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  DeLancy Fersuson's 1936 essay on the (then) unpublished parts of the autobiography is not mentioned; Paul Baender's correction regarding Clemens' piece "MacFarland" is not mentioned; Thomas Couser's essay on Twain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.

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