Twain Tales: How a University Project, Press, and Library Crafted a Best-Seller

Peg Skorpinski, U. of California at Berkeley

Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the U. of California at Berkeley, says funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities helped support the monumental work of producing the author's autobiography a century after his death.
February 16, 2011

A hundred and one years after his death, Mark Twain still knows how to move books. The first volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, published by the University of California Press last year, now has half-a-million copies in print. It has spent 16 weeks on the New York Times hardcover-nonfiction best-seller list. (It's now just ahead of Keith Richards's memoir.)

"And it doesn't seem to be letting up," Robert H. Hirst told an audience at the National Endowment for the Humanities headquarters here Wednesday. Mr. Hirst is the general editor of the Mark Twain Project and curator of the Mark Twain Papers, housed at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley.

The editor was in town to talk about the process of getting the Autobiography into the hands of Twain's still-adoring public—and to emphasize the role public money, in the form of financial support from the humanities endowment, helped play in making it happen. In a lecture chock-full of colorful Twain anecdotes—always a crowd-pleaser—Mr. Hirst described how Twain Project editors and graduate students spent the last five years sifting through and collating 5,000 pages of manuscript and trying to figure out how to organize it as Twain wanted.

A lot of that work involved discarding the less-than-tender ministrations of earlier editors. The Autobiography has never been published in full before—Twain wanted to make sure everybody mentioned in it would be long dead before it saw print—but sections of it have appeared over the years. According to Mr. Hirst, previous editors felt free to cross out, change, and censor some of what Twain wrote. The current editorial team, led by Harriet Elinor Smith and overseen by Mr. Hirst, had to sort out Twain's handwriting from that of various editors—sometimes four or five different sets of markings on a single page. "It's very hard to say that anyone's deletion of a comma is distinctive," Mr. Hirst told the audience.

The editors wrestled with a number of textual problems, including which copies of typescripts dictated by Twain to rely on. "Which one is the right one? That's the problem the editor is confronting," Mr. Hirst said.

It didn't help that Twain started collecting and jotting down anecdotes for the book early in his career. The editors had to contend with various experiments the author made in how to assemble the book, and with what Mr. Hirst calls Twain's sometimes "incomplete instructions" about how to proceed.

Previous editors tended to want to order the vignettes in the Autobiography chronologically, according to Mr. Hirst. "When you're just looking at the raw manuscript, you have no idea it's finished," he said in an interview after the lecture. The current Twain Project team was inclined to take the chronological approach, too, he said, until a breakthrough three years ago allowed them to figure out with some certainty where certain sections were meant to go. "In general, I would say we're very close to his intent," Mr. Hirst said of the finished product.

The book-buying public responded enthusiastically. Some reviewers didn't. In a front-page review in The New York Times Book Review, Garrison Keillor called the book "a ragbag of scraps, some of interest, most of them not." (The Times itself disagreed, running an editorial about the pleasures of the book.) And Andrew Delbanco, writing in The New York Review of Books, found the miscellanies and meanderings part of the Autobiography's charm.

That's the attitude Mr. Hirst recommends. "When people ask me how to read it, I say skip anything that bores you," he said. Don't look for a cohesive narrative arc, he advises, but treat it instead as "a series of discrete reminiscences."

Some Differences Over Approach

The book generated its share of debates before publication, Mr. Hirst told a reporter. The editors went back and forth with the University of California Press about what the final book would look like. Would they publish both a full scholarly edition and a general reader's edition that would focus on the core of the Autobiography? The press said no, according to Mr. Hirst. He's proud of the finished product but suggested that, while it has a substantial critical component, it's not the most fully realized version for scholars. A freely available online edition, however, has the scholarly works—commentaries, explanatory notes, and more.

The Autobiography is the latest in a series of Twain volumes edited by the Mark Twain Project and published by the California press. The relationship goes back decades, and it's had its ups and down, says Mr. Hirst. A few years ago, "I was unhappy enough with how they were handling our books that I threatened to take them to a commercial publisher," he said. That kicked the press "into high gear," and Mr. Hirst now sounds happy with how it's handling the Autobiography.

Laura Cerruti, the press's director of digital-content development, noted in an interview that the relationship between the press and the Mark Twain Project has been going on for 40 years. "Those kinds of relationships, like any marriage, have their ups and downs. There's a balance in the promotion of these books." She described the Autobiography as "one of those real breakouts" and said it was unusual compared with some of the other scholarly books the press has done. She added that the press faces a lot of competition in the Twain arena, with many books about the author vying for readers' attention.

"We haven't always done the best job of conveying that and involving the Mark Twain Project" in decisions about how to promote the Twain books, Ms. Cerruti said. "It's a crash course in publishing every time we work together, especially because the publishing landscape is changing all the time." (It's not clear how easy it would be for Mr. Hirst to take the Twain material to another publisher if he ever did decide to; Ms. Cerruti described the copyright situation as complex, with the University of California's Board of Regents, the press, the Mark Twain Foundation, and the Mark Twain Project all having a say over what happens to the material.)

Given its best-seller status, how big a cash cow is the Autobiography? Mr. Hirst doesn't know exactly how much it has earned for its publisher. "What the press gets is a mystery," he said. "I'm actually on a campaign to find out. I think I ought to know."

According to Mr. Hirst, the agreement with the press stipulates that the foundation and the Bancroft Library share 10 percent of the initial royalties from the book. (That percentage increases as sales go up.) Of that 10 percent, 40 percent goes to the library, helping to pay for the Twain Project's work, and 60 percent goes to the foundation, which also contributes to the project.

Ms. Cerruti was reluctant to disclose sales figures, saying that they were proprietary information. She said that high costs per unit, discounts to retailers, and operating costs cut into the press's profits from the Autobiography. "When we look at the margins, they're pretty slim for this book" because of those costs, she said.

Still, the Autobiography has been such a hit that it's almost certain to be reprinted. Mr. Hirst would like to see it included in the California press's Mark Twain Library series, which republishes works from the Twain Papers for students and general readers, usually without the scholarly apparatus. In this case, though, "I will not allow them to take away the notes," he said.

As for Web-based versions, the press is "always worried about who's going to pay for this and who's going to pay for that," he said. He plans to make sure the digital edition remains open access "as long as I'm alive," especially because a good deal of public money has gone into the project over the years.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has been a pillar of financial support for the Twain Project since labor on it began in 1967. Mr. Hirst estimated that the endowment has given close to $7-million to support the work.

He was scheduled to take the Twain show to Capitol Hill Wednesday night at the invitation of Sen. Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, Twain's home state. On the Hill, he said, he planned to highlight the role that NEH has played in supporting the Mark Twain Project. Public recognition of such support is especially critical now, according to Mr. Hirst, given the renewed threat that the endowment's support will be decimated by Congress.

"I'm mainly interested in making sure the endowment gets credit for what it did," he said after his morning lecture. "I can talk about how you wouldn't have an Autobiography if you weren't supporting editors for 30 or 40 years."