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Anticipating Mark Twain's Never Before Seen Autobiography

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In the past couple of weeks the world has become aware that Mark Twain's autobiography is about to be published -- the one he said could not see the light of day for 100 years after his death. It started with a story in The Independent, the London newspaper: -- "After keeping us waiting for a century, Mark Twain will finally reveal all." The story grew in drama as it raced through the Internet: Readers pictured a musty manuscript wrapped up and sitting in a vault for a century, with strict instructions not to open it. Now that the time is come (the centenary of his death was April 21) the old tumblers will be sprayed with WD-40, the dial rotated carefully to the proper combination, the wrappers removed, the crumbling old pages finally turned, and the great writer's dark secrets brought to light.

It's not quite like that. As Bob Hirst, General Editor of the Mark Twain Papers & Project at the University of California, Berkeley, points out, the writer whose real name was Samuel L. Clemens had a terrific sense of marketing. During his lifetime, he published about 10 percent of his autobiography in a magazine -- with each installment pointing out that no one would be able to read the rest for 100 years. Like so many other great things Clemens thought up -- from Huckleberry Finn to The War Prayer -- this publicity dodge has lived on into the 21st century, and should help sales of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. I (University of California Press, November 2010, $34.95.) There will eventually be three volumes -- after all, the old man left 5,000 pages of manuscript.

And that manuscript has been available to us for decades. In 2003, as I was researching a biography of Clemens' best friend -- a minister, if it can be believed -- I got a chance to spend several winter weeks alone in the great hilltop farmhouse in Elmira, N.Y., where Twain wrote many of his significant works. (The house, Quarry Farm, is maintained by The Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, another key Twain locus.) I took along a carton of microfilm of the "Autobiographical Dictations" loaned by the Berkeley project. When I switched on the light in the microfilm reader and scrolled through the pages, I saw Mark Twain documents like none I'd ever seen - reams and reams of typed stories, reminiscences, ramblings and observations, marked up for publication, numbered and covered with scratched-out portions and marginal notes, sometimes studded with news clippings. Entire sections were repeated with slight changes; some were handwritten. It was really hard to follow.

These were the fruits of the massive project Clemens undertook in 1904 to record his life. He spoke to a succession of transcribers and set himself specific guidelines: "Start it at no particular time of your life; talk only about the thing that interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime." So here were, in a chaotic pile, stories of his home life in Hartford, Connecticut, where he spent two happy and productive decades; loving portraits of his daughters and his wife, Livy; some funny (and brave) things that my biography subject, the Reverend Joe Twichell, did; long tales categorizing in excruciating detail the failings of those around him; and, suddenly, bitter diatribes like this one headed "The Character of Man": "His history, in all climes, all ages and all circumstances, furnishes oceans and continents of proof that of all the creatures that were made he is the most detestable. Of the entire brood he is the only one - the solitary one - that possesses malice....That one thing puts him below the rats, the grubs, the trichinae."

It's passages like this, I'm guessing, that caused him to put the lid on parts of this autobiography for a century, along with other entries that simply put others in a bad light. He wanted to speak freely, and couldn't if he had to restrain himself with thoughts of libel, political orthodoxy, and blasphemy. There are no big biographical revelations, the California editors tell me; simply the man plain, or as a newspaper put it in his own time: "without respect of persons or social conventions, institutions, or pruderies of any kind."

Now Bob and his crew of experts in their craft have at long last, through many years of close manuscript detective work, sorted that 5,000-page pile of dictations and scraps and pieces into the order Clemens himself wanted. In the past week this glorious event in Mark Twain scholarship has finally gotten the attention it deserves. But it's more than a professors' dream.

As Bob said recently, we're finally getting to read Mark Twain's blog. It's a chance to hear the old man's voice as he talks to us directly, at his own pace, telling us things in the order he wants to tell us things. In this, he's anticipating his great stage portrayer, Hal Holbrook. We hear him wandering his New York rooms in his dressing gown, or in evening garb after an event at Delmonico's, or in white on the sunny portico of his last great home in Connecticut. We hear him speaking in loving tones of his dead, bright daughter Susy; or in playful tones of the young rascals he knew on the Mississippi; or in bitter tones of the way human beings can stand below even the most repulsive of God's creatures.

Steve Courtney is Publicist and Publications Editor at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut (www.marktwainhouse.org) and the author of the award-winning Joseph Hopkins Twichell: The Life and Times of Mark Twain's Closest Friend (University of Georgia Press, 2008).