Twain Talk

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Mark Twain would have made a wisecrack about it: more than 500 people clamoring for a seat inside the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum—scurrying through the hallways, arguing with the guards. They were there to celebrate the Autobiography of Mark Twain, published by UC Press 100 years after the great American novelist’s death. On the other hand, Twain would have felt right at home, having given public lectures during his lifetime to hundreds of adoring fans.

The book—volume one of three edited by the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library—is a New York Times best-seller, with half a million copies in print. No wonder the free event drew such interest, from scholars to students, from retirees to devoted readers, all eager to hear the project’s general editor, Robert Hirst, discuss Twain’s life and work followed by a panel discussion with Hirst and longtime Twain impersonator Hal Holbrook that was moderated by former San Francisco Chronicle book editor David Kipen.

Hirst explained that the Twain tome, at 760 pages, is not meant to be a chronological account but rather a testimony to Twain’s character, including snippets of thoughts, colorful anecdotes, and random writing samples. In 1901, the author decided to set aside a “large box of posthumous stuff” as a repository of “literary remains” that he felt would damage his reputation if published while he was alive. (On one document he even wrote, “The last two pages must be held back until AD 2406.”)

So what juicy details are revealed? Well, Hirst admitted, “you’re not going to read scandalous stuff.” But in volume 2, he said, Twain attacks Christianity, which “is probably going to offend some people.” Twain was so self-conscious about his work that he would read his manuscripts aloud to his daughters, looking for feedback. He would also heavily revise his writing prior to publication (examples are reprinted in the book). Being edited by others, however, once elicited this comment: “Any editor has the right to take out words in my text, but not even God Almighty has the right to put words in my text.”

Holbrook described his “fanatic desire to be as authentic as I could” in mimicking Twain for decades. He remarked on Twain’s ability to weave together suspense and humor to create a compelling story: “One of the great gifts of his writing is that you’re waiting for the next image to come.” And he reflected on Twain’s innate sense of the human condition: “If anyone thinks Mark Twain is not speaking to us this very day, he isn’t using his head.” You only had to look around at the crowd to know that’s the plainspoken truth.

Photograph courtesy Hammer Museum