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Never the Twain shall print?

A new collection of unpublished pieces goes on sale next month

| 19 March 2009

Selections from Who Is Mark Twain?

Jane Austen

Does Jane Austen do her work too remorselessly well? For me, I mean? Maybe that is it. She makes me detest all her people, without reserve. Is that her intention? It is not believable. Then is it her purpose to make the reader detest her people up to the middle of the book and like them in the rest of the chapters? That could be. That would be high art. It would be worth while, too. Some day I will examine the other end of her books and see.

Mark Twain, pondering his next sentence.

Happy Memories of the Dental Chair

At the end of an hour, something was said about chloroform. I knew I did not need it myself, but I believed my imagination did; so I accepted the bottle, and after that I held it always in my hand, and put it to my nose whenever my imagination got too brisk. The chloroform created a radical change; it made everything comfortable and pleasant. The pains were about as sharp as they had been before, but they rather seemed to be impersonal pains; pains
that belonged to the community in general, including me, but not me particularly, not me any more than the others. So I did not care for them any longer; I do not care for a pain unless I can have it all to myself....

The Privilege of the Grave

Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take to the pen and pour them out on paper to keep them from setting me afire inside; then all that ink and labor are wasted, because I can't print the result. I have just finished an article of this kind, and it satisfies me entirely. It does my weather-beaten soul good to read it, and admire the trouble it would make for me and the family.

On Postage Rates on Authors' Manuscripts

Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.

Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture

As soon as a man recognizes that he has drifted into age, he gets reminiscent. He wants to talk and talk; and not about the present or the future, but about his old times. For there is where the pathos of his life lies — and the charm of it.

Some readers show an unquenchable thirst for certain authors, keeping their reading lamps lit while they await the posthumous release of works — finished or not — by writers such as David Foster Wallace, Roberto Bolaño, and Ernest Hemingway.

Who is Mark Twain bookcoverFans of another famous author will likely be lining up to buy Who Is Mark Twain? when it hits bookstore shelves April 21. The book, published by HarperStudio, is an intriguing collection of two dozen previously unpublished sketches and essays by Twain, sourced from materials held by The Mark Twain Papers and Project at the Bancroft Library. The Bancroft is the repository for virtually all of Twain's "literary remains" — the largest cache of personal papers created by any 19th-century American writer.

Robert Hirst, general editor of The Mark Twain Papers, says the new book offers rare insights into how Twain practiced his craft while extending our knowledge of how he felt about topics ranging from politics and religion to cigars, success, and literary criticism. The famously outspoken author may have thought some of the materials were just "too incendiary for publication at the time," Hirst speculates.

Hirst started out with The Mark Twain Papers in 1967 as a student proofreader and checker, becoming general editor in 1980. For the new book he combed through the Bancroft's Twain materials, selecting pieces based on their literary merit. A couple of entries are among Twain's earliest scribblings, and the lot of them were written between 1868, when he was 33, and 1905, when he was 70.

It was Twain's lifelong habit to plunge into an article or story with few clues as to its outcome, and six entries in the new book were never either revised or completed. But, says Hirst, that's how Twain worked: When he was done with something, that was it. If he thought the piece wouldn't sell or be appreciated, he left it as it was but didn't destroy it.

But "just because material in the book hasn't been published before doesn't mean it's secondary stuff," Hirst emphasizes. As he writes in the introduction: "Any random sampling will turn up the usual signs of his genius, the typical precision and sparkle of his prose, always capable of surprising us into smiling at some shameful trait of the damned human race. They are so well crafted, clear, and wickedly funny (even when he left them incomplete), that their non-publication must be explained by particular circumstances...."

Although Who Is Mark Twain? won't be out until next month, the public's appetite for more Twainiana is already being whetted. One story from the book, "The Privilege of the Grave," ran this winter in The New Yorker, and another on a similar theme, "The Undertaker's Tale," appears this week in The Strand, a quarterly mystery magazine. Meanwhile, Harper's Magazine has obtained serial rights for another selection, "The Quarrel in the Strong-Box."

The new book already has been chosen as an "Indie Next" pick for the month of May. That means it will get key, front-of-store placement in approximately 350 independent bookstores across the country.

Hirst admits to wondering at times whether Twain's humor will stand the test of time, fearing that "too much cultural slippage" may have occurred since his era. Even so, he's hopeful that the new book will sell "faster than the King and the Duke get out of town," a reference to the two grifters in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

"I hope it sells a million copies and becomes a steady bestseller," says Hirst. "So far, the materials here are only read by scholars."

A Bancroft Library exhibit, "Twain at Play," is on display through April 18. Every Friday at noon, Hirst gives a gallery talk about The Mark Twain Papers and the exhibit.