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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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The speed of the typewriting enabled a transcriber to capture the flow of human speech, Twain found. He directed that the final product not be rearranged into any type of chronological order, but reflect the freedom of association of pure thought. "Talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment," Twain wrote of the method.

Fifty years before Beat poets would popularize the idea of narrative "flow," Griffin says, "He had great faith in the power of free association to bring up hidden resonances and congruences that he hoped will be more illuminating because they're psychologically more illuminating than a temporal sequence would be."

The narrative proved so revealing that Twain instructed his lawyers to hold the publication for one hundred years and then stagger the release of the sensitive material. "From the first, second, third and fourth editions all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be left out," Twain instructed in 1906. "There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now. There is no hurry. Wait and see.''

Editors didn't, Griffin says. Versions of the autobiography came out in 1924, 1940, and 1959, but the original editor, Albert Bigelow Paine, cut out entire sections he found offensive or incongruent. Later editors re-cut and re-edited the piece chronologically, sometimes adding parts to smooth over the transitions between rough cuts. "Which was exactly what Mark Twain, didn't want," Griffin said. "He did mention, 'it is often — in a manner necessary — to kill an editor.'"

The one-hundred-year edition comprises what could be called a director's cut, says Griffin. It includes everything Twain wanted, in the order he wanted it to appear.

"This is what Clemens had in mind for you," said Griffin. "It hasn't been cut to size or made to fit the requirements of the market or brought into line with notions of public decency. This is the first time that anyone has tried to publish it as it was left by Clemens."

Assembling the autobiography has taken the team of about a dozen around six years. They used never-before-seen directions from Clemens on how to assemble the text, and put it together using the processing power of computers, in way similar to how Twain used the latest technology available to realize his vision.

Smith says the project largely consisted of hand-copying the half-million typed manuscript pages and handwritten notes into a computer database, one at a time. The Project then used custom software to compare four versions of the autobiography. Comparing the drafts, the team discovered one version constituted the master document, and three comprised copies with revisions and handwritten notes.

"It's like making a huge document before there were word processors," said Griffin. "It's versions upon versions upon versions."

Prior editors had also written on the priceless documents. The Project had to sort out their handwriting from Twain's and Twain's assistants.

An expert in "textual editing," Griffin cut his teeth going through different surviving versions of Shakespeare's plays like Hamlet. He was specifically brought on the job because of his knowledge of the field and his ability to work in the computer code XML. Once all the versions could be looked at side by side, the team came up with a consistent policy about which version to use, and then showed how they came to that decision. The choices are collected in a massive digital tome that if printed would comprise a book in and of itself. With a policy in place, the text was assembled and edited for the first time.

"What I found myself doing was uniting the two separate halves of a manuscript, which I realized belonged together," said Griffin. "And so they are being published in this form for the first time, and I feel this is a work of genuine restoration. It's not the greatest literature in the world — the piece I'm talking about is one of Clemens' venting manuscripts, and he has several of those — but it's quite entertaining and it's just fun for a critic to be working in an area where there are still discoveries to be made."

The team also annotated the final text with information on all the people, places, and things Twain refers to in the main narrative — a monumental work of cross-referencing that draws on the Project's unparalleled supply of personal information on the man. Hard-core Twain nerds will be able to geek out on the details of the writer's business deals for the first time, Griffin notes.

The final product went to the printer in the fall of 2009, and in the ensuing year interest in Twain has skyrocketed. The New York Times, NPR, PBS, and what seems like every other mainstream publication has seized on the uncensored, centennial work, making it the book of a lifetime for Project staff.

"It's never even been remotely like this," said Smith, a bit exasperated from all the interviews, photo shoots, and foot traffic in her normally quiet halls. "It's a big surprise. I didn't anticipate that this year would turn out like this."

It's also one of the biggest moments in the history of the University of California Press, Hirst notes. A bevy of events are scheduled around the release, including a $150-a-ticket library fund-raiser featuring a Twain reading by author Michael Chabon and others.

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