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Brilliant and Forceful: Editor Benjamin Griffin Discusses the "Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume Two"


The editors at The Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley have undertaken something extraordinary. Reading through the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2, one can't help but wonder if they knew what they were getting themselves into when they started. This is an immense, comprehensive, endlessly fascinating and entertaining book that reveals Twain in ways that most autobiographies—or biographies, for that matter—can only sniff at. One thing's for sure: they didn't know they were working on a runaway best seller when they published Volume One in 2010 (more on that in the interview below).

Omnivoracious talked to co-editor Benjamin Griffin to get his take on the project.



Chris Schluep: How long have you been working on this project? How did the project come to be?

Benjamin Griffin: I’ve been working at the Mark Twain Project since 2005, but that makes me relatively “new”; my co-editor, Harriet Smith, for just one example, has been here thirty-five years. The Project exists because the UC Berkeley Library has the Mark Twain Papers—the manuscripts that he left to his daughter when he died. The Papers have been here as a special collection in the library since 1949, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that it became possible to publish them at will. So the Project is like several things rolled into one: it’s a manuscript archive, it’s a publication program, it’s a library and research center on Mark Twain and his times. The Autobiographyis just the latest of more than twenty-five volumes we’ve published in what will eventually be the first complete edition of Mark Twain’s works.

CS:  Did you have any idea that Volume One would be as successful as it was?

BG: None whatsoever. UC Press’s earliest estimate of a print run was 7,000 copies; I thought that sounded ambitious. Probably the editors are really the last people to ask; we had been working on Mark Twain’s Autobiography for years, and maybe if we’d been “fresher” to it we’d have grasped its popular appeal. Or maybe it’s me; I remember back in 1980 I said “no one’s going to want a ‘personal computer.’” So naturally Volume One sold half a million copies. And it was the holiday season, with retailers trying to acquire stock, and book-lovers trying to get first printings – it was like Wonkamania.

CS:   Did that add pressure to the work you were doing on Volume Two?

BG: Nope. Because by the time Volume One was in stores, we were halfway through editing Volume Two. Right now we’re halfway through editing Volume Three. Maybe I should say Harriet and my co-editors are halfway through; I’m falling behind in my editing because I have to do a lot of interviews. Anyway, we’re always working as steadily and as quickly as we can, and it’s done when it’s done.

515a3+7FWDLCS:   The original papers have been described as “rambling.” How did you go about organizing the autobiography? How much did you have to cut out?

BG: “Rambling” is such an ugly word. What about “sprawling”? Or, say the book “takes in” many different types of material – that it’s omnivoracious. As for organizing, and omitting things, that we don’t do. Earlier editions only printed what was “interesting.” They were trade editions, and meant to be marketable. And so they cut things. One truncated edition rearranged the text in the order of the events of Mark Twain’s life, like a conventional memoir, which is not how he wrote it. I think it’s interesting that these redacted editions turned out not to be very popular or marketable, whereas the Project’s complete edition has been taken up by the public. Interesting and encouraging.

CS:   There’s a conversational tone to the papers—they are very personal for the most part, addressing his day-to-day thoughts and observations, sometimes angry and often arrestingly compassionate and thoughtful. But there are times when the autobiography takes on a more self-conscious tone, and it’s apparent that Twain is addressing his own “brand.” He’s tackling so much in this work. The more I read, the more I began to understand just how complex he was. Interested in the world. A great thinker with a contemporary voice. A guy who wanted to make money. This is a long lead up to my question, but how do you summarize Twain the man? How do you summarize the autobiography?

BG: Frankly, I wouldn’t dare. Mark Twain wrote: “What a wee little part of a person’s life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself.” He keeps coming back to the frank admission that a totally truthful autobiography can’t be written. And yet his autobiography, just because it spills over into so many areas of life, is uniquely revealing of his mind and his world. He seems to be many men, yet the final impression is of someone definitely singular.

CS:   How has this project changed your view of Twain?

BG: When you work on one author during most of your waking hours, you no longer have a “view” of him. He becomes the element in which you live. It would be interesting to have Twain’s view of us—risky, too. I take comfort from the fact that he cared passionately about his works being correctly printed.

CS:   When will Volume Three be released, and can you give a hint at what readers can expect?

BG: “Another damned, thick, square book,” as the Duke said to Gibbon! Volume Three is projected for 2015. It’s uncategorizable, like the other volumes, but it will contain a long appendix of special interest, the much-talked-about Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript. It’s not part of the Autobiography but this seems the best place to print it. It’s a searing indictment of Twain’s secretaries, who he thought were conspiring against him. It doesn’t show him at his most lovable, but it does show him, in the last year of his life, writing brilliantly and forcefully; and it’s important to Twain scholars—quite apart from its interest as scandal.

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