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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 reason for the project’s ever-lengthening timetable is that Mark Twain won’t stop writing. His known output at the time of his death at age 74 was prodigious enough: nearly 30 books, thousands of newspaper and magazine pieces, 50 personal notebooks and some 600 other literary manuscripts—fragments, chapters, drafts, sketches—that he never published.


But nearly a hundred years later, his writings continue to surface. These mostly take the form of letters, turned up by collectors, antiquarians and vintage-book sellers, and by ordinary people thumbing through boxes of dusty memorabilia stored by great-uncles and grandparents in family cellars and attics. “We now have, or know of, about 11,000 letters written by Mark Twain,” says Hirst. How many are still out there? “My conservative estimate is that he wrote 50,000 of them in his lifetime. Not all of them were long epistles. Most were business letters, replies to autograph requests—‘No, I can’t come and lecture,’ that type of thing.” Twain, of course, was capable of turning even a dashedoff line into something memorable. “I am a long time answering your letter, my dear Miss Harriet,” he confessed to an admirer whose last name does not survive, “but then you must remember that it is an equally long time since I received it—so that makes us even, & nobody to blame on either side.”


“We see them coming in at the rate of about one a week,” says Hirst. “People will walk in off the street and say, ‘Is this a Mark Twain letter?’ They even turn up on eBay.”


If 50,000 is a “conservative” estimate, what might be the high end of an informed “wild-and-crazy” sort of guess? Hirst hesitates. “My colleague, Mike Frank,” he says, “has a hunch there might be 100,000 of them in all.” since 1988, the project, through the University of California Press, has issued six volumes of Mark Twain’s letters, nearly two-thirds of them seeing print for the first time. The published volumes cover the years from 1853, when Sam Clemens was 17 and exploring New York City and Philadelphia, to 1875, by which time Mark Twain, age 40, was at work on The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and at the threshold of enduring fame. Hirst estimates that annotating Twain’s remaining 34 years’ worth of letters will take until 2021. So documenting Twain’s life will have taken 54 years, or more than two-thirds the time he took to live it.


The letters series is but one of the project’s four distinct endeavors. Another is the works of Mark Twain (scholarly editions of the writer’s published works, including his commissioned letters to various newspapers and journals). A third is the Mark Twain Library (paperback editions of the works without the scholarly notes, for classroom use and general readership). Yet a fourth, begun in 2001, is an on-line archive of Twain’s works and papers:



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