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Mark This: 100 Years Since Twain's Death

In Entertainment, Uncategorized on May 25, 2010 at 2:12 pm
Mark Twain photo portrait.

Image via Wikipedia

Better late than never.

When Mark Twain died in 1910, he left instructions that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death and, as the Independent reports, that milestone has been reached.

“In November the University of California, Berkeley, where the manuscript is in a vault, will release the first volume of Mark Twain’s autobiography,” according to the paper. “The eventual trilogy will run to half a million words, and shed new light on the quintessentially American novelist.”

There have been versions of it released over the years but this promises to be different.

“Robert Hirst, who is leading the team at Berkeley editing the complete text, says that more than half of it has still never appeared in print,” the Independent reported. “Only academics, biographers, and members of the public prepared to travel to the university’s Bancroft research library have previously been able to read it in full.

“‘When people ask me ‘did Mark Twain really mean it to take 100 years for this to come out’, I say ‘he was certainly a man who knew how to make people want to buy a book’,” Dr Hirst said.

Hirst works at Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, home to The Mark Twain Papers & Project, my favorite part of which is an online repository of thousands of his his letters and other papers.

It’s really almost impossible to overstate Twain’s place in American history — if not on the world stage.

He was “the most famous American writer of all time” and “remains the title-holder this morning,” Tom Wolfe wrote last month in The New York Times. “Later American literary stars like Hemingway, Faulkner, Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck, Nobel Prize-winners one and all, never had more than a spoonful of the great gouts of fame that Twain…enjoyed everywhere in the world.”

His Huckleberry Finn — a mainstay of high schools — is also a mainstay of banned book lists.

When he died, The New York Times wrote he “was the greatest American humorist of his age. It is certain that his contemporary fame abroad was equal to his fame at home. All Europe recognized his genius, the English people appreciated him at his own worth.

“From The Jumping Frog to the Diary of Adam everything that came from his pen was eagerly read and heartily enjoyed by multitudes.”

In that piece, the Times also pointed out that “posterity will be left to decide his relative position.”

While one really need only look at the excitement — good and bad — that Twain still engenders to see how that question has been answered, you can also look toward the Kennedy Center in Washington DC.

Each year they give out The Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which this year is going to Tina Fey, former star of Saturday Night Live and current creator and star of 30 Rock. While Googling will give you one of the reasons why I think this is great news, the fact is that, like Twain, Fey is a brilliant satirist unwilling to be boxed in by conventional wisdom.

It’s been 175 years since Twain was born and 100 years since he died.

The prize named for him going to Fey, the long-awaited publication of his autobiography… Twain’s still a big star casting a big shadow.

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  1. I will be anticipating the publication of Mark Twain’s auto-biography. What happened, that Twain, the most popular writer in American history, came upon such desperate financial times? I would be fascinated by his thoughts on this. Was he considered a “muse” by politicos at the time, like Teddy Roosevelt? How was he manipulated by the budding public relations machine of the times? Why 100 years? Are there heirs of Twain’s who have been taking a piece of the action all these years? Will we ever heare the name “Mark Twain” on the new Forbes.com site? Tom Medlicott

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