New Mark Twain book offers fresh insights into author
| 17 March 2009
BERKELEY — Some readers show an unquenchable thirst for certain authors and keep their reading lamps at the ready while they await the posthumous release of works - finished or not - by writers such as David Foster Wallace, Roberto Bolaño and Ernest Hemingway.
Fans of another famous author, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, best known by his pen name, Mark Twain, will likely be lining up for "Who is Mark Twain?" - an intriguing collection of two dozen previously unpublished sketches and essays by Twain that will be in bookstores on April 21. The materials from The Mark Twain Papers and Project at the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library will be published by HarperStudio.
While cautioning that the collection isn't as famous as "Huck Finn" or "some neglected masterpiece" of Twain's, Robert H. Hirst, general editor of The Mark Twain Papers, said it includes rare insights into how Twain practiced his craft and how he felt about everything from politics and religion to cigars, success, evil and literary criticism. Even the outspoken author may have thought some of his materials were just "too incendiary for publication at the time," Hirst speculated.
The Bancroft Library is the repository for virtually all of Twain's "literary remains" - the largest cache of personal papers created by any 19th-century American writer. Hirst started out with The Mark Twain Papers in 1967 as a student proofreader and checker and in 1980 became its general editor. For the new book, he combed through Bancroft's Twain materials and selected pieces based on literary merit.
A couple of entries in "Who is Mark Twain?" are among Twain's earliest scribblings, and the lot of them were written between 1868, when Twain was 33, and 1905, when he was 70.
Six entries were never revised by Twain, or completed. But Hirst said that's how Twain worked: When he was done with something, that was it. If he thought the piece wouldn't sell or be appreciated, he left it as it was, but he didn't destroy it. The pieces are testimony to a lifelong habit of Twain's to plunge into an article or story with few clues as to its outcome, Hirst said.
And "just because material in the book hasn't been published before doesn't mean it's secondary stuff," Hirst said.
"Any random sampling will turn up the usual signs of his genius, the typical precision and sparkle of his prose, always capable of surprising us into smiling at some shameful trait of the damned human race," Hirst wrote in the new book's introduction. "They are so well crafted, clear and wickedly funny (even when he left them incomplete) that their non-publication must be explained by particular circumstances..."
Although "Who Is Mark Twain?" isn't out until next month, the public's appetite for Twain already is being whetted. One story from the book, "The Privilege of the Grave," ran this winter in The New Yorker, and another on a similar theme, "The Undertaker's Tale," appears this week in The Strand, a quarterly mystery magazine. Harper's magazine has serial rights for another selection, "The Quarrel in the Strong-Box."
Meanwhile, wanna-be Twains have got to be itching to offer up their own endings to the book's unfinished stories. The publisher plans to solicit conclusions via an online contest called "I Am the Next Mark Twain."
Hirst admitted that despite the ever-present "Huckfinnomaniacs," he's a bit anxious whether "too much cultural slippage" has taken place since Twain's era and wonders if Twain's humor will stand the test of time. Even so, he's hopeful that the new book will sell "faster than the King and the Duke get out of town," a reference to the two grifters in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."
"I hope it sells a million copies and becomes a steady best seller," said Hirst. "So far, the materials here are only read by scholars."
The book already has been chosen in a highly competitive contest as an "Indie Next" pick for the month of May. That means it will get key, front-of-store placement in approximately 350 independent bookstores across the country.
Hirst is always on the lookout for funding sources for The Mark Twain Papers that, much like Twain, has often found itself in a financial struggle. Proceeds from "Who Is Mark Twain?" will be shared evenly by the publisher and the Mark Twain Papers, the kind of contractual pact between writers and publishers that Hirst said Twain "campaigned for all his life."
More information about "How Is Mark Twain?" is online at: http://harperstudioekit.com/books/whoismarktwain/excerpt.php.
The Bancroft's Mark Twain archive contains Twain's private papers that he made available to his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine. The library frequently adds original documents to its store of letters, manuscripts, scrapbooks, photographs, first editions and other rare printings.
More than 30 volumes of "The Works and Papers of Mark Twain" have been published by the University of California Press, and the series includes more than half of the literary manuscripts in The Mark Twain Papers. The first volume of Twain's autobiography is due out in late 2010, to coincide with the author's 175th birthday.
A searchable database of Twain materials, including letters he wrote from 1853 to 1880, is online at: http://www.marktwainproject.org/.