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Mark Twain’s Autobiography Set for Unveiling, a Century After His Death

July 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, the story behind a 100-year-wait for an autobiography by one of America’s most famous writers.

“NewsHour” correspondent Spencer Michels explains.

SPENCER MICHELS: Behind a decorative gate and a security checkpoint in Berkeley, California, and through an unmarked locked door in the Bancroft Library lies a remarkable and valuable collection of letters, documents and writings that describe the life and passions of Mark Twain, perhaps America’s greatest and funniest writer.

This rare and damaged film of Twain late in his life is part of the archive, as are early copies of “Huckleberry Finn” and “Tom Sawyer,” regarded as monumental American novels. Overseeing the vault, as the room is sometimes called, is Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project, which, this year, 2010, is finally publishing, along with the University of California Press, Twain’s uncensored autobiography — finally because Twain decreed that this document not be published in its entirety until 100 years after his death, which took place in 1910, when he was 75.

ROBERT HIRST, general editor, Mark Twain Project: Most people don’t have the nerve to speak exactly what they believe while they’re alive, because of the repercussions. People will shun them. He says: I’m only human. I don’t want to be shunned. I don’t want to be thought ill of, and, therefore, I’m willing to write this down and put it on paper and leave it behind.

SPENCER MICHELS: Working with numerous copies and corrections, the editors at first thought the autobiography was unfinished and random. But, after six years, they figured out Twain’s had produced a complete, provocative document.

ROBERT HIRST: Even for us, who have had access to it without restriction, seeing the way he wants to arrange it, seeing the way he wants to put the parts together is a — is brand-new to us. And I think — I can’t help feeling that it will be brand-new and interesting to the world.

SPENCER MICHELS: Samuel Clemens, Twain’s real name, grew up in Missouri on the banks of the Mississippi, stomping grounds for the fictional Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. He left school for good at 11, and later became a pilot on riverboats, also material for later works.

Out West, during the gold and silver rushes, he worked at newspapers in Nevada and California, and started his literary career. He was a traveling man and wrote about trips to Europe and the Holy Land and to the Sandwich Islands, now Hawaii.

He wrote voluminously, continuously. But, for his autobiography, composed during the last few years of his life, rather than write it, he dictated it to a stenographer.

ROBERT HIRST: She’s not only accurate. As Clemens says, she’s a good audience, very important to Mark Twain, to have someone there reacting to what he says, laughing, I presume, at what he says, or at least extolling it in some way.

SPENCER MICHELS: In one revelatory passage, Twain describes how he overcame writer’s block while working on “Tom Sawyer.”

ROBERT HIRST: “For I knew quite well the tale was not finished, and I could not understand why I was not able to go on with it. The reason was very simple. My tank had run dry. It was empty. When the manuscript had lain in a pigeonhole two years, I took it out one day.

“And it was then that I made the great discovery that, when the tank runs dry, you’ve only to leave it alone, and it will fill up again in the time while you were asleep, also while you were at work on other things and are quite unaware that this unconscious and profitable cerebration is going on. There was plenty of material now, and the book went on and finished itself without any trouble.”

That is a method he goes on to apply to every book that he writes.

SPENCER MICHELS: The autobiography, along with nearly a million pages of other material penned by Twain, including letters and notebooks, have been housed on the University of California, Berkeley, campus since 1949.

That’s when Twain’s only surviving daughter, Clara, decreed in her will that the papers go to Berkeley, where one of Twain’s biographers was teaching.

Since Twain’s death, four different editors have taken a stab at publishing portions of his biography, despite Twain’s wishes to wait 100 years. But the project at Berkeley, a team of editors working from the original manuscript, will mark the first time the entire document is published, including controversial parts.

Harriet Elinor Smith is the official editor of the autobiography. She’s been working here for more than 30 years. And she says that among the writings Twain wanted to suppress was his somewhat shocking view of Christianity.

HARRIET ELINOR SMITH, editor, “Autobiography of Mark Twain”: There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory. The invention of hell measured by our Christianity of today, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the deity nor his son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.”

That would have been considered very shocking in his day.

SPENCER MICHELS: Editor Ben Griffin, who joined the Twain Project five years ago, relates another jolting passage, where Twain took out his anger on an entrepreneur named James Paige, who lost him money.

BENJAMIN GRIFFIN, editor, “Autobiography of Mark Twain”: This is the end of the piece he wrote about Paige.

“Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms, and yet he knows perfectly well that, if I had his nuts in a steel trap, I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap until he died.”

SPENCER MICHELS: That’s pretty vicious.

BENJAMIN GRIFFIN: He used the autobiography as a chance to disburden himself of a lot of feeling. He left this out of the final version of the autobiography.

SPENCER MICHELS: But you are putting it in?

BENJAMIN GRIFFIN: We’re including it in a section of the earlier shots he took at writing an autobiography.

SPENCER MICHELS: The autobiography does include social and political material Twain thought too hot for the times, like these remarks about President Theodore Roosevelt’s role in the massacre of Filipino guerrillas after the Spanish-American War.

ROBERT HIRST: “He knew perfectly well that to pen 600 helpless and weaponless savages in a hole like rats in a trap and massacre them in detail during a stretch of a day-and-a-half from a safe position on the heights above was no brilliant feat of arms. He knew perfectly well that our uniformed assassins had not upheld the honor of the American flag.”

SPENCER MICHELS: While he could rant on social issues like imperialism, letters he wrote indicated that Twain still pulled his punches on what he would reveal, even a century hence.

HARRIET ELINOR SMITH: He struggled very much with the idea of self-revelation, his own self-accusations, the guilt that he felt. Part of him wanted to reveal all, and part of him was really never able to speak the truth, as he called it.

SPENCER MICHELS: For Shelley Fishkin, an English professor at Stanford and a Twain scholar who has edited many of his works, the autobiography Twain’s stature as an American original.

SHELLEY FISHER FISHKIN, professor, Stanford University: He always viewed himself as a moralist in disguise, as he once put it. He’s always helping people look at themselves, look at their flaws, but not judging them in a way that exempts himself. He’s always a part of the human comedy that he’s portraying. And he’s not presenting himself as superior to the rest of us. He’s criticizing all of us, including himself.

SPENCER MICHELS: The release of Mark Twain’s autobiography should cast new light on Twain’s role and on his life and thoughts. The first of three large volumes will be released in November.