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Keeping Up with Mark Twain

Berkeley researchers toil to stay abreast of Samuel Clemens' enormous literary output, which appears to continue unabated

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One such discovery is detailed at length in the California Press’ 2001 edition of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A longstanding myth surrounding this founding work of vernacular American literature was that Twain, having discovered Huck’s natural voice, was suddenly “liberated” from the cerebral, piecemeal rhythms of composition, and wrote in long dreamlike bursts of uninterrupted dialect. The highest example of this “charmed” writing was Chapter 19, Huck’s beautiful and lyrically flowing description of a sunrise on the Mississippi. (“Then the river softened up, away off, and warn’t black any more, but gray; you could see little dark spots drifting along, ever so far away...then the nice breeze springs up, and comes fanning you from over there, so cool and fresh, and sweet to smell.”) But as the project editors studied the handwritten draft of the chapter—part of the recently recovered first half of Twain’s original manuscript—and compared it with the first edition, it became obvious that no such dream state ever enveloped Twain. He wrote the passage the old-fashioned way: by patient trial and error, with an obviously conscious awareness of technique. In other words, Twain was not a kind of idiot savant, as some earlier scholars patronizingly supposed, but a disciplined professional writer with sophisticated skills.

 

It does not entirely gladden Hirst that the 20-plus full and partial biographies of Twain have tended to be infected by what he calls “hobbyhorses”—the biographers’ pet theories, academic arguments and armchair psychoanalyses. (To be fair about it, Mark Twain virtually begs for psychological scrutiny, with his famous bouts of guilt and sorrow, his themes of dual and sham identities, his self-destructive investment binges and his late-life vision of man as machine.) “All these ideas about him, these theories—they need always to be tested against the stubborn facts of the documents,” Hirst says. “That alone—and it is a process that can only happen over a period of years—will increase our understanding of what he was like.”

 

Under Hirst, the project has grown into a protean resource for those who would dismount the hobbyhorses and follow the facts wherever they lead. Called “magisterial” and “an immense national treasure” by some scholars, the project has produced new techniques in textual analysis and in the capacity to depict multiple revisions on a single page of type. It has offered vivid glimpses not only of Twain but also of the people central to his life, and it has provided a fresh index to the political and cultural nuances of the 19th century. Twain himself provided what might be the project’s motto: “Get your facts first, and then you can distort ’em as much as you please.”

 

To be sure, some scholars complain that Hirst and company are overdoing it. “Let Mark speak to us without a gaggle of editors commenting on his every word!” one professor grumbled. But others, like the University of Missouri’s Tom Quirk, are delighted by the painstaking effort. “It’s remarkable what good work they do,” says the author of several critical works on Twain. “Every time I’ve wanted an answer to a question, they’ve had it, and they’ve dropped all the important work they’re doing to accommodate me. And they do that for everyone, regardless of their credentials. If the Twain Project is glacial—well, we need more glaciers like that!”

 

The most recent example of the project’s value to scholars is the forthcoming publication of Twain’s play Is He Dead? When Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Stanford University professor and Twain scholar, told Hirst that she would like to publish the play after coming across it in the project files a year ago, he plunged into “establishing” the text for her, making sure that her edited version of the play accurately reproduced the playscript worked up by a copier in 1898 from Twain’s draft (since lost). Hirst also corrected likely errors in the copier’s version and proofread Fishkin’s introduction and postscript.

 

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