Experts On Humorist's Work To Give Overview Of His Final 'Autobiography'
October 10, 2010
Kerry Driscoll has been teaching about Mark Twain for more than 20 years and remains captivated by the man and his writing.
"He's still as funny as when I first encountered him. I still laugh out loud," says Driscoll, an English professor at St. Joseph College in West Hartford. "He's a very elusive, chameleonic writer who's hard to pin down, and that's what fascinates me."
Robert H. Hirst has been enthusiastically exploring Twain's vast legacy of personal and professional writings for more than 40 years.
"I'm continually surprised," says Hirst, one of the world's foremost experts on Twain, in a telephone conversation from California.
"You learn facts and interpretations you didn't know before. You can't read somebody's mail for 40 years" without having that happen, he says.
Hirst is general editor and curator of the Mark Twain Project and Papers at the University of California, Berkeley, whose team of researchers and editors will, after years of work, publish the first of three volumes of the "Autobiography of Mark Twain" ( University of California Press, $34.95) in November. The remaining volumes are expected within the next three years, Hirst says.
The autobiography contains much new material from typescripts of dictation by Twain that employed a digressive, conversational style unhampered by using a strict timeline, a method that had stalled his earlier attempts at telling his own story. (See accompanying story.)
On Nov. 13 at St. Joseph College, Hirst and Driscoll will join forces to present a free symposium from 1 to 5 p.m. titled "Mark Twain at 175: An American Icon Reconsidered." It is sponsored in partnership with the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford.
Driscoll. who is organizing the event, emphasizes it is not an academic conference but an opportunity for people to reassess "what they know and what they think they know about Mark Twain and to learn something they did not know about before."
Hirst will give the keynote address, "The Final & Right Plan: The Evolution of Mark Twain's Autobiography." Other speakers will include Bruce Michelson of the University of Illinois, on "Adam and Eve in Pictures and Words"; Gary Scharnhorst of the University of New Mexico, on "Mark Twain's Anti-Imperialism"; and Ann Ryan of LeMoyne College, on "Mark Twain and Eve: A Little-Girl Talk in the Garden."
Driscoll, who for the past 10 years has been researching Twain's ideas about American Indians for a book, says her aim as a teacher is to turn her students into "Twainiacs."
To some students, she says, he is "just another dead white guy," and sparking their interest is "a hard sell but can be done." Sometimes, she says, "Victorian language is like a wall, but with Twain's writing, "you just ease right into it. It's his use of vernacular dialogue that charms, and his timeliness still resonates."
Humor, including Twain's, she says, "is always transgressive and pushes the envelope — it's shocking and unexpected. Hypocrisy and putting on airs were Twain's favorite target, she says: "You laugh and then wince."
But Twain is careful to poke fun at himself as well. "His self-deprecation is an important strategy" in charming his readers, Driscoll says.
Twain is "a moralist in disguise," says Hirst. "Greed, pride and hypocrisy are always with us and never go away. We enjoy someone who can nail them, and he does so brilliantly. But he's not talking down to his readers. That's how humor should work."
Given America's current political upheavals, "It's too bad he's not still alive to use his acerbic wit to size up the situation," Driscoll says. "He disliked zealotry in all its forms. I think he would have had a skeptical reaction to the Tea Party movement."
Driscoll says the idea that Twain became a raging, bitter man in his final years is "a stereotypical generalization."
"He kept his joie de vivre 'til he took his last breath," she says. "And looking back on his Hartford years, he lived a charmed life here."
Hirst agrees: "It's a myth that he gets darker, because he was always dark about the human condition."
Hirst says the new complete and authoritative autobiography is "the cherry on top" for Twain scholars.
Its heart is the typescripts of four years' worth of dictation, begun in 1906 — more than 5,000 manuscript pages — given by his estate to the Mark Twain Papers archive, which contains more than 10 file feet of primary material written by Twain. Sorting through this vast treasury was a difficult but rewarding task, Hirst says.
"We all thought it was an unfinished chaotic manuscript," he says, "and yet the editors figured out he had finished it."
They had to distinguish between multiple typed copies of the dictated memories and handwritten notes on the pages by Twain and his editors at the time.
He says those editors, who — against Twain's clear wishes — forced the material into a chronological frame and often edited his words, "were not freed from commercial necessities" and had to deal with Twain's family's concerns. "I don't want to criticize them for that.
"They were intimidated by the text itself, but to act as though Twain "didn't know how to write his own autobiography, that's chutzpah," Hirst says.
"It took a while to figure it out, and that's what we had," he says. "Once you understand it, it's simple and straightforward. It was an enormous privilege" to work on the material, Hirst says. "We had a good time."
When he gives talks, he says, "I speak to remind people why we still love Mark Twain. It's easy to forget how funny he was, how many things he wrote and how different they are.
"The picture is still changing, because we have new ways of finding information and how to grasp it. It's not all settled, and it's a terrific lot of fun."
To reserve a seat for the free Nov. 13 symposium at St. Joseph College, call 860-231-6740, (cq) or visit http://www.sjc.edu and its Mark Twain Symposium link.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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