Research, Arts & culture, Humanities

Twain autobiography – the way he wanted it – hits stores today

By Kathleen Maclay

The much anticipated first volume of autobiography of legendary American author and humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens, best known by his pen name Mark Twain, lands on bookstore shelves today (Monday, Nov. 15), 100 years after his death, courtesy of editors at the Mark Twain Papers and Project at the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.

The 743-page tome is the first of three installments of the only complete, authoritative and uncensored autobiography by the author of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn” and many other tales of 19th century life on the Mississippi River, family life, frog jumping in California, politics and religion.

Before Twain died, he directed that the material not be released for a century after his passing. In the book, he shares his unfiltered and often ferocious or controversial opinions and rants about people, religion, war, politics and just about anything else that crossed his mind. The 100-year delay guaranteed that those he criticized or ridiculed would not feel the sting, nor would their sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters. Above all, he said, it would save him from being shunned for his controversial views: “I am human, and nothing could persuade me to do any bad deed –or any good one –that would bring that punishment upon me.”

“This is new in the sense that he (Twain) gets to say exactly what he wanted, how he wanted,” said Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Papers. “And now, you get to read it.”

Hirst cautioned that the autobiography doesn’t follow a chronological track, but jumps across time and a wide array of topics: “It is a storyteller’s autobiography. He didn’t give us a cradle-to-grave narrative.”

Readers hoping for revelations of some terrible Twain secrets, Hirst said, will be disappointed. “He says he’s thought of a thousand incidents in his life which he was ashamed of,” said Hirst, “but he hasn’t got one of them to go on paper yet. …He takes the position that no one can be absolutely truthful about themselves.”

Editors from the Mark Twain Papers

The Mark Twain Papers’ editors: Seated on the bench next to the Twain sculpture in Doe Library are editors Harriet Elinor Smith and Victor Fischer. Standing next to Fischer is Sharon Goetz. Standing behind the bench (left to right) are Michael Frank, Benjamin Griffin, Robert Hirst and Leslie Myrick. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Hirst said the crew of editors who combed through the mountain of Twain’s autobiography typescripts, dictated observations and notes found that Twain’s “memory of the facts isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty damn good.”

Even before the book’s release today, it reached bestseller status on, and the UC Press publishing house has extended its print run from 50,000 to 300,000 copies.

On a campus that’s been home to Nobel- and Pulitzer Prize-winning authors, the Twain autobiography has created an unprecedented buzz. And its publication has driven print and broadcast news editors and reporters around the world to produce a steady stream of feature stories and reviews of what Hirst said is “Mark Twain’s last major literary work.”

The book also is a scholarly – as well as already popular – work that includes all of Twain’s autobiographical efforts and explains how Twain’s notions of autobiography evolved.

Twain worked on his autobiography off and on between 1870 and 1905, producing incomplete snippets of his life and ideas. But in January 1906, he began almost daily autobiographical dictations. That continued until December 1909, when he had produced more than half a million words and declared himself finished.

The editors supply explanatory notes (at the back), short family biographies and photos. Supplemental technical detail and editors’ notes are available on the Mark Twain Project website.

The book is the product of painstaking work by the Mark Twain Papers’ editor Harriet Elinor Smith and associate editors Benjamin Griffin, Victor Fischer, Michael B. Frank, Sharon K. Goetz and Leslie Diane Myrick, who each average about 40 years’ of experience at the Mark Twain Papers.

They carefully sifted through typescripts, deciphered scribbled notes of sometimes unclear origin, numerous tales that Twain didn’t quite see through to the end, and undertook daunting detective work to sleuth out what Twain meant for inclusion in his final hoorah.

Born in November 1835, Twain died in April 1910.

Publication of the second volume of Twain’s autobiography has not been scheduled yet, pending securing the needed funding.

Related info: