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A new gilded age for Twain scholars

The surprise success of the famed author's memoirs — published 100 years after his death — puts a spotlight on editors and presses the deadline for the remaining two volumes.

March 08, 2011|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • Instead of writing a traditional autobiography, Mark Twain dictated recollections as they came to him and left instructions that they not be published until 100 years after his death.
Instead of writing a traditional autobiography, Mark Twain dictated recollections… (AP Photo/The Mark Twain…)

Reporting from Berkeley -- Harriet Elinor Smith was accustomed to anonymity. As lead editor for the "Autobiography of Mark Twain" and other Twain books, she has spent decades holed up with rare documents in a UC Berkeley office, fretting over commas and obscure references to 19th century personalities.

So Smith was stunned recently to be recognized by a fellow BART train passenger who had seen her on television, speaking about the astonishingly successful first volume of Twain's massive memoir. The other woman even complimented Smith on her hairstyle.

Thrust into a publishing success about which other academics can only fantasize, Smith and her colleagues at UC Berkeley's Mark Twain Papers & Project have become celebrities in the rarefied world of literary research and editing. 

But like rock stars with a first hit record, they are coping now with hugely elevated expectations for the autobiography's next two volumes, which will bring the much-loved author's complete dictated memoir to print for the first time. And they worry about all the work ahead if they are to meet deadlines of 2012 and 2014.

"It's very strange and it's quite uncomfortable at times," Smith said of the shift from a scholarly but small audience for the Twain center's previous books to the runaway success now.

The first volume of the planned trilogy has remained a national bestseller since its release in November, 100 years after Twain's death at the age of 74. There are nearly half a million copies in print, putting it as high as No. 4 on the Los Angeles Times' hardback nonfiction list and No. 2 on the New York Times' list.

"It's not often that you get these events where the scholarly world and the popular sphere collide," Benjamin Griffin, one of the memoir's associate editors, said recently. He spoke in the small office he and Smith share in UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, near the repository of the world's largest collection of Twain manuscripts and letters. Most of the 20,000 items came to the university in 1949 with permission of Twain's daughter Clara, who later donated them.

The project's staff worked for 43 years in relative obscurity, producing volume after volume of what are considered the most accurate and complete editions of Twain's large body of work, including such classics as the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Prince and the Pauper," along with letters, travelogues and essays.

Robert H. Hirst, the Twain center's general editor, said he expected the memoir's first volume to sell perhaps 10,000 copies, still much higher than his previous releases. "You'd have to be a fool to expect something like this to be a bestseller," Hirst said of the often rambling reminiscences and many scholarly notes.

As sales took off, however, editors realized that Twain's sly humor and skepticism about wealthy elites, U.S. militarism, politicians and organized religion hold a seemingly timeless appeal. "It's a time when his particular sort of tone and attitude is very welcome," said Hirst, who has headed the center for 30 years.

The strong sales mean a welcome windfall for the Twain project, perhaps $800,000 this year, which its editors said would be used to create an endowment to increase its seven-member staff and for costs that funding from UC, federal and private sources may not cover.

But even with the extra money, getting the entire autobiography to print will not be easy, Hirst said.

The book's publisher, the University of California Press, had pushed for all three volumes to be published together last year, a task the Twain project said was impossible. The publisher now wants the second volume in stores next year and the third by 2014. Hirst says he will not meet those deadlines if it means diluting the quality of editing, historical annotation and Web presentation.

"We are going as fast as we can. Maybe it's not fast enough for this commercial pressure. But I don't consider it my job to give in to that," the white-haired Hirst, 69, said in his office, cluttered with stacks of Twain books and files.

He escorted a visitor into the center's climate-controlled storeroom, where metal cabinets are filled with Twain's handwritten manuscripts and a trove of letters to and from him. On top of the cabinets are enlarged photographs of Twain in his signature white suit and the battered travel trunk in which his daughter Clara, a singer, carried her sheet music.

Hirst showed off one of his favorite items, a tiny purple velvet case containing a photograph of a 34-year-old, handsomely mustachioed Twain from 1869, which he inscribed with a love note ("I XXX you, Livy! Don't tell!") to his future wife Olivia Langdon.

The archive room also holds the documents that form the basis of the autobiography, a freewheeling, non-chronological melange of the writer's memories, opinions and diatribes.

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