But the letters research has set the project apart. Hirst staked his career—“my life,” he says—on this vision almost as soon as he was promoted to general editor.
“When I came in, there were three volumes of letters already in proof,” Hirst recalls. “But there were only about 900 letters, total. The job had been rushed. They had done no search for new letters.”
Meanwhile, though, a colleague of Hirst’s named Tom Tenney had started to write to libraries around the country inquiring about newly found Mark Twain letters. “Well, it began to rain Xeroxes,” says Hirst. He spent two frustrating years trying to shoehorn these new discoveries into the volumes already in type. It wasn’t working. “And so I took my life in my hands and proposed to the others that we junk the proofs and start over.”
In 1983, Hirst’s proposal was implemented. It took five more years for the first revised and enlarged volume to emerge—a staggering 1,600 pages in length. The letters themselves account for less than half the total. Photographs, maps and manuscript reproductions account for several dozen more pages. But the great bulk of the volume—and of the five letters editions published since—consists of annotations.
Annotations are the project’s hallmark, an ever-accumulating marvel of footnoting-as-detective-work. Most of the work is done by Hirst’s five coeditors (average length of tenure: 27 years), who hunt down virtually every reference to a person, news article, political event, or happening and explain its relevance. For example: in an 1869 letter from the lecture trail to his fiancée, Olivia (Livy) Langdon, the 33-yearold author laments affronting some young men who had shown “well-meant & whole-hearted friendliness to me a stranger within their gates.” Seizing upon the phrase “stranger within their gates,” the alert editor traced it to the Bible (Exodus 20:10)—an efficient reminder of Twain’s deep familiarity with the Scriptures, later a target of his bitter satire. The annotations enlarge the letters (as well as the published texts themselves), forming them into a kind of informational neuro-system that interconnects the private man, the public writer and the leading citizen of the 19th century.