Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mark Twain Talks to Us

In 2003, as I was researching a biography of Mark Twain’s best friend – a minister, if it can be believed – I got a chance to spend several winter weeks alone in the great hilltop farmhouse in Elmira, N.Y., where Twain wrote many of his significant works. (The house, Quarry Farm, is maintained by The Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, one of the key Twain loci.) I took along a box of microfilm shipped there for the purpose by the Mark Twain Papers & Project at the University of California, Berkeley. When I switched on the light in the microfilm reader and scrolled through the pages, I saw Mark Twain documents like none I’d ever seen – reams and reams of typed stories, reminiscences, ramblings and observations, marked up for publication, numbered and covered with scratched-out portions and marginal notes, sometimes studded with news clippings. Entire sections were repeated with slight changes; some were handwritten. It was really hard to follow.

These were the pages of Twain’s Autobiographical Dictations, the fruits of a massive project the writer undertook in 1904 to record his life. He spoke to a succession of transcribers and set himself specific guidelines: “Start it at no particular time of your life; talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime.” So here were, in a chaotic pile, stories of his home life in Hartford, Connecticut, where he spent two happy and productive decades; loving portraits of his daughters and his wife, Livy; some funny (and brave) things that my biography subject, the Reverend Joe Twichell, did; long tales categorizing in excruciating detail the failings of those around him; and, suddenly, bitter diatribes like this one headed “The Character of Man”: “His history, in all climes, all ages and all circumstances, furnishes oceans and continents of proof that of all the creatures that were made he is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one – the solitary one – that possesses malice….That one thing puts him below the rats, the grubs, the trichinae.”

It’s passages like this, I’m guessing, that caused him to put the lid on parts of this autobiography for 100 years, along with other entries that simply put others in a bad light. He wanted to be untrammeled in his expression, and couldn’t be if he had to restrain himself with thoughts of libel, political orthodoxy, and blasphemy. No big biographical revelations, the California editors tell me; simply the man plain, or as a newspaper put it in his own time: “without respect of persons or social conventions, institutions, or pruderies of any kind.”

Now that century-long wait is over, and the extraordinary editors at the Mark Twain Papers & Project are publishing the first volume of these autobiographical writings in November. They have at long last, through many years of close manuscript detective work, sorted that 5,000-page pile of dictations and scraps and pieces into the order Twain himself wanted. In the past week this glorious coming event in Mark Twain scholarship has finally gotten the attention it deserves, thanks to a piece in The Independent, the London newspaper. But it’s more than an event in scholarship: It’s a new chance to hear the voice of Mark Twain as he talks to us directly, wandering his New York rooms in his dressing gown, or in evening garb after an event at Delmonico’s, speaking in loving tones of his dead, bright daughter Susy, or in bitter tones of how human beings stand below even the most repulsive of God’s creatures.

Steve is Publicist and Publications Editor here at The Mark Twain House & Museum and the author of the award-winning Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain’s Closest Friend (University of Georgia Press, 2008).

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