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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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Joe Goodman, Clemens’ editor at the paper and a lifelong acquaintance, maintained Sam never did anything better than those letters. Their loss has deprived us of a way to view Twain’s metamorphosis as a writer. Moreover, only three of his personal letters survived from all of 1865. “Anything we could recover from that period would give us an enormous advantage,” says Hirst.

 

A hint of the young Twain’s emerging wit during this period can be found in his send-up of a society writer’s account of a fancy dress ball: “The charming Miss M. M. B. appeared in a thrilling waterfall, whose exceeding grace and volume compelled the homage of pioneers and emigrants alike. . . . Miss C. L. B. had her fine nose elegantly enameled, and the easy grace with which she blew it from time to time, marked her as a cultivated and accomplished woman of the world. . . . ”

 

Hirst has worries about who—if anyone—will replace him and his staff when they retire. The editors have coalesced into a collaborative hive in which each knows the others’ areas of specialized scholarship, and can critique, reinforce or add depth to a colleague’s task of the moment.

 

Their discoveries often have produced new insights into Twain’s thought patterns. For example, the editors have discerned specific intentions within the 15 or so distinct ways he had of canceling out words and phrases as he wrote. “Sometimes his cancellations made the words hard to read, sometimes they made them impossible to read, sometimes he just put a big ‘X’ through a passage, and sometimes he even made a joke of his cancellations,” says Hirst, “making what I call deletions-intended-to-be-read. He did that a lot in his love letters when he was courting Livy [whom Clemens married in 1870].”

 

“Scold away, you darling little [rascal] sweetheart,” he wrote to her in March 1869—drawing a line through “rascal” but leaving the word legible. On another occasion, Livy wrote to ask him why he had heavily deleted a certain passage. In his reply, he made a point of refusing to answer her, and added: “You would say I was an love-sick idiot,” with the word “love-sick” obscured by looping squiggles. He then added, playfully, knowing full well that his prim and proper fiancée would not be able to resist deciphering the sentence: “I could not be so reckless as to write the above if you had any curiosity in your composition.” Apparently his deletion techniques began to preoccupy Livy: after thickly scribbling over a sentence in still another letter, he declared, “That is the way to scratch it out, my precious little Solemnity, when you find you have written what you didn’t mean to write. Don’t you see how neat it is—& how impenetrable? Kiss me, Livy—please.”

 

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