Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Mark Twain scholarship continues with new revelations

This is intended to be a three volume tome with volume one being released this November.

"Unlocking More of Mark Twain's Unpublished Material"


Spencer Michels

July 7th, 2010

PBS Newshour

Mark Twain had a lot to say, and most of it was funny. Reading his novels and essays, it doesn't seem like he pulled his punches; he said what he wanted, and a lot of it was pretty radical for the times. But as it turned out, he restrained himself greatly, not publishing many things he wrote and wanted to write. In the last few years of his life he dictated his autobiography -- not a cradle-to-grave account of his life, but a series of thoughts and feelings he wanted to share with the world.

But not right away.

He decreed that the autobiography be withheld from publication for a hundred years after his death (and in one case 400 years!), probably not to insult and injure his contemporaries or his own family. He died in 1910; this is 2010, and the University of California, Berkeley, and the Mark Twain Project, housed there, are finally publishing the autobiography of arguably America's greatest writer. That's the subject of a report by producer Joanne Elgart Jennings, cameraman Jason Lelchuk and me on Wednesday's PBS NewsHour.

Putting the autobiography together and sustaining the work has not been easy. The Mark Twain Project has been examining and editing Twain's papers since they arrived at in Berkeley in the 1940s, on orders from Twain's only surviving child, Clara. Editors working in Bancroft Library have sifted through a million pages of manuscript and typescript, publishing new, annotated editions of Twain's works, with voluminous footnotes explaining where Twain got his material, where he was accurate, what the words no longer in our language meant. There are 10,000 letters Twain wrote in the collection -- perhaps a fifth of all the letters he wrote. It's tough, detailed work to document practically every move in the writer's life.

And not without controversy. Funding for the Mark Twain Project was in jeopardy several times, as some scholars and politicians questioned whether it was a good idea to spend government money from the National Endowment for the Humanities to trace the life and works of one humorist.

At Berkeley, they work on what are called textual editions that focus on the problem of how the text should read, given the various documents that support it. The kind of work done by the editors is no longer in vogue among many academics, according to Robert Hirst, the general editor of the Mark Twain Project.

He says English departments - including UC Berkeley's -- aren't interested any more in researching the author and when and why he wrote something: "It is ...unfashionable to teach this kind of stuff..."

He bemoans the fact that graduate students don't even learn about textual editing.

"It's not a good idea it seems to me to send graduate students out into the world, Ph.D.s out into the world without some knowledge of how texts are constructed by editors, without some knowledge of how things can get distorted and made wrong simply by the process of transmission."

Still, the project has survived for half a century, and there is plenty of Twain material in the "vault" that remains unpublished and undiscovered.

Among that unpublished material is a bright little essay called "Concerning the Interview" that Twain dashed off in 1889.

Mark Twain's "Concerning the Interview"...the original pages

Here is the complete text...

"Concerning the 'Interview.'"

1889 or 1890

No one likes to be interviewed, and yet no one likes to say no; for interviewers are courteous and gentle-mannered, even when they come to destroy. I must not be understood to mean that they ever come consciously to destroy or are aware afterward that they have destroyed; no, I think their attitude is more that of the cyclone, which comes with the gracious purpose of cooling off a sweltering village, and is not aware, afterward, that it has done that village anything but a favor. The interviewer scatters you all over creation, but he does not conceive that you can look upon that as a disadvantage. People who blame a cyclone, do it because they do not reflect that compact masses are not a cyclone's idea of symmetry. People who find fault with the interviewer, do it because they do not reflect that he is but a cyclone, after all, though disguised in the image of God, like the rest of us; that he is not conscious of harm even when he is dusting a continent with your remains, but only thinks he is making things pleasant for you; and that therefore the just way to judge him is by his intentions, not his works.

The Interview was not a happy invention. It is perhaps the poorest of all ways of getting at what is in a man. In the first place, the interviewer is the reverse of an inspiration, because you are afraid of him. You know by experience that there is no choice between these disasters. No matter which he puts in, you will see at a glance that it would have been better if he had put in the other: not that the other would have been better than this, but merely that it wouldn't have been this; and any change must be, and would be, an improvement, though in reality you know very well it wouldn't. I may not make myself clear: if that is so, then I have made myself clear--a thing which could not be done except by not making myself clear, since what I am trying to show is what you feel at such a time, not what you think--for you don't think; it is not an intellectual operation; it is only a going around in a confused circle with your head off. You only wish in a dumb way that you hadn't done it, though really you don't know which it is you wish you hadn't done, and moreover you don't care: that is not the point; you simply wish you hadn't done it, whichever it is; done what, is a matter of minor importance and hasn't anything to do with the case. You get at what I mean? You have felt that way? Well, that is the way one feels over his interview in print.

Yes, you are afraid of the interviewer, and that is not an inspiration. You close your shell; you put yourself on your guard; you try to be colorless; you try to be crafty, and talk all around a matter without saying anything: and when you see it in print, it makes you sick to see how well you succeeded. All the time, at every new change of question, you are alert to detect what it is the interviewer is driving at now, and circumvent him. Especially if you catch him trying to trick you into saying humorous things. And in truth that is what he is always trying to do. He shows it so plainly, works for it so openly and shamelessly, that his very first effort closes up that reservoir, and his next one caulks it tight. I do not suppose that a really humorous thing was ever said to an interviewer since the invention of his uncanny trade. Yet he must have something "characteristic;" so he invents the humorisms himself, and interlards them when he writes up his interview. They are always extravagant, often too wordy, and generally framed in "dialect"--a non-existent and impossible dialect at that. This treatment has destroyed many a humorist. But that is no merit in the interviewer, because he didn't intend to do it.

There are plenty of reasons why the Interview is a mistake. One is, that the interviewer never seems to reflect that the wise thing to do, after he has turned on this and that and the other tap, by a multitude of questions, till he has found one that flows freely and with interest, would be to confine himself to that one, and make the best of it, and throw away the emptyings he had secured before. He doesn't think of that. He is sure to shut off that stream with a question about some other matter; and straightway his one poor little chance of getting something worth the trouble of carrying home is gone, and gone for good. It would have been better to stick to the thing his man was interested in talking about, but you would never be able to make him understand that. He doesn't know when you are delivering metal from when you are shoveling out slag, he can't tell dirt from ducats; it's all one to him, he puts in everything you say; then he sees, himself, that it is but green stuff and wasn't worth saying, so he tries to mend it by putting in something of his own which he thinks is ripe, but in fact is rotten. True, he means well, but so does the cyclone.

Now his interruptions, his fashion of diverting you from topic to topic, have in a certain way a very serious effect: they leave you but partly uttered on each topic. Generally, you have got out just enough of your statement to damage you; you never get to the place where you meant to explain and justify your position.

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