Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mark Twain, Josephine Hobby, and Collaborative Autobiography

After Samuel Clemens accepted Albert Biglow Paine’s as his official biographer, Paine and Twain decided that one way to gather material for that work was to bring in a stenographer to keep a careful record of Clemens’ dictations.  Paine would ask questions, Clemens would use those questions to start his comments, and the stenographer – as both audience and scribe – would keep a careful record.  The first and primary stenographer was Josephine Hobby.  It has taken a century for readers of Clemens’ dictations to understand the contribution of Hobby.  We would not have as careful or as full a record of Clemens’ autobiography without her.

The editors of volume one of Clemens’ autobiography give Hobby some long-deserved attention in their discussion of the autobiographical manuscripts and dictations.  In their “Note on the Text” (pp 669-679), they present the often convoluted sequence of the several typescripts that grew out of the post-1906 dictations.  More importantly, in the sub-section titled “Dictated texts” (673-674), they offer a tightly focused discussion of the relationship between a “writer” and a stenographer as they work in tandem to create a text loyal to the intentions and perceptions of the writer.  The issues involved include proper punctuation or paragraphing, especially difficult if the person dictating moves along at a pace without oral hints of the proper structure of sentences or paragraphs. 

Hobby seems to have been a wonderful match for Clemens.  The typescripts she produced were attuned to Clemens’ speech patterns, and she was often able to incorporate punctuation according to Clemens’ own exacting rules (he might at time allow editors to repair spelling errors, but he NEVER would allow them to adjust his punctuation – in the same volume, read “Private History of a Manuscript that Came to Grief”).  While the editors comment that Clemens may have trained Hobby to his style of punctuation, it is clear that she was fully able to provide him text that he could work with.  This collaboration is an aspect of the dictations that is too little appreciated.

One wonders what Hobby thought of all of this.  I suspect that it became much more than a job (especially through the first and second years of Clemens’ dictating binge).  And she was very good at the whole process.  Her work on Clemens’ behalf, and his reliance on her, speaks to a symbiotic tie that perhaps only grew as the two spent more and more time together.  And it’s one more instance of his reliance on the work of a woman to develop what is likely his last story (one more woman in the list that runs from his mother, his wife, his daughters, to Mary Fairbanks to Susan Crane to Isabel Lyon).  It also demonstrates that writing – even writing done with the human voice – is often best when done when facing an appreciative audience and a valued listener.

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