Friday, October 22, 2010

Mark Twain's Autobiography: Missing Pieces

On Wednesday of this week (it's now Friday), I received a copy of the University of California's new edition of Mark Twain's autobiography.  It's a hefty volume.  And this is volume one of a planned three-volume set.  While I haven't had a lot of time to examine it (at least not in the midst of reading student papers and preparing for classes and pushing through a set of meetings), I thought a few comments in order.

The editors have done a herculean job working through the scores of files and manuscripts (handwritten and typescripts) that form Clemens' autobiography file.  The main challenge was to find a way to reconstruct a definitive text of the typescripts based on Clemens' more than 250 days of dictations.  The editorial apparatus gives some indication of the difficulty of the task, a task that needed a good long time to complete with any degree of assurance.  Once I am able to find some time, I am looking forward to reading through their work to see how they managed all of this.  When I first read through the autobiography files in the early 1990s, I was simply intimidated by the chore, and I have since written several times about the weight of the task and (frankly) the unlikelihood that something like a "book" would ever come of it.  I am still not sure whether this edition is the "book" that Clemens hoped for, though I am sure he would be pleased at the amount of attention all this has gotten.  In the end, I wonder if the on-line version will be more accessible.  It certainly should be easier to read because of the volume's size.

I am a bit troubled, however, when I review the scholarship that serves as the background for the project and make my way through the extensive (though in another way limited) list of references at the end of the volume.  Several important essays that have given shape to our thinking about the autobiography do not appear.  DeLancy Fersuson's 1936 essay on the (then) unpublished parts of the autobiography is not mentioned; Paul Baender's correction regarding Clemens' piece "MacFarland" is not mentioned; Thomas Couser's essay on Twain and anti-biography is not there; Marilyn De Eulis' work on Clemens' autobiographical "experiments" is missing;  Jean Schinto's essay on Twain and Henry Adams does not appear. A very good essay by Jennifer Zaccara that Laura Skandera Trombley and I included in our 2001 collection Constructing Mark Twain (Missouri Press), "Mark Twain, Isabel Lyon, and the 'Talking Cure':  Negotiating Nostalgia and Nihilsim in the Autobiography," is also missing (I have included all of these as part of my editions of Clemens' autobiography).

It seems, then, that I happen to be in good company because none of the work I have done over the past 20 years appears as part of the scholarly record.  Even though the edition has a section devoted to the chapters Clemens published in the North American Review during 1906-1907, there is no record of the edition that I did (University of Wisconsin Press, first in 1990 and then at the beginning of 2010 as a second edition) of Mark Twain's Own Autobiography:  The Chapters from the North American Review  Three other essays that I wrote dealing with the autobiography and Susy, the idea of collaborative work, or the notion of persona (or one other that ties the autobiography to the tradition of literary domesticity) do not appear.

Clearly, the Mark Twain Project editors were focused on the problems inherent in Clemens' text(s); however, they have, I think, done a disservice by not including the work of others who have, like them, struggled to make sense of the mountain of material.  More's the pity.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Costly Lessons -- Defoe, Twain, and Other Considerations

I happen to be teaching Robinson Crusoe this week as part of our Freshman Studies sequence of courses.  The book was chosen partly in the hope of getting our president to give a common lecture to first year students -- he did a scholarly work on Defoe decades ago and is in favor of teaching "the Great Books" both as part of the Freshman Studies course and our (somewhat confused and confusing) Freshman Writing Program.  He declined the invitation to give the talk.

Anyway.  I am working through the novel, essentially reading right along with my students. It has been about 30 years since I first read the book.  This time through it's a totally new experience.  At the end of his chapter titled "The Journal:  Of Pots and Canoes," Defoe (in the guise of Crusoe) writes:  "This [failure to dig and then move a canoe to the sea] grieved me heartily, and now I saw, though too late, the folly of beginning a work before we count the cost and before we judge rightly our own strength to go through with it."  It's a lesson too often neglected.  And often costly in money, time, and reputation.  Mark Twain knew that all too well, though it didn't stop him from bad investments and schemes through the end of his life.  We haven't learned from either man as we continue projects too costly for our meager selves.

Case in point -- Mark Twain's autobiography.  Volume one of a three volume edition is due out on November 30 though you can get copies today from the University of California Press or -- more cheaply -- from -- the Press seems unwilling even to offer review copies of the book unless you are willing to pay for the privilege (I asked for a review copy for a review essay I write for the annual American Literary Scholarship -- I was told I could buy one, thank you).  More to the point, I think is the notion that general readers will flock to buy the volumes.  The Press has invested a huge amount in the project (and the editors of the Mark Twain Project have invested countless hours to develop a new methodology for deciphering the texts, hand written manuscripts and typescripts and even pieces of newspaper clippings) in the hope to bring readers once again to the altar of Twain.  I think that they will succeed with volume one.  I just bought my own copy after all.  But once the general reader begins to slog through the material, I think that even Twain's optimism and ego will deflate as contemporary readers (and here I am not thinking of Twain scholars and maniacs each of whom has their own lust for all things Twain) realize that the material is not as groundbreaking and awe inspiring and confessional as they want.  Our culture's interest in pathography and tell-all, self-revelatory autobiography (from tales of incest to drug use to the struggle with fame) will not sustain interest in Twain's decidedly Victorian attempt to burnish his own image and burn those he believes were or are his enemies.  A recent revelation that Twain relished the idea of crushing James Paige's "nuts" because of the scam of the typesetting machine sent at least one scholar scurrying to buy a copy to see what other nuggets (pardon the pun) could be had.  But the general reader, I think, will be bored.  Maybe I will be proven wrong. 

The point here is that the whole project of putting together Twain's text may have been undertaken before there was a real plan to get that heavy and huge canoe of ideas and reactions to the sea of public demand.  Twain thought all of his works were water and, therefore, were attractive to a range of readers.  He also thought his autobiography would be large enough to fill a state.  And a collection that large won't float.  And it's hell to get it to the steam. 

In the end, it's all about planning and recognizing not limitations but the timeliness of opportunity.  Just as we try to push students to read Defoe and Twain and suggest that reading the canon will improve their lives, they are treated to the reality of economic life and the realization that a strict diet of literary texts and writing assignments based on those texts won't prepare them for the broader writing needs of college-level or professional work.  Just as we decide Twain's architecturally complex autobiography should be part of his legacy, the reality that he wasn't really up to deep and abiding reflection comes along to chasten our plans for aggrandizement.  Like Crusoe, we have created a stunning canoe.  But the damn thing is land-bound and won't float.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Academic Juggling -- again

It's that time of the academic year when student papers are due and a whole host of institutional and external deadlines come crashing in.  Students look exhausted.  Faculty tempers are threatening to flare.  By week five of the term, things start to unravel.  It pays to take a moment and recalibrate.  Or at least try to take a deep breath before the next go-round.  Sometimes that breath is raspy and painful.

Some faculty decide that the easier way to adjust to the demands is to pull away from some portion of the work:  they concentrate on their own discipline, their own projects and withdraw from any discussions of long-time worries or complaints.  The responsibilities of teaching (and a long list that is) remain in place (for most, though not for all), but many demands, even those related to the long-term stability of the faculty as a whole -- issues related to review, tenure, promotion, institutional planning -- become targets for quick cynicism and even quicker rants.  There is something disheartening about professionals who prefer self-interest over a commitment to inter-generational fairness, who look at their place as safe and do not consider the needs of faculty members who have still 30 years of service ahead.  Committee work takes on darker tones and the most senior people decide that issues that might make a difference in junior faculty lives just don't deserve their time and attention.  Things will never change, they say, and they embrace the status quo, even when that means everyone suffers.  Academics, it seems to me, are innately conservative:  even when their long-term growth is threatened, they remain stuck in a single thought and are unwilling to try anything different. 

Of course, it's both faculty members and administrators at the heart of this impasse.  If faculty are unable to break out of their mindset, administrators are often more than willing to take advantage of the static condition of the faculty to drive a completely separate and perhaps even less academically profitable agenda.  Programs that can be changed continue to live in academic limbo because of an unwillingness to admit the failure of an idea or an inability to articulate an alternative vision that takes academic content and resources into account.  Planning suffers because we live in a community that has learned only to react (and often badly) and not to seek new ideas; and the overall academic program suffers because we live in a community that has become fossilized within a pre-modern ideal of curriculum and a mid-twentieth century management model.

Tar babies and tar pits.  We seem attracted to conditions, behaviors, and thoughts that hold us fast in the glop of our worst selves.

Or maybe it's just a bad, rainy, arthritic day.