Inside the next volume of Mark Twain's autobiography
The surprising popularity of Mark Twain's autobiography has been a boon and a burden for editors at the University of California Press. Because like rock stars with a surprise hit debut album, they're expected to follow-up with something equally appealing and popular. Twain, who planned for his biography to be published 100 years after his death, created such a large document that the 738-page "Autobiography of Mark Twain" was only part one -- and two more parts are planned.
In Tuesday's L.A. Times, Larry Gordon looks inside the world of Twain scholars and at the next phase of Twain's autobiography:
Thrust into a publishing success about which other academics can only fantasize, [Harriet Elinor] Smith and her colleagues at UC Berkeley's Mark Twain Papers & Project have become celebrities in the rarefied world of literary research and editing....
Robert H. Hirst, the Twain center's general editor, said he expected the memoir's first volume to sell perhaps 10,000 copies, still much higher than his previous releases. "You'd have to be a fool to expect something like this to be a bestseller," Hirst said of the often rambling reminiscences and many scholarly notes.
As sales took off, however, editors realized that Twain's sly humor and skepticism about wealthy elites, U.S. militarism, politicians and organized religion hold a seemingly timeless appeal. "It's a time when his particular sort of tone and attitude is very welcome," said Hirst, who has headed the center for 30 years.
As they fact-check and comb through conflicting accounts, scholars have a lot of material to go through. "He saved everything," said Twain scholar Laura Trombley at a Los Angeles Institute for the Humanities luncheon last week.
Trombley, who is president of Pitzer College and the author of "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years," reviewed the first volume of Twain's autobiography for The Times. "In the 'Autobiography,' Twain generously provides the 21st century aficionado a marvelous read. His crystalline humor and expansive range are a continuous source of delight and awe," she wrote. "This was his version of reality, and what an entertaining record it is."
-- Carolyn Kellogg
Photo: Mark Twain in an undated photo. Credit: The Mark Twain House & Museum / Associated Press