TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross. Yesterday, November 30th, was the birthday of Samuel Clemens, better known by his literary alias of Mark Twain. He was born in 1835 and died in 1910, 100 years ago, which makes it rather remarkable that this week Mark Twain has a new autobiography on The New York Times bestseller list, right alongside memoirs by George Bush, Keith Richards and Baba Booey. "Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1" is the first of three volumes of a 500,000 word memoir written by Twain himself. He completed it in the last years of his life but stipulated that the manuscript not be published for 100 years. Well, those 100 years are up and the interest in Mark Twain remains so strong that a book originally scheduled to print 6,000 copies has become a literary sensation.

These new autobiographies are published by the University of California Press at Berkeley and are edited and annotated by the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library.

Our guest is Bob Hirst, who for 30 years has served as general editor of the Mark Twain Papers. Our own David Bianculli, a Twain enthusiast, spoke with Hirst.

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Bob Hirst, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. BOB HIRST (General Editor, Mark Twain Papers and Project): Glad to be here.

BIANCULLI: Let's start with the most obvious question. Why has it taken 100 years for this autobiography of Mark Twain to be published and what makes it different from the versions previously available over the years?

Mr. HIRST: Well, to be honest, it really is not because he said it couldn't be published for 100 years. It's taken us really about two decades to figure out how to edit and publish the autobiography. As you know, the manuscript has been available to scholars and really anyone who came to the Mark Twain Papers since I'd say 1962. And many, many, many scholars have read it and - or used it, referred to, quoted from it. But to them and to us, the editorial project, there was a lot of mystery about how the thing fit together.

For the longest time we thought that Mark Twain had left a series of drafts, that he had never completed it, and that we were going to basically be forced to publish it in some kind of arbitrary way, like everything chronologically. But in the last three years, the editors who've I've worked with for 40 years figured out that he had finished it. He knew exactly what he wanted in it and exactly what he didnt want in it - that's very important - and how he wanted it ended and how he wanted it structured. So all of a sudden out of what seemed a kind of chaos...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HIRST: ...emerged what turns out to be Mark Twain's last major literary work.

BIANCULLI: Well, let's talk about what that structure is, because he's quoted as saying, I mean, the first time in history that the right plan has been hit upon.

Mr. HIRST: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: He's so proud of how he did this, and also...

Mr. HIRST: Yes, he is.

BIANCULLI: Yeah. He said I'm the only person who has ever found the right way to build an autobiography. So what was that way?

Mr. HIRST: Well, the way is basically to dictate it, to have someone to take down exactly what he says and to talk about what interests him at the moment, to allow himself to change the subject as soon as his interests flags a little bit, and to talk about the thing that interests him then, and so, in fact, not in any way to give you a chronological account of his life. It does not begin November 30, 1835, I was born in so forth and so on. He does not want and has struggled really for 30 or 35 years to get away from the conventions of ordinary autobiography. So it's the randomness of this which is unique as far as I know, and which is one of the things he's most proud of.

Why? That's complicated. But I think it's partly that it's - he senses that this is a way to be more honest than he could be if he had structured it in a kind of self-conscious way.

BIANCULLI: Well, one of the things that, if I may, one of the things...

Mr. HIRST: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...that he, we can quote him from a 1906 passage where he sort of explains it. And if I can ask you to read it. It's in volume one, on page 441. Just a paragraph...

Mr. HIRST: Yeah. I see it.

BIANCULLI: ...that describes the autobiography.

Mr. HIRST: Sure.

I intend that this autobiography shall become a model for all future autobiographies when it is published after my death, and I also intend that it shall be read and admired a good many centuries because of its form and method - a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face to face, resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along like contact of flint with steel. Moreover, this autobiography of mine does not select from my life its showy episodes, but deals merely in the common experiences which go to make up the life of the average human being, and the narrative must interest the average human being because these episodes are of a sort which he is familiar with in his own life, and in which he sees his own life reflected and set down in print. The usual, conventional autobiographer seems to particularly hunt out those occasions in his career when he came into contact with celebrated persons, whereas his contacts with the uncelebrated were just as interesting to him, and would be to his reader, and were vastly more numerous than his collisions with the famous.

BIANCULLI: And that paragraph itself was just dictated and not substantially rewritten?

Mr. HIRST: Absolutely dedicated? I don't have the typescript literally in front of me, but I'll bet you anything there is hardly a mark on it.

BIANCULLI: Is this because he had been a public speaker, one of the first sort of standup comedian celebrities, that he was so comfortable writing on his feet?

Mr. HIRST: Well, Dave, that's a it's a good question. I don't think there's any question that lifetime hours of practice is a crucial matter here and certainly speaking publicly as much as he did. Not just on the lecture circuit but as an after dinner speaker. I mean he's notoriously good at that. I think the fact is, this is a real gift and it's a gift that's quite unusual. I mean most of us have a separate part of our brain that attends to writing and one that attends to speaking. In this case they are the same place. I mean he is able to speak in such a way that you couldnt tell that it wasn't written if you didn't know.

BIANCULLI: And yet even though he says that, you know, he's going to spend as much time on the uncelebrated as the celebrated, the people who went through his life are fairly amazing.

Mr. HIRST: Yes, they are.

BIANCULLI: If I can get you to read one more passage.

Mr. HIRST: Sure.

BIANCULLI: If that's okay. Page 465, he meets Helen Keller...

Mr. HIRST: That's right.

BIANCULLI: ...when Helen Keller is 14 years old. Her teacher, Annie Sullivan, is there.

Mr. HIRST: I see it. He's out at Princeton. And as you say, Helen is really only 14, so she's not really famous at this point. He's going to go on to get support for her education and basically to be a kind of help to her throughout her life.

The guests were brought one after another and introduced to her. As she shook hands with each, she took her hand away and laid her fingers lightly against Miss Sullivans lips, who spoke against them the persons name. When a name was difficult, Miss Sullivan not only spoke it against Helen's fingers, but spelled it upon Helen's hand with her own fingers - stenographically, apparently, for the swiftness of the operation was suggestive of that.

Mr. Howells seated himself by Helen on the sofa and she put her fingers against his lips and he told her a story of considerable length, and you could see each detail of it pass into her mind and strike fire there and throw the flash of it into her face. Then I told her a long story, which she interrupted all along, and in the right places, with cackles, chuckles, and care-free bursts of laughter. Then Miss Sullivan put one of Helen's hands against her lips and spoke against it the question: What is Mr. Clemens distinguished for? Helen answered, in her crippled speech: For his humor. I spoke up modestly and said: And for his wisdom. Helen said the same words instantly: And for his wisdom. I suppose it was a case of mental telegraphy, since there was no way for her to know what it was I had said.

BIANCULLI: I absolutely love that story. The first time...

Mr. HIRST: Isn't that stunning?

BIANCULLI: The first time you read that, what was your reaction?

Mr. HIRST: Well, I don't know that I remember, Dave. I mean I've been reading it for a long, long time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIRST: But I'll tell you what's more interesting is, what's my reaction the 15th time I've read it? It is exactly the same, is it's utterly charming, it's just utterly amazing that he has managed to put on paper this encounter. After all, it's a very unusual situation, right? He doesnt have a lot of experience communicating with someone who's blind and deaf and so forth, and yet he gets it perfectly. He gets it down here perfectly. And I think you can't but be moved by it. It's very tender. It's really outside the kind of, oh, the frame that I think we most often think of Mark Twain occupying, this sort of curmudgeon frame.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HIRST: Here he's quite tender. Here he's quite attentive and very fascinated by her, and still able to kind of joke with her and to enjoy the encounter in a way which, well, all I can say is it hits me the same way every time. I love it.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Their newest work is "The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley.

As the general editor of the papers, nothing in here is new to you or has been for decades. But what do you think even in volume one is going to be most revelatory to the general public?

Mr. HIRST: Well, first of all, I think that relatively few people have read the earlier editions of autobiography - Paine, DeVoto and Neider. And if they have read them, they got - I think necessarily got - a distorted view of what the autobiography is like, because those editors very deliberately and self-consciously and publicly said that they didn't approve of the way Mark Twain had organized his autobiography and they had better ways of organizing it and that's what they did. They took the pieces and put them in the order that they thought was good.

So I think for the first time both people who have managed to read those earlier editions and people who have not will encounter Mark Twain in a kind of personal way that they won't have seen him in any of his literary works. This is like having a conversation with Mark Twain, of course in which he does all the talking, but you supply the questions in a way, and it's a very intimate experience. It's - I've seen it described as feeling like meeting Mark Twain for the first time. I think that's a sound insight. And I think you are going to be surprised to see how continuously charming and interesting and humorous he can be about just about anything.

BIANCULLI: Looking over all of the original manuscripts that you have at the Mark Twain Papers, you can tell when there is an awful lot of revision going on, when there's some sort of inspirational jag where there are virtually no changes for pages on end.

Mr. HIRST: That's correct. Correct.

BIANCULLI: What are some of the best finds in that regard?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIRST: Well, as far as I'm concerned, when the first half of the "Huckleberry Finn" manuscript showed up in 1991, that gave us a window into how Mark Twain revised "Huckleberry Finn," because what he does is to write the whole book out in longhand, in manuscript, as it were. And if you look at those manuscript pages, they have relatively few changes on them. Not a lot of cancellation and insertion or anything like that. Now, of course, there's always the possibility of his having thrown away pages that did have revision on them and just, you know, made a fair copy.

But what we discovered was that he has this manuscript typed in order to provide the printer with a very clear text to set the book from. And if we compare the manuscript with the book, we find out that 80 percent of the revision that he makes on this book takes place on this missing typescript.

For instance, the chapter 19, which is the very, very famous and deservedly famous and heavily praised description of the sunrise on the Mississippi by Huck. We can show that the draft - that is to say, the handwritten part of that - is so very different from the published text that Mark Twain must have extensively revised it. And we can show also that the things which people have pointed to as being characteristic of this wonderfully inventive way of describing the sunrise all occurred on the typescript. They all occurred in revision. And that's amazing because we know that Mark Twain in general never revised books after he published them.

You know, unlike Henry James, or actually most authors, he does not take advantage of reprinting or the second edition or the third edition to go in and correct or adjust or in any way tinker with the text. He simply eschews that completely. It's part of, I think, his mindset: I'm on to the next thing.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HIRST: I'm not going to be caught in the eddies of what I've just done.

BIANCULLI: What do you make in 2010 of the continued furor over the use of the N-word in "Huckleberry Finn"?

Mr. HIRST: Well, I'm afraid I have a kind of unpopular view of all this. I think the furor is just terribly mistaken. I think I understand why it exists, but what it's done, I'm afraid, is to prevent them from reading the book in which this word becomes an issue. Because the book is designed to heap ridicule on racism. It's designed to make fun of people like Pap Finn. It's designed to show that even Huck, who is a - who's a small little racist, a little redneck, even Huck is unable fully to grasp what's going on and also not to shed it. That is to say, even though he's friends with Jim and manages to act out a friendship for him...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HIRST: ...he never sheds the basic commitment to slavery and to the notion of white supremacy and so forth and so on. I mean Mark Twain goes to great lengths at the end in the end of the book to show you that even though Huck has tried to save Jim and acted really only in Jim's interest, he has not changed his mindset about all this.

And it seems to me that what's happened is that the only writer that I am aware of in the 19th century in America to devote his masterpiece to an attack on racism, not on slavery, on racism only - slavery is dead. Slavery is at least legally dead. The only writer to devote his masterpiece to that has now, you know, has been since the mid-'60s accused of being a racist himself. There is in fact no support for that. He's as anti-racist as anybody you can find in the 19th century. He's very enlightened. And the book itself is an attack on, as I said, people like Pap Finn.

So I think it's too bad that that happens. I can understand why some people simply, you know, have a kind of gut reaction to it before -really before they have a chance to read it or take it in.

BIANCULLI: I keep hearing, and you can document this for me, that letters written by Mark Twain are still being found.

Mr. HIRST: Yes, that's correct, at a rate which is actually stunning. When I took this job in 1980, I think we were finding about one a week, and it went up to two a week, and it's recently gone up to at least three a week. That means letters in all kinds of ways. Can be original letters found in libraries that are finally getting around to cataloguing their letters, people whose grandmother or grandfather knew Mark Twain, you know, and put the letter in a book on the library shelf and it falls out when they use the book. But in particular, recently the effect of the Web is stunning.

BIANCULLI: How so?

Mr. HIRST: Libraries - well, libraries are now putting up their catalogs, so using various tools that have digitized newspapers. A remarkable number of letters from Mark Twain get published at the time, you know, contemporarily, and because these things can be searched, I mean I must have on my desk now at least 100 folders containing new letters that need to be processed, need to be dated and to a certain extent identified, in order to enter into the catalog.

And I think that what's happening is that the simple fact that he wrote 50,000 letters in his lifetime is coming to bear on the reality. It's not uncommon to come across a letter that says I've just written 35 letters today and you go look in your files and you have two of them. That tells you that - he's not out there writing more letters. He did die in 1910.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HIRST: But...

BIANCULLI: You've established that for certain.

Mr. HIRST: Yeah, we're confident of that. But the letters themselves are kept by people because they're wonderful letters. They're often very funny. Now, what happens as a result of that, this is like a great big picture with little tiny dots in it, and those dots are the letters. And what you're doing as you find these letters and gradually bring them into, you know, into consciousness, is you're filling in a picture of him that you would never in any other way. And I think the world should be happy - pleased that that's going on.

BIANCULLI: Well, Bob Hirst, thank you so much for being on FRESH AIR.

Mr. HIRST: Glad to do it.

GROSS: Bob Hirst is the general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor David Bianculli.

You can read an excerpt of "Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One" on our website, freshair.npr.org.

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