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

[Slate]

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the last six months, it’s been getting some unbelievable hype, thanks in large part to Twain’s instructions that it not be published until 100 years after his death.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.

The Dabbler

[New York Press]

In one of several recent cover stories — this one in The Advocate — James Franco complained about the early reactions to Palo Alto, his new collection of short stories:

If websites like Gawker.com or PerezHilton.com don’t like my writing, I can live with that. There is this crazy phenomenon in the blogosphere that is so hostile to anyone being creative, and if I incur that hostility from people who’ve probably read five short stories in the last 10 years, it doesn’t really bother me.

Fair enough. Gawker commenters dismiss Franco reflexively, while commenters on pure entertainment sites endorse him in the same way (sexy AND smart!). His new book does deserves a serious review, and that’s what I tried to give it in the New York Press.

The result, in short, is not pretty — better than Rivers Cuomo, but not nearly as good as Ethan Hawke. I have yet to run into Franco, here in New Haven, but I’ve got nothing against him personally and enjoy more than a few of his movies. As I mention in the review, I think it’s great that he’s going to grad school. But I also think that publishing a book is different. And that’s the main point I wanted to make: his book has siphoned editorial attention, effusive blurbs, media buzz, and literary shelf space from other, better books.

Let me give a positive example. Sam Munson’s The November Criminals, a debut novel I reviewed for the Wall Street Journal, is a wonderful read with all kinds of interesting and important things to say. Munson sets one great scene in a high school classroom, which happens to be the setting for one of Franco’s better short stories, too. It’s worthwhile to parallel them.

The November Criminals stars Addison Schacht, a nihilistic teenager who would fit right in with Franco’s cast. (Addison actually sells pot, so this would solve one of Palo Alto’s mysteries: where the characters get all their illicit substances.) Anyway, Addison is sitting in his English class, enduring a facile discussion of The Aeneid, his favorite book. When one of his pretty, smarmy classmates starts talking about how Virgil “glorified violence” and “prevented dialogue,” Addison loses it:

I launched into a speech, in a choked voice. ‘No, man, you’re missing the whole point. You can’t apply our virtues here. You can’t! They were operating under a whole different set of ideas. You can’t judge them. . . .

The scene goes on for another page or two (you can read it here), and there’s plenty of funny details and snappy writing. What makes it so good, though, is its relationship to everything that comes before and after. The whole novel is about judging — and about Addison’s attempt to make it through life with both evaluative standards and a measure of empathy. Munson manifests this in some interesting political ways, which I talked about in my Journal review. But it colors every interaction in the novel, including this one. It’s smartly done and terrifically open-ended.

Now, back to Franco. In “American History,” a history teacher has his class “act out a mock debate between the slave states and the free states.” Jeremy, the narrator, takes this assignment a little too seriously, offending several other characters, getting beat up, and creating a couple of genuinely and uncomfortably funny exchanges (“‘Hitler is timeless!’ screeched Stephen”). But this is marred by the writing — the “rocky stream” example I singled out in my review comes from this story — and, even more, by the motivations. Jeremy, it turns out, did it all for a girl. And the girl didn’t even notice.

This doesn’t ruin Franco’s story, by any means. But it does prevent it from achieving the insights and inventive appeal of something like The November Criminals. One of the more interesting things about adolescence is that, as in every stage of human development, each person remains very different. But in adolescence, we all try so hard to fit in. That’s a great dynamic for fiction to explore. Munson’s does. Franco’s, not so much.

The College-Exploitation Machine

[Lexington Herald-Leader]

Dustin Sinclair, an old college roommate and current good friend, and I co-wrote an op ed in the Lexington Herald-Leader on higher education’s growing costs and shrinking access. This is an enormously complex issue, of course, but we tried to highlight the overlooked influence of employers’ hiring expectations. Education experts seem to forget that, increasingly, businesses require college degrees for jobs where that just doesn’t make sense. Dustin and I argue that it’s time for employers to stop fixating on the four-year degree.

Sex, Lies, and Athletic Tape

[Deadspin]

Over at Deadspin, I’ve got a dispatch from this year’s Harvard-Yale game. It’s the 126th time the two have met, and, in both pretension and pageantry, it lives up to your expectations. One of my favorite details from this story was the dust-up over an (allegedly) politically incorrect T-shirt created by Yale students. The administration ended up pushing this anodyne design on the students—but not on too many, judging from the small number I saw at the tailgate.

I’ll include some more photos at the end of this post, but, first, here are a few things I couldn’t fit in. (I should also mention the many helpful books on Ivy League sports—and the fact that, with only two days to turn this story around, I had to skim most of them for the football sections. If the Matt Maloney era at Penn taught us anything, though, it’s that Ivy football is not alone.)

  • Speaking of books: near the end of my story, I mention The Only Game That Matters, a humbly titled history of Harvard-Yale football. Even with its hyper-literate potential audience, this book sold only 3,200 copies (Nielsen Book Scan) and is now out of print—another example of the Harvard-Yale rivalry producing more hype than results. I will point out that, in my copy, checked out from Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library, someone had enthusiastically underlined and starred a passage about how Harvard and Yale’s history predates the United States’. Another passage getting the underline-star treatment? “Beating Harvard was, is, and always will be the yardstick by which joy is measured in New Haven.” This, of course, is complete baloney.
  • One person I talked to while working on the story was Jim Fuller, who covers the Yale football beat for the New Haven Register (and runs a nice blog on the same subject). In 2009, the Ivy League replaced its annual media day with a conference call, and Jim argued that this decision will further diminish the League’s relevance. Last year, when a victory over Yale would have given Brown a share of the Ivy title, the Bears’ coach didn’t even come out for interviews because no local media showed up. One other metamedia note: I found it fascinating how many of these odes to the Ivy League mentioned the success former players were having on Wall Street. We’ll have to see how the post-populist coverage of The Game evolves.
  • Let me also draw your attention to “Yale and Athletics” [.pdf], a 1980 address delivered by Yale president A. Bartlett Giamatti. Giamatti—professor of English, commissioner of baseball, and father of Paul—offers a knee-buckling display of erudition. Citing everything from a decade-by-decade comparison of Yale varsity sports’ winning percentage to a long passage from John Henry Newman, Giamatti lays out college athletics’ twinned heritage from the Greeks and nineteenth-century English educators. He also offers some refreshing transparency: “We need always to recall that the production of revenue is as much a part of the picture of Yale athletics as the provision of services and opportunities.”
  • From Bartlett to some quotations overheard at this year’s tailgate: “I was just last weekend at the Stanford-USC game. It’s been a big eight days for me!”; “Man up! It’s Harvard-Yale. Man up!”; “Look, it’s Jeremy Shockey” [This was a Harvard frat guy calling out a Yale frat guy, and I have to say: Yale students struck me as about 30 percent more grating, though this might have been some kind of home-field advantage].

Deadspin ran its own Harvard-Yale gallery, but here are a few I snapped myself. If nothing else, they’ll serve as a reminder that The Game attracts more than just doltish undergrads.

[But doltish undergrads are the most fun, aren’t they?]



Lewis Hyde Practices What He Preaches

[The Millions]

Over at The Millions, I’ve got a post on Lewis Hyde and his absurdly overlooked “Frames from the Framers: How America’s Revolutionaries Imagined Intellectual Property.” It’s a great essay with real-world relevance—both to downloading music, which Hyde examines in the essay itself, and to the Google Books settlement, which he takes up (with some of the same quotes and ideas) in this recent NYTBR essay.

I’m actually working on a longer story on Google Books (more specifically, on its covert scanning operations in . . . Indiana!), and I’m starting to think that Hyde’s idealism might hamstring him there in the same way it does in his “Frames from the Framers.” But we need more idealists, not fewer.

You can download Hyde’s entire essay here.

Why Are Were Artists Poor?

[x-posted at The Rumpus]

Reading Jeremy Hatch’s post on Andrew Keen and starving artists, I couldn’t help but think of Joel Barlow (1754-1812). Barlow was a poet, one of the Connecticut Wits, to be precise, so my mental leap probably owes more to the fact that I was reading Barlow right before I clicked over to The Rumpus than to anything else.

Still, there is a connection. In 1783, Barlow wrote a letter to Elias Boudinot, the president of the Continental Congress: “As we have few Gentlemen of fortune sufficient to enable them to spend a whole life in study, or enduce others to do it by their patronage, it is more necessary, in this country than in any other, that the rights of authors be secured by law.”

At this point, America didn’t have anything resembling modern copyright law—England had just finalized its pioneering policy in 1774—and Barlow outlined how this was hampering artists like Timothy Dwight, future president of Yale and current author of The Conquest of Canaan. The Conquest of Canaan was perhaps the first American epic poem, “a work of great merit,” according to Barlow, though it’s probably better described as “ambitious.” Dwight had been sitting on his creation for six years because, in Barlow’s words, “the Author cannot risque the expences of the publication, sensible that some ungenerous Printer will immediately seize upon his labors, making a mean & cheap impression [i.e., an edition], in order to undersell the Author & defraud him of his property.”

In what now seems like a rather silly instance of “states’ rights,” Connecticut passed its own copyright law in 1783. Slowly, the other states followed, with national copyright coming in 1790. But copyright was only the first step to solving Barlow’s problems—authors still had to find a way to earn a living, as William Charvat argues in his Profession of Authorship in America: 1800-1870, where I first encountered Barlow’s story.

Charvat’s book is now an academic classic—the library copy I’m reading has more pencil in it than a third-grade classroom—even though he never finished it. Charvat died at 61, leaving behind a jumble of papers and notes and a preliminary table of contents. His colleagues at Ohio State came together and forged a fitting tribute. Matthew Bruccoli, a young professor who would become the world’s top Fitzgerald scholar, edited the text as best he could, using a system of brackets to mark materials Charvat “may have intended to delete or shift or rewrite,” as Howard Mumford Jones explained in his “Foreword” to the book.[1]

Anyway, Charvat shows how early American authors, far from receiving advances, actually had to pay to publish their works. Authors fronted the money, publishers distributed the product, and nobody made a livable wage. Barlow ended up working as a chaplain in the Continental Army and writing The Vision of Columbus, his own ambitious epic, on the side. The best an author could hope for was to sell subscriptions to his potential masterpiece based on a prospectus. (Here, the military bailed Barlow out again: 117 of his 769 subscribers for The Vision of Columbus were officers.)

Barlow was one of those unfortunate souls who outlive their art. But he deserves credit for being perhaps the first American to talk about the financial realities of writing—and at a time when his gentleman friends considered such talk tawdry and cheap.

Today, of course, we talk (and tweet) about little else. I find it reassuring to remember that people—thinking, breathing, 3-D people—have worried about protecting copyright, finding an audience, and getting paid for a long time.

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[1] Jones’s “Foreword” is a fascinating document in the history of academic criticism, if you’re in to that sort of thing. The Profession of Authorship in America came out in 1968, two years after the game-changing “Languages of Criticism and Sciences of Man” conference. Jones does praise Charvat’s “rational scholarship” and “objective research,” but, when it comes time to attack the opposition, he still goes after the New Criticism and the Northropean archetypes. Either way, Jones was right to play the underdog; he mentions “a famous [contemporary] American publishing company which, on moving from its old location to its new one, dumped its back records without regard to their historical worth for scholarship,” and Charvat’s methodology and concerns didn’t get their due until more recently. Thankfully, we’re now seeing something of a Charvat renaissance; Ohio State even named its special collection of American fiction after him.