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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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Hirst’s major innovation has been a typographic manuscript notation system that he calls “plain text.” It is a system of transcribing Twain’s manuscripts using shading, cross outs, line-through deletions and the like that allows the reader to trace the author’s stages of revision, including blank spaces he intended to fill in later, synonyms stacked above a badly chosen word or revisions scrawled in the margins—all on a single document.


For Hirst, Twain offers as much replenishment to the increasingly ineloquent contemporary world as he did to his own times. “I guess I just don’t know anyone who can move me, or make me laugh, like he can,” Hirst says, “and he can do it with things that I’ve read a dozen times before. And he can do the same thing with stuff I’ve never seen before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone with as much pure verbal talent.”


As for Twain’s continuing timeliness: “I was just looking at an unpublished piece of his called ‘The Undertaker’s Tale,’ which he dashes off one summer day in his study,” Hirst says. “It’s a kind of mock Horatio Alger story, set in the family of an undertaker. Twain brings the story down to dinner and gleefully reads it to the family. Shocked silence! Livy takes him outside for a walk and talks him out of trying to publish it. But he saves it! And anybody who watches [the HBO series] “Six Feet Under” knows that in some way this is a joke that has come into modern consciousness without too much revision. He’s 130 years ahead of his time!”


with 34 years of the author’s life still to organize and annotate, the Mark Twain Project shows about as much evidence of slowing down as Ol’ Man River, though the threat of extinction due to the collapse of grant renewals has taken a growing toll on Hirst’s blood pressure, and obliged him, in recent years, to spend more time as fund-raiser than in his preferred role as a manuscript detective. Vacations, and even work-free weekends, are a rarity. He relaxes when he can with his wife of 25 years, the sculptor and painter Margaret Wade. He keeps in touch with son Tom, a sophomore at Hampshire (Massachusetts) College, steals time for daughter Emma, a high school sophomore in San Francisco across the Bay, and pursues his decades-long quest to “sivilize” (as Huck would have it) the large, sloping backyard of the family house in the Oakland hills. “There’s a stream running through it, and I’m trying to landscape it,” he says. “It’s sort of a cross between the Aswan Dam and the Atchafalaya Cutoff.”


The project got a big boost in October 2002, when the Berkeley Class of 1958 announced that in honor of its upcoming 50th reunion, it would raise funds for the project. The goal, resonating with the class’s year, is $580,000. Already, says class president Roger Samuelsen, $300,000 has been pledged. “I’ve always been a fan of Mark Twain,” says Samuelsen, a retired university director. “I go backpacking every year with my brother and friends, and we always bring along stories by Twain to read around the campfire. As for our class, we feel that this is something that goes right to the core of the university’s research and instructional values.”



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