Brace yourself: the latest, greatest edition of Mark Twain’s Autobiography is almost here


At Slate, I’ve got an essay on the crazy behind-the-scenes history of Mark Twain’s Autobiography and its various editions. The latest one just arrived, and, over the last six months, it’s been getting some unbelievable hype, thanks in large part to Twain’s instructions that it not be published until 100 years after his death. But I try to show that this story is now repeating itself for the fourth time — and that there’s not that much new in Twain’s new book. Twain clearly overestimated the scandalousness of his autobiography. (Van Wyck Brooks gets the best line on this: “He is going to have a spree, a debauch of absolutely reckless confession. He is going to tell things about himself, he is going to use all the bold, bad words that used to shock his wife.”) But what if he always intended the embargo as more of a marketing stunt than anything else? That’s the question I kept in mind while researching and writing my essay. And if this is what Twain intended, it worked better than even he could have hoped.

One thing I couldn’t get to in the essay was my problems with the new edition of Twain’s autobiography, which is coming out from the Mark Twain Project and the University of California Press. (What follows is of such limited appeal that I’m going to assume you know who Paine, DeVoto, and Neider are.) The new edition promises to be a major scholarly event, but it’s being treated like more of a popular or literary one. And the editors at the Twain Project have gleefully nodded along with the media’s embargo-driven excitement. (Well, they did push back on the vibrator.) In July, the Twain Project supplied the New York Times with “some of Twain’s spicier comments” for the newspaper’s front-page story on the new edition. But those comments were all published back in Paine’s edition! The attack on Theodore Roosevelt appears, in full, in Paine. So does the comment on Thanksgiving Day (though Paine fussily [and typically] swapped Twain’s “consequently” for “hence”). And while Paine did hold back some of the nastier flourishes in the third example, he still included Twain’s riff that Christianity “is now nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy.”

Here’s what the Times‘ reporter concluded:

In his unexpurgated autobiography, whose first volume is about to be published a century after his death, a very different Twain emerges, more pointedly political and willing to play the role of the angry prophet.

This simply isn’t true. That Twain emerged a long time ago; whether or not we’ve noticed is a different matter. I don’t fault the Times‘ reporter for this, just like I don’t fault Granta for hyping its “exclusive first excerpt” of Twain’s autobiography, an excerpt that appeared in full in both Paine and Neider’s editions. But I do fault the Twain Project. Again, as scholars, the editors at the Twain Project have done incredible work. They’re going to put the full autobiography (and its enormous number of variants) online for free. They’ve devoted 300 of the new volume’s 700 pages to a terrific textual apparatus. But these scholarly bells and whistles just make the Twain Project’s complicity with the hype that much more disappointing.

It also makes their treatment of Neider and DeVoto unconscionable. DeVoto represented an enormous improvement over Paine, opening the Twain Papers up to other scholars for the first time. (I’ve developed a bit of a scholarly crush on DeVoto and will, at some point, try to write another post on him and Twain.) But Neider and DeVoto show up in the new edition of Twain’s autobiography only to get knocked down. In what passes for an insult in scholarly circles, the editors at the Twain Project note that DeVoto modernized Twain’s punctuation “with great satisfaction.” There’s little mention of Clara’s crushing influence — which was, if anything, worse than what comes across in my Slate story. DeVoto and Neider were passionate, hard-working, underpaid scholar-critics who introduced Twain’s autobiography to several generations of readers. It’s a mistake to slight either their efforts or the impossible conditions under which they labored. In fact, even more than aiding and abetting the embargo-driven hype, it is a form of scholarly malpractice.


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