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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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Smith and Griffin say an odd catalyst in Twain interest came from a controversial article published online last year stating that Twain bought his assistant a vibrator, and the two were having an affair. The Project insists there's no evidence of an affair, but they appreciate the interest it helped spark. "It was a curious catalyst," Griffin said.

Smith says don't expect to find any sexual stuff in the Autobiography, though. Twain was profoundly discrete, given the Victorian era. "I get that all the time," Smith said. "There's nothing sexual in here, much as people want to think there is."

Twain's most bawdy works appear elsewhere, she notes. And Griffin says times have changed so much that many of Twains indiscretions would pale compared to, say, an episode of The Jersey Shore. "There's been several social revolutions since he died," she said.

Most people are now interested in what Twain had to say about issues still pressing to Americans. Twain is candid on his objection to American imperialism, speaking of "our uniformed assassins" and describing the killing of "six hundred helpless and weaponless savages" in the Philippines as "a long and happy picnic with nothing to do but sit in comfort and fire the Golden Rule into those people down there and imagine letters to write home to the admiring families, and pile glory upon glory."

He takes shots at his lawyer, his publisher, and long-forgotten literary figures of his time, as well as critics. "I believe that the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and that it has no real value," Twain said. "However, let it go. It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden."

On Thanksgiving: "Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for — annually, not oftener — if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side, consequently it was proper to thank the Lord for it."

On the rich: "The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars," Twain said. "He pays taxes on two million and a half."

"The multimillionaire disciples of Jay Gould — that man who in his brief life rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died — have quite completely transformed our people from a nation with pretty high and respectable ideals to just the opposite of that; that our people have no ideals now that are worthy of consideration; that our Christianity which we have always been so proud of — not to say vain of — is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy; that we have lost our ancient sympathy with oppressed peoples struggling for life and liberty; that when we are not coldly indifferent to such things we sneer at them, and that the sneer is about the only expression the newspapers and the nation deal in with regard to such things."

Sex and politics aside, Hirst says Twain continues to resonate because he's so funny. Smith points out that he was simply astonishingly gifted and even his hastily crafted letters show an effortless, inimitable ability to express emotion.

Money from the sale of the autobiography will flow to the UC Press and the administrators on Twain's estate. Twain has no surviving family, Griffin notes, "just lawyers." But, eventually, some of it may flow back to the Project, which is working on volumes two and three.

Asked what Twain might think of the Project and all the attention he's getting, Smith says he would be pleased. "He was not a modest person who shrank from the limelight," she said. "He would have been very gratified to know that one hundred years from now his work was getting such attention. He clearly expected there to be interest at five hundred years. Some passages that talk about Christianity say, 'This should be printed in 2406.'

"He also stated that by the fifth edition, the whole of the Autobiography can go unexpurgated," Smith continued. "Now, any author that's expecting five editions of his work one hundred years after his death is cheeky. But justifiable, as it turns out."

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