Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mark Twain: Still on Top 100 Years Later

Mark Twain’s final book, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, has hit the No. 1 spot on Amazon due to an huge influx of preorders. The book was kept sealed away in the University of California archives for 100 years after the author’s death, as per his request. He died on April 21, 1910.

The unconventional author of course couldn't just write his autobiography like everyone else. Starting at about 1870, he made many attempts at starting it: he just hadn't gotten that far on the task. Then, more than 30 years later in 1904, the perfect method of autobiography writing came to him:
"Start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life. . . . It is the first time in history that the right plan has been hit upon."
And that's exactly what he did.  From 1906 to 1909, he spent many mornings in bed, dictating occurrences in his life to a secretary. Typescripts were made so Twain made notes and corrections, telling a future collaborator what to include and what not to. After his youngest daughter died in 1909, he stopped - just four months before his death.

At the time of his death, more than 2,500 pages were written, and scholars at first thought the collection was just another unfinished project by a writer notorious for them. But for six years, editors at Mark Twain Papers at University of California Berkeley worked to reconstruct the autobiography just as Twain wished it to be.  The autobiography is highly unconventional and very modern in many ways, as it shakes the format up from the usual linear story from birth to death.

Long, long before the writing was completed, Twain was quite pleased with himself and his idea to create the autobiography. In 1906, he said:
"The form of this book is one of the most memorable literary inventions of the ages. . . . It ranks with the steam engine, the printing press & the electric telegraph. I am the only person who has ever found out the right way to build an autobiography."
And modern minds have agreed:
Robert Hirst, general editor of the Bancroft Library's Mark Twain Papers and Project at Berkeley, says, "The thrill of seeing the entire work, as he intended it to be, is extraordinary."
Ben Griffin, associate editor of the Mark Twain Papers, calls it "the most complicated and vexing textual situation I've ever heard about." Hirst says, "It was a fascinating puzzle, puzzling beyond belief."
So what is inside the book so long held back from the public?  Twain was already pretty open about his feelings, but he let's loose quite a bit in his autobiography. This caused quite a stir among the friends and family he would inevitably end up writing about - hence the 100-year wait! The print embargo was also an extraordinary publicity ploy, as pre-orders have been pouring in. He truly was a man before his time.

In November, the 760-page first volume will be heading to the hands of eager readers. Within five years, two more volumes will appear, and the entire work, with variants and notes, will be available online.

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