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Mark Twain's Last Stunt

Suppressed for one hundred years, Autobiography of Mark Twain has become one of UC Berkeley's biggest literary events of all time.

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As it turns out, Mark Twain had one more joke up his sleeve.

Scholars at UC Berkeley are having the moment of their careers as they prepare to release Autobiography of Mark Twain. Appearing in three hardcover volumes from UC Press starting November 15, the autobiography reveals the iconic American novelist's true feelings about his family and associates, as well as his frustrations with Christianity, Wall Street, and US foreign policy. The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is so candid in the half-million dictated pages that he mandated that the unedited text be suppressed until one hundred years after his death. On November 15, that date arrives, and with it worldwide attention to the dozen or so members of the Mark Twain Project, headquartered at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

"It's hard to describe," said project head Robert Hirst, who is currently on a worldwide press junket usually reserved for the Justin Timberlakes and Clive Owens of the world. "We've never had interest like this. This has broken all the records, all the expectations. Really, I had no real clue about how much interest there would be."

But Twain was a former journalist and master of self-aggrandizement who innately understood the draw of such a document. And it appears he's used his final dictations to orchestrate one last, cheeky publicity stunt from beyond the grave.


No pens are allowed in the Mark Twain Papers & Project. Situated at the center of the campus in a $29-million, newly refurbished wing of the Bancroft Library, it's guarded by a student security guard who sits behind a twelve-foot-tall, roll-down metal gate and confiscates any pens or markers from the wing's few visitors.

The guard trades them for identification and ushers guests into a gilded elevator. Four floors up, the elevator opens onto a sterile, white hallway lined with electronically locked doors. The air smells clean, cool, and climate-controlled, and down the hallway a nondescript door marked Mark Twain Papers is locked next to an intercom.

Once buzzed in, guests are greeted by a receptionist from behind a glass partition, who escorts them to the vault where they may find the Autobiography's lead editors behind another electronically locked door, pouring over priceless original manuscripts from one of America's foremost authors. "People are often surprised the vault is not a metaphor," notes Benjamin Griffin, one of the lead editors at the Project.

The story of how UC Berkeley came to have a heavily guarded, multimillion-dollar climate-controlled stash of Twain's most intimate correspondence is a long one.

Twain is, of course, the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and is widely considered to be the father of American literature. A huge celebrity in his own time, and good friends with people like Ulysses S. Grant, Twain died in 1910, yet grew in fame, while many of his contemporaries faded away.

"The whole literary canon has been reshaped since then in ways that would very much surprise Mark Twain," said Griffin, sporting black, thick-rimmed glasses, a single-tone tie, white button-down shirt, and slacks, evoking a bit of Mad Men-esque class. "But he's still in it. He's a lone survivor."

When Twain (né Samuel Langhorne Clemens) died, the amount of his unpublished letters and papers could fill a file cabinet measuring eleven feet long. Twain bequeathed the documents to his daughter Clara Clemens Samossoud, but his agent managed them until he died as well. Scholarly interest drew the papers to the West Coast, first to UCLA, and then to UC Berkeley, where fanatical researchers convinced Clara to bequeath all of them to the University of California. She had planned to give them to Yale, so it was a huge coup for Cal.

The property of the Regents since 1962, the Twain Papers Project has been dedicated to sorting through the entirety of the unpublished works. Even though Twain had strong East Coast ties, he got his start as a newspaper man in Nevada and San Francisco, Griffin notes. "It's always been seen as appropriate that California should be the home of this project and this edition even though Clemens, after leaving in 1868, never did come back."

Since the Sixties, the Project has published volumes of Twain's letters, a new edition of Huckleberry Finn based on new manuscripts found in the Nineties, and a popular book of Twain quotes. But sitting in the background was the half-million-word Autobiography and the impending expiration of the one hundred-year-long embargo on it.


Small, blond, with a wavering voice, Autobiography lead editor Harriet Smith gives off the aura of an extreme bibliophile, steeped for the last thirty years in one of the funniest, coolest authors of all time. It might be impossible to fit all of Twain's work into a single brain, but Smith is the functional equivalent.

"Most people don't know Mark Twain even wrote an autobiography," she said. "There's never been a chance to read it in full until now."

Smith says Twain spent 35 years making false starts on his life story until the invention of the typewriter. The device enabled him to take a new approach. Instead of typing out his life story, Twain dictated it to an interviewer while an assistant furiously banged away at the cutting-edge machine.

"I've struck it!" Twain wrote in a 1904 letter to a friend. "And I will give it away — to you. You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography."

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