subject of a Ken Burns documentary on PBS last year. And the venerable Oxford University Press issued a 29-volume edition of Twain’s published writings in 1996. New biographies and works of critical scholarship are in the works.


In fact, if this new rush of celebrity-hood grows any more intense, Mark Twain may want to eat the words he aimed at another overexposed immortal. “Even popularity can be overdone,” he groused in the novel Pudd’nhead Wilson. “In Rome, along at first, you are full of regrets that Michelangelo died; but by and by you only regret that you didn’t see him do it.” Of Twain’s many fans, who are apparently growing in number, none could feel more pleased-or more vindicated-by the renewed interest than the steadfast editors of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley, who have been at work for 36 years on a scholarly under-taking of almost inconceivable proportions: to hunt down organize and interpret every known or knowable scrap of writing that issued from Sam Clemens during his astonishingly crowded 74 years on earth. The University of California Press has so far produced more than two dozen volumes of the project’s labors, totaling some 15,000 pages, including new editions of Twain’s novels, travel books, short stories, sketches and, perhaps most significantly, his letters.


What distinguishes the works is the small print- the annotations. The information contained in these deceptively g ray-looking footnotes ranks with the most distinguished scholarship ever applied to a literary figure. Amounting almost to a “shadow” biography of Twain, the project has been an indispensable resource for Twain scholars since the 1960s. But esteem does not always spell security If the project’s editors are feeling happy these days, it is only now, after nearly four decades, that their project is emerging from obscurity, even on their host campus, after a virtually unrelieved funding crisis. Mark Twain, of course, would be sympathetic. “The lack of money is the root of all evil,” he liked to remind people; and as for approbation, “It is human to like to be praised; one can even notice it in the French.”


THE ANIMATING FORCE BEHIND THE PROJECT, its untiring ambassador and conceptual mastermind, can usually be found at his desk in the project’s newly refurbished and expanded quarters on the fourth floor of the Bancroft Library on the Berkeley campus. This is Robert Hirst, an engagingly boyish figure, despite his 62 years, his thatch of white hair and his sometimes florid coloring (he’s excitable and sharp-witted, not unlike Twain himself. says editor Harriet Smith (above, center, with fellow sleuths,) Often the white hair is the only visible part of Hirst; the rest is obscured by stacks of Twainian treasure: manuscript-crammed filing cabinets, shelves of peeling volumes, piled papers and manila folders that threaten to cascade into literary landslides. “No Tiffany wallpaper yet,” Hirst says wryly of the renovation this past June, 2003, which increased the office space by three rooms. (The reference is to the walls of Twain’s lavish house in Hartford, Connecticut.) “But we’re painting and redecorating.

Straightening the pictures on the walls.” Hirst is sixth in a line of distinguished scholars to supervise the Twain archives-a line that begins with the author’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, before Clemens’ death and continues with Bernard DeVoto, Dixon Wecter, Henry Nash Smith and Frederick Anderson. Hirst, after studying literature at Harvard and Berkeley, joined the project in 1967 as a fact checker and proofreader, one of many young graduate students hired to do the grunt work for the professors issuing the Twain volumes produced by the University of California Press. Hurst expected to stay only a year or two. Suddenly it was 1980. By then, deeply invested in the project’s goals and methods, Hirst signed on as the project’s general editor. Aside from a few years teaching at UCLA, he has never done anything else. He probably knows more about Mark Twain than anyone alive - perhaps even more than the dreamy author knew about himself


Beneath Hirst’s warmth and whimsical humor, beneath even the laser intensity and the steely will that underlie his surface charm, one can detect a glimpse, now and then, of a puzzled young man from Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, wondering where all the time has gone. The answer is that it has gone toward carrying out his assignment, even if the task proves to exceed Hirst’s allotted time on earth, as it almost certainly will. Hirst loves facts and the unexpected illumination that can burst forth from facts scrupulously extracted, arranged and analyzed. “I especially love the ways in which the careful, comparative readings among his documents help us discover new truths that had not been obvious in Twain or his work,” he says.


One such discovery is detailed at length in the California Press’ 2001 edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A long- standing myth surrounding this founding work of vernacular American literature was that Twain, having discovered Huck’s natural voice, was suddenly “liberated” from the cerebral, piecemeal rhythms of composition, and wrote in long dream-like bursts of uninterrupted dialect. The highest example of this “charmed” writing was Chapter 19, Huck’s beautiful and lyrically flowing description of a sunrise on the Mississippi. (“Then the river softened up, away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away..then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell.”) But as the project editors studied the handwritten draft of the chapter-part of the recently recovered first half of Twain’s original manuscript- and compared it with the first edition, it became obvious that no such dream state ever enveloped Twain. He wrote the passage the old-fashioned way: by patient trial and error, with an obviously conscious awareness of technique. In other words, Twain was not a kind of idiot savant, as some earlier scholars patronizingly supposed, but a disciplined professional writer with sophisticated skills.


IT DOES NOT ENTIRELY GLADDEN HIRST that the 20-plus full and partial biographies of Twain have tended to be infected by what he calls “hobbyhorses” - the biographers’ pet theories, academic arguments and armchair psychoanalyzes. (To be fair about it, Mark Twain virtually begs for psychological scrutiny, with his famous bouts of guilt and sorrow, his themes of dual and sham identities, his self-destructive investment binges and his late-life vision of man as machine) “All these ideas about him, these theories - they need always to be tested against the stubborn facts of the documents,” Hirst says. “That alone -and it is a process that can only happen over a period of years -will increase our understanding of what he was like might be the project’s motto: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort ‘em as much as you please.”


To be sure, some scholars complain that Hirst and company are overdoing it. “Let Mark speak to us without a gaggle of editors commenting on his every word!” one professor grumbled. But others, like the University of Missouri’s Tom Quirk, arc delighted by the painstaking effort. “It’s remarkable what good work they do,” says the author of several critical works on Twain. “Every time I’ve wanted an answer to a question, they’ve had it, and they’ve dropped all the important work they’re doing to accommodate me. And they do that for everyone, regardless of their credentials. If the Twain Project is glacial-well, we need more glaciers like that!”


The most recent example of the project’s value to scholars is the forthcoming publication of Twain’s play Is He Dead? When Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Stanford University professor and Twain scholar, told Hirst that she would like to publish the play after coming across it in the project files a year ago, he plunged into “establishing” the text for her, making sure that her edited version of the play accurately reproduced the playscript worked up by a copier in 1898 from Twain’s draft (since lost). Hirst also corrected likely errors in the copier’s version and proofread Fishkin’s introduction and postscript


ONE REASON for the project’s ever-lengthening timetable is that Mark Twain won’t stop writing. His known output at the time of his death at age 74 was prodigious enough: nearly 30 books, thousands of newspaper and magazine pieces, 50 personal note-books and some 6oo other literary manuscripts-fragments, chapters, drafts, sketches - that he never published.


But nearly a hundred years later, his writings continue to surface. These mostly take the form of letters, turned up by collectors, antiquarians and vintage-book sellers, and by ordinary people thumbing through boxes of dusty memorabilia stored by great-uncles and grandparents in family cellars and attics. “We now have, or know of, about 11,000 letters written by Mark Twain,” says Hirst. How many are still out there? “My conservative estimate is that he wrote 50,000 of them in his lifetime. Not all of them were long epistles. Most were business letters, replies to autograph requests -‘No, I can’t come and lecture,’ that type of thing.” Twain, of course, was capable of turning even a dashed-off line into something memorable. “I am a long time answering your letter, my dear Miss Harriet,” he confessed to an admirer whose last name does not survive, “but then you must remember that it is an equally long time since I received it-so that makes us even, & nobody to blame on either side.”


“We see them coming in at the rate of about one a week,” says Hirst. “People will walk in off the street and say, ‘Is this a Mark Twain letter?’ They even turn up on eBay.” If 50,000 is a conservative” estimate, what might be the high end of an informed “wild-and-crazy” sort of guess? Hirst hesitates. “My colleague, Mike Frank “ he says, “has a hunch there might be 100,000 of them in all.”


SINCE 1988, the project, through the University of California Press, has issued six volumes of Mark Twain’s letters, nearly two-thirds of them seeing print for the first time. The published volumes cover the years from 1853, when Sam Clemens was 17 and exploring New York City and Philadelphia, to 1875, by which time Mark Twain, age 40, was at work on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and at the threshold of enduring fame. Hirst estimates that annotating Twain’s remaining 34 years’ worth of letters will take until 2021. So documenting Twain’s life will have taken 54 years, or more than two-thirds the time he took to live it.


The letters series is but one of the project’s four distinct endeavors. Another is the works of Mark Twain (scholarly editions of the writer’s published works, including his commissioned letters to various newspapers and journals). A third is the Mark Twain Library (paperback editions of the works without the scholarly notes, for classroom use and general readership). Yet a fourth, begun in 2001, is an on-line archive of Twain’s works and papers:


But the letters research has set the project apart. Hirst staked his career-”my life,” he says-on this vision almost as soon as he was promoted to general editor. “When I came in, there were three volumes of letters already in proof. Hirst recalls. “But there were only about 900 letters, total. The job had been rushed. They had done no search for new letters.”


Meanwhile, though, a colleague of Hirst’s named Tom Tenney had started to write to libraries around the country inquiring about newly found Mark Twain letters. “Well, it began to rain Xeroxes,” says Hirst. He spent two frustrating years trying to shoehorn these new discoveries into the volumes already in type. It wasn’t working. ‘And so I took my life in my hands and proposed to the others that we junk the proofs and start over.”


>In 1983, Hirst’s proposal was implemented. It took five more years for the first revised and enlarged volume to emerge-a staggering i,6oo pages in length. The letters themselves account for less than half the total. Photographs, maps and manuscript reproductions account for several dozen more pages. But the great bulk of the volume-and of the five letters editions published since-consists of annotations. Annotations are the project’s hallmark, an ever-accumulating marvel of footnoting -as-detective-work. Most of the work is done by Hirst’s five co-editors (average length of tenure: 27 years), who hunt down virtually every reference to a person, news article, political event, or happening and explain its relevance. For example: in an 1869 letter from the lecture trail to his fiancée, Olivia (Livy) Langdon, the 33-year-old author laments affronting some young men who had shown “well-meant & whole-hearted friendliness to me a stranger within their gates.” Seizing upon the phrase “stranger within their gates,” the alert editor traced it to the Bible (Exodus 20:10)-an efficient reminder of Twain’s deep familiarity with the Scriptures, later a target of his bitter satire. The annotations enlarge the letters (as well as the published texts themselves), forming them into a kind of informational neuro-system that interconnects the private man and Mark Twain.



Smithsonian Magazine

September, 2003, (pgs. 74-77)

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