Keeping Up with Mark Twain

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

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 5)

“I’m a big believer, with Bob [Hirst], that there’s a whole world of popular culture that never makes it into the learned volumes about any given author,” says editor Lin Salamo, who arrived at the project as a 21-year-old in 1970. “Ads in newspapers of a certain period. The corner-of-your-eye stuff that may somehow work its way into a writer’s consciousness. Anyone’s life is made up of the trivial; scraps of found images and impressions. Mark Twain was a keen observer; he was a sponge for everything in his range of vision.”


Hirst doesn’t apologize for this exhaustive approach, the wails of the lean-and-meaners be damned. “Literary criticism, as I was taught it at Harvard,” he says, “emphasized the notion that you couldn’t really know an author’s intention, and so you might as well ignore it. Well, the kind of editing we do is founded on the notion that discovering the author’s intention is the first principle for anyone who is establishing a text. This kind of thinking is definitely a small and fragile backwater swamp compared to what goes on in academic literary departments.” He pauses and smiles wickedly.


“I feel enormously lucky to have found my way to this swamp.”


the “swamp” at times can seem more like an ocean, with Hirst as a kind of Ahab, pursuing the Great White Male. There is always more Twain out there, and Hirst wants all of it. Personal letters are far from the only form of Mark Twain’s writing still awaiting rediscovery. The handwritten originals of his first two major books, The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, are still at large—if they have not been destroyed. (Finding them is not a forlorn hope: it was only 13 years ago that the long-lost first half of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—665 pages of priceless manuscript—turned up in a Los Angeles attic, opening up a body of insights into Twain’s revision process for that seminal novel.)


Perhaps even more enticing to scholars are missing papers from the time that the adventurer Sam Clemens became the literary artist Mark Twain. These are the later dispatches that the newly pen-named Twain sent to the Virginia City (Nevada) Territorial Enterprise from the middle of 1865 through early March 1866. The Enterprise, born in the boomtown years of the Comstock silver lode, attracted a coterie of wild, gifted young bohemians to its pages, including a certain auburn-haired fugitive from Civil War duty who (luckily for American letters) proved hopeless as a prospector. Clemens wrote articles, sketches and hoaxes for the paper. Later he quit and drifted to San Francisco. There the young man hit rock bottom. Broke, unemployed, drinking, suicidally despondent, he turned again to the Enterprise, sending the paper a dispatch a day for the next several months. The work rehabilitated Clemens’ self-esteem and focused his destiny. Though several of the dispatches to the Enterprise have been preserved, most are missing.



Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus