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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

But esteem does not always spell security. If the project’s editors are feeling happy these days, it is only now, after nearly four decades, that their project is emerging from obscurity, even on their host campus, after a virtually unrelieved funding crisis. Mark Twain, of course, would be sympathetic. “The lack of money is the root of all evil,” he liked to remind people; and as for approbation, “It is human to like to be praised; one can even notice it in the French.”

 

the animating force behind the project, its untiring ambassador and conceptual mastermind, can usually be found at his desk in the project’s newly refurbished and expanded quarters on the fourth floor of the Bancroft Library on the Berkeley campus. This is Robert Hirst, an engagingly boyish figure, despite his 62 years, his thatch of white hair and his sometimes florid coloring (he’s excitable and sharpwitted, not unlike Twain himself). Often the white hair is the only visible part of Hirst; the rest is obscured by stacks of Twainian treasure: manuscript-crammed filing cabinets, shelves of peeling volumes, piled papers and manila folders that threaten to cascade into literary landslides. “No Tiffany wallpaper yet,” Hirst says wryly of the renovation this past June, which increased the office space by three rooms. (The reference is to the walls of Twain’s lavish house in Hartford, Connecticut.) “But we’re painting and redecorating. Straightening the pictures on the walls.

 

Hirst is sixth in a line of distinguished scholars to supervise the Twain archives—a line that begins with the author’s official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, before Clemens’ death and continues with Bernard DeVoto, Dixon Wecter, Henry Nash Smith and Frederick Anderson. Hirst, after studying literature at Harvard and Berkeley, joined the project in 1967 as a fact checker and proofreader, one of many young graduate students hired to do the grunt work for the professors issuing the Twain volumes produced by the University of California Press. Hirst expected to stay only a year or two. Suddenly it was 1980. By then, deeply invested in the project’s goals and methods, Hirst signed on as the project’s general editor. Aside from a few years teaching at UCLA, he has never done anything else. He probably knows more about Mark Twain than anyone alive—perhaps even more than the dreamy author knew about himself.

 

Beneath Hirst’s warmth and whimsical humor, beneath even the laser intensity and the steely will that underlie his surface charm, one can detect a glimpse, now and then, of a puzzled young man from Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, wondering where all the time has gone. The answer is that it has gone toward carrying out his assignment, even if the task proves to exceed Hirst’s allotted time on earth, as it almost certainly will.

 

Hirst loves facts and the unexpected illumination that can burst forth from facts scrupulously extracted, arranged and analyzed. “I especially love the ways in which the careful, comparative readings among his documents help us discover new truths that had not been obvious in Twain or his work,” he says.

 

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