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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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Ninety-three years after his death in 1910, Samuel Langhorne Clemens has been making some ambitious career moves. It’s almost as though the old sage of the Mississippi, better known as Mark Twain, is trying to reposition himself as the King, as friends and colleagues called him long years before Elvis was even born.

 

In July, an American Sign Language adaptation of the 1985 musical Big River, based on Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and featuring deaf and hearing actors, opened in New York City to enthusiastic reviews. A recently rediscovered three-act play by Twain, Is He Dead? (written in 1898), will be published next month and has been optioned by a Broadway producer. In 2001, the Atlantic Monthly published a “new” Twain short story, “A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage,” which he’d submitted to the magazine 125 years earlier. He was the subject of a Ken Burns documentary on PBS last year. And the venerable Oxford University Press issued a 29-volume edition of Twain’s published writings in 1996. New biographies and works of critical scholarship are in the works.

 

In fact, if this new rush of celebrityhood grows any more intense, Mark Twain may want to eat the words he aimed at another overexposed immortal. “Even popularity can be overdone,” he groused in the novel Pudd’n headWilson. “In Rome, along at first, you are full of regrets that Michelangelo died; but by and by you only regret that you didn’t see him do it.”

 

Of Twain’s many fans, who are apparently growing in number, none could feel more pleased—or more vindicated—by the renewed interest than the steadfast editors of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley, who have been at work for 36 years on a scholarly undertaking of almost inconceivable proportions: to hunt down, organize and interpret every known or knowable scrap of writing that issued from Sam Clemens during his astonishingly crowded 74 years on earth.The University of California Press has so far produced more than two dozen volumes of the project’s labors, totaling some 15,000 pages, including new editions of Twain’s novels, travel books, short stories, sketches and, perhaps most significantly, his letters.

 

What distinguishes the works is the small print—the annotations. The information contained in these deceptively gray-looking footnotes ranks with the most distinguished scholarship ever applied to a literary figure. Amounting almost to a “shadow” biography of Twain, the project has been an indispensable resource for Twain scholars since the 1960s.

 

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