A new memoir from the National Book Award-winning author of "Middle Passage." He writes about the art and craft of writing and what he calls "the truth-telling power of fiction."
Mark Twain left instructions that his unedited autobiography not be published until one hundred years after his death. This year marks the centennial of the author’s demise. The first of three large volumes was just published. In it the creator of two of America’s best-known fictional characters – Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer – reveals his thoughts on politics, religion and his fellow man. He recalls time spent with presidents and generals as well as ordinary folk. He’s a withering critic of humanity and a doting parent and spouse. The general editor of The Mark Twain Project explains why fascination for the author and his work endures.
- Robert Hirst general editor and official curator of the Mark Twain Project and Papers, housed at the University of California, Berkeley. He is also the editor of "Who Is Mark Twain?"
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. A team of literary scholars spent years poring over thousands of pages of text comprising Mark Twain's memoirs. The author of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and other American classics said they were not to be published until 100 years after his death. The first of three volumes came out last month and has quickly made the best seller list. The book is titled simply "Autobiography of Mark Twain." And Robert Hirst, who is the general editor of the Mark Twain Project, joins me in the studio. I am looking at a book of great weight and thousands of pages. It's just extraordinary, Robert Hirst. Congratulations.
MR. ROBERT HIRSTThank you very much.
REHMYou all did not expect the reaction you've gotten.
HIRSTNo, I don't think we can say that we expected the degree of this reaction. We were aiming at a larger audience than we usually aim at when we publish a scholarly edition. A scholarly edition, let's say of his letters, would aim at about 2,000 copies.
REHMAnd so far?
HIRSTWe're up to about 300,000 for this one.
HIRSTYes, it is unbelievable.
REHMLet's invite our listeners to join as well, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. And just to put some accuracy, here's Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Mo. on November 30, 1835. He died April 21, 1910 at age 74 in Redding, Conn. Now, Bob, versions of this autobiography, not this one, but of an autobiography have been published before. What is so different here?
HIRSTWell, let's see if I can do this briefly. The autobiography manuscript is very long. It's several thousand pages and it was in the Mark Twain papers from the time that Mark Twain died. So it was in the hands, for instance, of his first literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine. And Paine was empowered, really, to publish things from the papers and he actually let no else do it. And in 1924, he does a two-volume edition of the autobiography, but he knows and he actually says that this is really just a third of what the whole thing should be and he doesn't understand it very well.
HIRSTHe thinks that all of the preliminary texts that Clemens wrote between 1870 and 1904 are part of the autobiography. We know now that that's not the case. So he prints only two volumes and really, the first volume is devoted entirely to things, most of these things aren't in the real autobiography. Only in the second volume does he get into what is the real autobiography, namely dictations that Mark Twain starts making in 1906.
REHMAnd what's in the first so-called autobiography?
HIRSTWell, the first autobiography, that is to say these preliminary things.
HIRSTThey are attempts to do an autobiography, which Mark Twain makes over and over and over again for 30 years. He starts and then he stops. He's not satisfied with the way it's going. He tries dictating in 1885 about Grant and he doesn't work out well, so he -- you know, he stops that. We have maybe two dozen of these experiments that he makes and then he sets aside. He saves things even though he's not going to publish.
HIRSTAnd actually, when he finally does settle on how to do the autobiography in 1906, he goes back and looks at all of those and he picks out one, one from the earlier ones, and he begins the final form with that one. And he says, this is an early attempt, it's in the old, old style of chronological narrative and it didn't work out and here it is and that's the first piece that begins the true autobiography. It's actually a wonderful, wonderful piece. He knows it's wonderful, too. He's not giving you something bad (laugh). He's too smart for that.
HIRSTBut all of the other preliminary things are really not part of the autobiography. They are in this volume, but they are clearly labeled as preliminary. The real -- the final one does not begin, really, until about half way through this book.
REHMSo how did this group of scholars come together and begin to sort out what was, what was not, what should be included, what should be left out?
HIRSTOkay. Well, I should have to say that this group of scholars has been, at least many of them, have been together since 1967.
HIRSTSupported continuously from grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. We could not have done many of the books that we've done and we certainly could not have done this one without that kind of continuous support. Because what it did was to train editors in what was in the archive and how to do this and all about Mark Twain for 40 years. And so when they finally came to do this, about six years ago, there were some experts around, real experts in how to do this, who managed to kind of think it through, to look through all the manuscripts and to figure out what had not been known before, namely that he had finished it.
HIRSTWe had thought for years that this was a series of drafts that he had left in a sort of incoherent state. It's in a file cabinet. Anyone who came to the papers out in Berkeley could have seen it and many people did see it, but of course it's a little hard to read the manuscripts, part of it's confusing. In any case, these guys started in about six years ago and in three years or so, they came to me and said, well, Bob, you know, it's not a series of drafts. It's finished. We know exactly how he wanted it to begin, we know exactly what he -- the order he wanted things published and we know exactly how it ends because he ends it with when his youngest daughter, Jean, dies on Christmas Eve 1909.
HIRSTHe sits down and writes a piece about her and he says, this is the end of the autobiography. So all of a sudden, you realize that you've been sitting on a manuscript of Mark Twain's last major literary work, thinking that it was incomplete and sort of incoherent. And no, it turns out that isn't the case.
REHMIt's interesting to me that right along, though, he said he didn't want anything published until 100 years after his death and yet you've got those previous versions. How come?
HIRSTWell, you see, actually, what he says is, I don't want the complete text published...
HIRST...until 100 years after my death and he picks a 100 years out of the air, so to speak. I mean, it's -- I think of it as a nice large round number. It means a long time after I'm dead.
HIRSTWell, because, number one, he didn't want what he had to say about anybody or about anything to damage his reputation or to make people feel like shunning him or to damage his kids' futures or their grandkids' future. And he wanted the same thing for the people he was criticizing. He said, this is not a revenge record. I want to say what I ought to say, I want to say what I think is the truth, but I don't want to damage anybody. I don't want to hurt anybody's feelings. He's had a rather tender heart for someone who could say as sharp things as he did.
REHMFrom this autobiography, what is the picture of the man in the most concise terms?
HIRSTWell, I'll try to be concise, but part of the point is that what you're getting, certainly when you get to the final form of it, is Mark Twain standing there talking to you, talking about whatever occurs to him, changing the subject when he loses the least bit of interest in talking about something else. It's like having a conversation with him without being able to ask him any questions. Someone else is asking the questions. He's determining what the questions are.
HIRSTSo you get a chance to hear Mark Twain talking directly to you. This is unlike any of his other literary works, in which most of those would be through some kind of narrator or some kind of hook or the sophisticated narrator of "Tom Sawyer." But this is the person himself and being very frank and very honest with you and he really cannot -- really cannot go a page without being funny.
REHMAnd what kind of a man was he?
HIRSTThat's very hard for me to say. I think I -- I'm -- my impulse is to want to say go read it and you tell me what kind of a man he is, but he is clearly someone who has an enormous command over the English language or the American language. He is someone who has very sharp insights into human beings and to the way that they behave and he is someone who can deal with that and make you laugh at it without seeming to have any effort at doing so.
HIRSTThis is the most relaxed kind of narrative you're ever gonna want to encounter. It is not a narrative, really, it's a this thing and then that thing, then this thing and then that thing, so it covers all kinds of ground without -- without any real plan. Now, people are intimidated by that, but my reaction is, don't be. This is the kind of book that you can jump into and open to any page and start reading. You don't have to have read the earlier parts. That's because it's just all discrete dictations. And I think that when people do read this, they will -- they will come away with a different impression of Mark Twain, if they've had one to begin with.
REHMRobert Hirst, he's the general editor of the Mark Twain Project. He's official curator of the Mark Twain Papers, housed the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. He's also the editor of "Who Is Mark Twain?" With a question mark after it and did the work on this book help you to answer?
HIRSTWell, it's important for me to say that I'm not the editor of this book. If I were the editor or an editor, I would be on the title and I am not on the title page. I'm the general editor. I'm the guy who opens up the doors and opens the windows and turns on the air conditioning and waits for people to come in and get the work done. That's what I do.
REHMBut you're certainly looking over everybody's shoulder as a...
HIRSTDon't tell them that. They might be a little intimidated if they thought I was looking over their shoulder.
REHMAnd we'll certainly invite your questions, comments, 800-433-8850, send your email to email@example.com. When we come back, we're going to talk about some of Mark Twain's political views, his view of organized religion, his feelings and thoughts about particular people of that age. Stay with us.
REHMAnd we're talking about the "Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1." The general editor of the Mark Twain project is Robert Hirst, we'll call him Bob. He's here in the studio with me. This book is heavy, it's big. I'm stunned that within weeks of publication this huge autobiography landed on best seller lists around the country. Here's an e-mail from Peter who says, "The copy of the Twain biography, a most thoughtful gift from my son for my 65th birthday, is presently weighing down one end of my coffee table. It took three people to place it there and it's only part one," he says. "I'm still on the introduction. What do you think Twain would have had to say about the amount of scholarship elbowing its way into this book?"
HIRSTWell, I'm not sure I know what Mark Twain would've said. I worked very hard to find out what he actually did say. What he would've said is sort of, love my (word?), but I'll take a guess. Mark Twain was subject to flattery and he knew it. He loved flattery, he loved to be praised and I think he would at least, to some extent, regard all this effort and the number of pages even as -- as a kind of praise. I wouldn't say that it's impossible that he wouldn't have something sarcastic or sly to say about editors spending all this time on his work, but I can't actually think of what that would be.
REHMHere's an e-mail from Chris in Bainbridge, Ohio. He says, "I'm a fan of Mr. Twain, however, I'm amazed he specified the 100-year restriction on publishing of his autobiography. What made him believe the world would be interested in his commentary 100 years after his death? It seems somewhat arrogant."
HIRSTWell, I suppose you could call it arrogant or you could call it self-confident. Mark Twain was quite sure that it would be of interest to the reading public in the future. And he's a man who doesn't lack self-confidence, let's face it. He's a guy who really thinks very highly of his own talents and he thought very highly of this invention, this new way of doing an autobiography. He was sure, in fact, that -- or he said he was sure that all future autobiographies be written this way. And of course, they haven't and some likely they will be written this way.
HIRSTBut I think it's quite clear that Mark Twain didn't mean literally 100 years. For instance, as he goes through the manuscript, he says, well, here's one about religion. This one can't be published for 500 years or he'll say about this one, this can't be for 50 years. What he's saying, really, is it can't be published for a long time after I'm dead so that I won't be affected by what it says, people won't come at me and try to hang me or run me out of town and so that my kids won't suffer from it and their income from my books won't suffer from it and their grandkids won't suffer from it. But he wants to protect the people that are going to be damaged by what he says from what he says.
REHMHe certainly holds some disdainful views about religion.
HIRSTYes, he does. Very much so. I mean, for instance there, the things that he says can't be published for 500 years are series of dictations in which he really does let himself out about that. They're not in this volume. They won't come out until the second volume. They're in June of 1906. But there's no question that these are very severe critiques, sarcastic critiques of what we think of as the Christian religion and they were so sarcastic that when Charles Neider wanted to publish them in 1959 with his edition of the autobiography, Clara Clemens, who is still alive, prevented him from doing so. She thought this would damage her father's reputation to have anyone be able to read what he actually said about Christianity.
REHMWas it organized religion or was it faith?
HIRSTWell, I mean, he does say, faith is believing what you know ain't so, but I do think it is principally organized religion that he has a quarrel with. He doesn't think it's sincere. He doesn't think it's honest and he doesn't think that it's in touch with reality. So he's -- he's got a lot of complaints about it and they tend to kind of crop up -- his views tend to crop up in almost anything he has to say about religious matters. Even if he's talking about his friend, Joe Twitchell, and he's likely to kind of twit Twitchell about certain aspects of his faith. He doesn't pull his punches with his friends.
REHMHe also takes issue with a great deal that the United States government does. For example, he talks about My Lai, he talks about the Philippines War.
HIRSTThat's right. I mean, he doesn't talk about My Lai 'cause nothing's happened yet, but he does talk about what we did in the Philippines and the Moros -- execution of the Moros. I mean, basically 600 natives, women and children, hiding in a kinda volcano cone that were surrounded by American troops and basically annihilated from on high. I think we lost something like 15 or 16 soldiers to the fire and they lost all 650. And he has an extended sarcastic account of this that I'm afraid will read all too much like what we know about goes on even now, My Lai being just an example.
REHMOf course. And so what's going on now would, I'm sure, bring his thoughts to the fore. He wrote quite a few withering comments about various people. Tell us about Frances Paxton.
HIRSTWell, Frances Paxton is the real name, so-called, of the Countess Massiglia, who is the landlady he rents his villa from in Florence when he and the family go there in early 1904 because Olivia, his wife, is suffering from heart disease. And the doctors have recommended the climate of Italy. And this woman, actually an American, proceeds to kind of torture them by all kinds of crazy behavior as the landlady of this villa. I mean, turning off the water, preventing all kinds of things from happening, tearing out the telephone. He goes on and it's a long, long list of things.
REHMHe calls her pestiferous.
HIRSTYes, he calls her pestiferous and a lot of other things. I mean, he has -- when Mark Twain gets going on telling you what he doesn't like about someone, he has a lot of resources that he calls them. He can be a lot of fun if you're not the person being attacked.
REHMHe experienced a great deal of tragedy...
HIRSTYes, he did.
REHM...in his life. Talk about that.
HIRSTWell, Mark Twain is, I think, one of the most remarkable people to endure that kind of tragedy. He's sometimes portrayed as a lier figure, but I think it's actually much more accurate to say that he's resilient beyond belief. He never finally succumbs to any of the things that you and I might succumb to. I mean, when his favorite daughter, Susy, dies at the age of 24 while the family is away. I mean, they're not even home with her when she dies. That's a very big blow. And yet Mark Twain continues to write after that. He completes an entire book in less a than a year.
REHMI was stunned to read what he wrote after she died. He said, her life was beautiful up until then. She died at almost a good moment...
REHM...in her life because she would not have to endure what happened afterwards.
HIRSTThat's correct. And he says, if it'd been up to me, I would not have brought her back to life if I could have. I might have brought her back to life for my wife, but not for myself. So he does see this as a kind of -- well, I won't call it justice, but a positive side of her having died young.
REHMAnd wasn't there even another...
REHM...who died at a very young age?
HIRSTYes. Jean, the youngest, dies before she's 30 in the bathtub of his home in Redding, Conn. on Christmas Eve day, 1909. She's been -- she's an epileptic and she's been in institutions for a number of months and she's finally come home and is having a great time decorating the house for Christmas, which was very important to Clemens. And she goes up -- she says goodnight to him and goes up and the next thing he hears, in the morning, that she's died in the bathtub. And that's when he sits down and writes -- and this is very typical of Mark Twain -- instead of going away and weeping, he sits down and writes a long memoir of her. And he says, this is the end of the autobiography. I think that is a very striking thing for him to have done.
REHMRobert Hirst and we're talking about the "Autobiography of Mark Twain." And we're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. To Gainesville, Fla. Good morning, Peter, you're on the air.
PETERGood morning. A great subject. I have a question about Mark Twain's literary use and the occurrences in his own life involving child abuse and the horrific treatment of children that occurs throughout all of his novels, horrible things that happen to children. And it appears that he had a somewhat desperate use himself. Is there any record or are there any indications in this new work that Twain himself was not only a subject of abuse, but he may have been an abuser? As is often the case when children are abused, they fall into similar patterns in adulthood. I'm originally from Hartford and I had heard stories of Twain being accused of improper conduct with children.
HIRSTWell, I suppose this kind of rumor is inevitable, but I frankly have been working on Mark Twain for 45 years. I've never seen any evidence of that anywhere and I'm talking about evidence. I'm talking about documentation, not rumor, not stories told by people. I would say that it's just wrong to say that Mark Twain abused his children. There's just no evidence of that. At one point, he does say he discovers that they were afraid of him. This is one way of thinking about abuse, I suppose, but this is a man with a temper. And as his oldest daughter, Susy, says, we all have a temper in this family. And so it doesn't surprise me that young kids might be afraid that their dad would blow up in ways that they couldn't anticipate. Well, that is a very far thing from abuse.
HIRSTAnd so I don't think there's really any substance to the notion that he abused his own children or frankly that he himself was abused. Now, when Mark Twain's growing up in Missouri, he is in a family that has been deprived of its father, of its earning individual. He is put out to work really at the age of 11 or 12 because he won't go to school. His older brother is already a typesetter. He becomes a typesetter and there's no indication to me that his family abused him.
HIRSTNow, being an apprentice typesetter in Missouri was not exactly a bowl of cherries. You got only hand-me-down clothes, as he says. He talks about this in the autobiography. You only got hand-me-down clothes and you basically had a kind of rough life. You weren't paid anything and you couldn't go anywhere, but he makes the best of it. He turns himself into a perfectly good typesetter and eventually joins his brother on the Hannibal News and goes on from there. So I don't know where those rumors come from. It doesn't surprise me that they're out there, but I don't think they have any basis in fact.
REHMRobert Hirst, he's general editor of the Mark Twain Project. We're talking about the "Autobiography of Mark Twain," the first of three volumes just released and already very much a bestseller. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." One thing I wanted to ask you about, while Twain was training to be a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, he convinced his younger brother to work...
REHM...Henry to work with him.
HIRSTWell, he basically got him a job on the steamboat where Clemens -- Sam was actually a pilot -- or actually an apprentice pilot. He wasn't actually a pilot. He was still an apprentice at that point. And Henry was living in St. Louis and just sitting around not doing anything, so it was kind of a favor, as far as he was concerned, that he would get his brother a job as what's called the mud clerk. It's the third level of clerk on the steamboat and then you're called mud clerk because you had to get off the boat when it landed and your feet got muddy
HIRSTIn any case, yes, Henry is on the Pennsylvania and he actually is hit by the actual pilot when Sam is in the pilot house. And Sam attacks the pilot, knocks him down and wrestles with him, let's the boat go on its own down the river, beats this guy up and then is separated from him by the captain. The captain says, you basically cannot stay on this boat. You have to go back to St. Louis on some other boat and so he does, but that means he leaves Henry behind.
HIRSTAnd then the Pennsylvania, on the trip up from New Orleans, blows up and kills a lot of people. We don't actually know how many people. A hundred wouldn't be a far big mistake. And among them is Henry Clemens who survives for several days, but then dies of his wounds in Memphis. So that's a kind of a deep black moment for Mark Twain. He is not a believer at this point, but he actually says, I stopped and prayed to ask God to, let this cup pass from my lips. So he was very bitter about it, he was very deeply touched by it. It didn't, however, prevent him from going back on the river. That's a -- another example of what I would call Mark Twain's resilience. He feels it very deeply, but it doesn't incapacitate him.
REHMAnd what about his relationship with his wife, Olivia, Livy?
HIRSTWell, it's a wonderful relationship. I mean, if you've studied anything of the Victorian period, you're going to have a tough time finding someone who is absolutely loyal to his wife for a long, long, long time for their entire marriage, from 1870 to 1904 when she died. She is a wealthy young lady -- or from a wealthy family with some education and great loyalty to him.
REHMHow did they meet?
HIRSTHow did they meet? It's a very good question. When Mark Twain goes off on the Quaker City in 1867, this is with a bunch of folks from around the country who wanna go to the Holy Land and see what that's all about. They're very religious, they're rather old, but there are also some folks on the boat who are younger, including a man named Charlie Langdon, who is Olivia's younger brother. He becomes one of the Quaker City Nighthawks, as Mark Twain calls them. They have fun, they play poker and so forth and so on. And so when he gets back, he is actually introduced to the family and he meets Olivia Langdon. They go to hear Dickens read in New York City at the end of 1867.
HIRSTAnd then Mark Twain goes on New Year's calling day, just after that event, and Olivia's at this place where he's calling and he said he had 30 calls on his list and he managed to kind of postpone 29 of them until next year 'cause he stayed there all the day talking to Livy. And then all of a sudden, he has to go out to California to take care of something having to do with the book that he's writing. And when he does come back, he goes out to Elmira and he proposes to Olivia within a matter of days.
REHMWe're talking about "The Autobiography of Mark Twain" with Robert Hirst. Short break and right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. Mark Twain is our subject in this hour. We're talking about a new autobiography put together by many scholars over the past six years. However, my guest, Robert Hirst, has been working on Mark Twain for 40 years or so. Let's go back to the phones to Saugus, Mass. Good morning, Carol.
CAROLHow are you?
REHMFine, thank you.
CAROLI just wanted to comment when you had asked if he had lost a child very young, I read a biography of Mark Twain years ago. And I believe he had three daughters and a son. And the son died at two years old after, according to the book, he had -- Mark Twain had taken the boy out for a carriage ride just for some air and he caught a chill and died. So basically, three of his four children died before he did and I think that's pretty much a tragedy.
REHMI should say. Bob Hirst.
HIRSTWell, that's essentially correct. I mean, we have to remember that in the 19th century, infant mortality was considerably higher than it is today. And Mark Twain's own family, he loses two of his siblings, Margaret and Benjamin, before he himself grows up. Only four of the seven children in that family reach maturity. But your memory is correct. Langdon was born in November of 1870. He does die somewhere in the area of April 1872.
HIRSTThe story that Mark Twain gives in the autobiography of his having been the cause of this death, namely being taking him for a carriage ride and getting distracted and allowing him to be uncovered, we know is not true. We know it's true because his sister-in-law, Susie Crane, who was intimately involved with all this, close to him at all times, writes a long letter to this autobiographer -- I mean, to his biographer, Paine, and explains in great detail that his memory that he was the cause of this is simply wrong and...
REHMHow does she recall it happening?
HIRSTWell, she recalls that it was not the disease and not the cause that he remembers. He dies in the spring in Hartford and not -- no, not in the winter.
REHMIn the winter.
HIRSTAnd I mean, it's a very circumstantial account. She says among other things that Sam Clemens had this propensity for taking blame for things that he really wasn't to blame for. And I think that is why they recognized among scholars as a characteristic of Mark Twain.
REHMHere's an e-mail from R.L. who says, "Can you clarify Mark Twain's church going? I understood that he, along with people like Harriet Beecher Stowe, attended the Congregational church on occasion, which has always been highly critical of church and self-critical, even as churchgoers. If this is true, does leaving this out distort our perception of Twain's view of church?"
HIRSTWell, I hope we aren't leaving it out. We do report exactly what he does do with respect to church. One of his best friends in Hartford is Joe Twitchell, who is the long time minister of the Asylum Congregational Church. And we know that Mark Twain frequently attended this church, even though he was by all other accounts, a nonbeliever. I think you'd have to say that Mark Twain recognized the social function of anything like a church and he recognized that it was important for the community to be able to come together in that way, whether or not they believed in the supernal God that was -- supposedly they were praying to. So I don't think it's fair to say that we leave out of account his attendance on church, we just don't make of it quite what I think you're making of it.
REHMAll right. To Dayton, Ohio. Brian, good morning.
BRIANGood morning. I have two quick questions. First, what was Twain doing during the beginning of the civil war in 1861? I think he would've been about 26 then and I know he went west. And the second question is, I see that his mother lived until she was 87. What was his relationship with her as he grew older and as she did?
HIRSTWell, let's see if I can remember both questions (laugh).
REHMI have them for you.
HIRSTOkay. What was he doing at the beginning of the civil war? Mark Twain was a full-fledged licensed pilot going up and down the Mississippi when the war broke out. He was on the last boat to get through the blockade that was put at the top of the river. And soon thereafter, he joined a militia group of about dozen of his friends that were extensively preparing to kind of resist the invasion of the Union forces. The governor of Missouri was interested in seceding, but of course, Missouri did not secede. Any case, he only stays with that group for two weeks and it's the kind of...
REHMRag tag group.
HIRST...rag tag group. I mean, they're not -- there's not members of the southern forces, they're simply state militia. In any case, his older brother, Orion, is appointed by Lincoln to be the secretary of Nevada territory. Orion has been helping Lincoln get addressed, get elected and so Orion now has to go out to Nevada. He doesn't have any money to get there. Clemens has been earning money as a pilot, so they go out together. And he's anticipating they will serve the secretary as his secretary. But of course, that doesn't quite work out. He thinks that the war will be over in two or three months and of course, it's not. And so he goes out to Nevada, works for his brother for a brief period and then gets interested in silver mining and prospecting and so forth and so on.
REHMSo he stays out there.
HIRSTHe stays out there. When he runs out of money looking for silver or gold, he never finds any, he takes a job as a newspaper reporter in Virginia City on the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, which is a remarkable newspaper that allowed him to do exactly what he was best at, to make up news and to write fiction and also to be an excellent reporter of various real things like the Territorial Legislature. It's a kind of training that no one else, I suppose, whoever became a famous literary figure ever had.
REHMAnd then did he move on to California or stay in...
HIRSTWell, he definitely moved on to California. He got himself involved in a challenge, carrying a challenge for a duel, which was illegal in Nevada territory. And he could easily have been arrested and imprisoned for doing so. So he's advised to leave town and he does. He goes to San Francisco and he gets a job on the newspaper there and then that ends after about four months. He's not really a very good reporter. And then he takes various other jobs writing literary works for the Californian and for the Golden Era, but eventually comes up against a kind of block. He really doesn't know what to do with himself. He knows he has this talent, but being a humorist meant accepting a kind of low social position and he wasn't about to do that.
HIRSTSo it's not really until the end of 1865 that he makes up his mind that he is actually gonna take advantage of this humorist talent, this haler for humorous literature, which he says, literature of a low order, i.e. humorous. And from that point on, end of 1865 on, he is aimed at becoming something -- doing something with this talent. And I would say that in 20 years, he changes the public reception of what a humorist is to the kind of thing that we think of as the author of "Huckleberry Finn."
REHMAnd Brian's second point in regard to his relationship with this mother.
HIRSTWell, his relationship with his mother is one of those things that we can't know enough about, let me put it that way. It's always a very playful relationship and it's always a very, I would say, humorous relationship in the sense that he's always joking with her and she's joking with him. There's an anecdote in this autobiography about her talking about his being a sickly child. And he says, well, I guess you were worried that I wouldn't live. And she pauses and said, no, worried that you would. And there are many such anecdotes.
HIRSTNow, the downside of it is that when his sister-in-law, Molly, dies, he's away and she has charge of all of his correspondence with his mother. And the executor writes and says what should he do with these letters. And Mark Twain says, burn them. And the executor, unfortunately, did.
REHMBurned them. Here's an e-mail from Marsha who says, "Sam Clemens' mother had a great influence in building awareness and sympathy for slaves in Hannibal, Missouri. And the Clemens' family rented a young slave boy. This experience shows up in Twain's writings. I'd like to hear Bob Hirst comment on this."
HIRSTWell, that's a very perceptive remark. The story that I think you're remembering, which does occur in the autobiography, is about Sandy. As you say, Sandy was not a slave owned by the Clemens, but rented. They originally did own slaves, but they were too poor to maintain ownership, so when they needed help, they rented them.
HIRSTAnd the story that Clemens tells about himself is that Sandy would be always singing. And he was singing incessantly and it annoyed Sam. And he once goes to his mother and says, would you please, you know, tell Sandy to shut up? And his mother says, now, look, you know, he's been separated from his family. He doesn't have a family any longer. And so when I hear him singing, I know that he isn't thinking about his family, he's thinking something more positive, something happier.
HIRSTAnd that's why Clemens says, I dropped my objection basically to his singing. I think it's a classic case of Mark Twain telling a story about himself that is part of the education that he's receiving from his family and the education he's receiving over a long time about what his relationship to blacks is going to be. Something that was not typical outside of Missouri.
REHMLet's go to St. Louis, Mo. Good morning, Barbara.
BARBARAGood morning. Thank you. I was wondering, I had read "The War Prayer" and I was surprised by it because -- it was well written of course, but -- against war and I was surprised to read in the book that it said he didn't want it published until after his death. And you mentioned that -- some of that earlier, but I was wondering in his -- anything that you found, has he mentioned anywhere about the war or how he felt about war and whether it was just a matter of that time for him to have published that or come out with it, it would've been devastating to him? I just wasn't sure what the reason was that he wouldn't publish it.
HIRSTWell, I think we know just a little bit about this. Actually, he writes it. And when he writes it in 1905, he is under contract to the Harper's to offer them anything that he does write. They get basically what's called first refusal. And he sends it to Harper's Bazaar, which is actually a woman's magazine. It's not what you would call a kind of political magazine, by any means. And he actually sends that in something else. And they accept the something else. I can't remember what that other thing is. And they turn this down and they sent it back. They say it's not suitable for (laugh) a women's magazine.
HIRSTAnd Dan Beard, who was one of his favorite illustrators, is there when this happens and he says, I guess I really am not gonna be able to publish it now in my lifetime. And he says, basically I understand why Colonel Harvey would not be able to publish this. He has a responsibility to his shareholders, so I will keep it and let it be published after I am dead.
REHMRobert Hirst and we're talking about "The Autobiography of Mark Twain." And speaking of war, did he converse directly with General Grant?
HIRSTOh, absolutely. He was a good friend of Grant's and admired Grant for all kinds of reasons, not just his performance in the war, which was extraordinary, but for his ability to write and to speak clearly as well. This is something that he had a kind of fundamental little feeling about with Grant. And he is instrumental, I would say, in persuading Grant to write his memoirs and then also instrumental in getting them published in a way that was gonna make a lot of money for the Grant family. Grant is writing these memoirs when he's dying of throat cancer and he's actually suffering as he's going along and basically not sure that he can complete it.
HIRSTMark Twain helps him get it done and then he publishes it for him through Mark Twain's own publishing house. And I think the ultimate, you know, royalty check to the Grant family 'cause Grant dies shortly after it's completed, I think even before it's published, the royalty check is on the order of half a million dollars.
REHMInteresting. To Waxahachie, Texas.
REHMGood morning, Natalie.
NATALIEThanks for taking the call.
REHMSure. Go right ahead.
NATALIEI have what they call a slim volume called "Mark Twain's Autobiography and First Romance."
HIRSTMm-hmm. "Burlesque Autobiography," yes.
NATALIEI'll bet you know about it. It's published in 1871.
HIRSTYes. I do know about it. Doesn't it say "Burlesque Autobiography?"
NATALIEThat's where I was going. On the first...
HIRSTMm-hmm. It is a Burlesque. I mean, Mark Twain was interested in autobiography for a long time and this is an example of something that he is hoping to make a lot of money on fast, so he puts into a little tiny pamphlet that's issued -- he hopes it's gonna be issued for Christmas in 1870. It's delayed until March, 1871 and it sells dozens and dozens of copies, but it doesn't really make him any money. I mean and the "Burlesque Autobiography" is just exactly that. It's all about his ancestors and how each and every one of them was destined to be hung and how some of them actually were hung.
REHMAnd here's the last e-mail from John in Mooresville, N.C. He says, "Last night, actor Hal Holbrook was in my hometown of Elmira, N.Y. performing his one man "Mark Twain Tonight." It would've been Mark Twain's 175th birthday. The crowd sang "Happy Birthday" to the actor Twain. Elmira is the home of his wife, Olivia, the final resting place of Samuel Clemens. To echo your point about Twain's popularity, the show was a sellout." But one of our callers wants to know whether anything in this autobiography might change that performance?
HIRSTI don't believe it will. That's to say I don't think there's anything in here which has that kind of disruptive or contrary affect. It's partly because the manuscript for the autobiography from which this is based, of course, has been available to scholars for years. We use it all the time to annotate his letters and things like that. And so anything that is radical or unknown has been soused out long ago. I think no, this will give you I think a reaffirmation of your positive view of Mark Twain. It'll be a kind of more intimate view than you've ever had before. It's like listening to Mark Twain talk directly to you, having a conversation with you on the back porch.
REHMRobert Hirst, he's general editor of the Mark Twain Project, official curator of the Mark Twain Papers. We've been talking about "Autobiography of Mark Twain." This is the first of three volumes. It is absolutely fascinating. Thank you so much for being here.
HIRSTThank you very much.
REHMMy pleasure. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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