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A new gilded age for Twain scholars

Harriet Elinor Smith was accustomed to anonymity. As lead editor for the "Autobiography of Mark Twain" and other Twain books, she has spent decades holed up with rare documents in a UC Berkeley office, fretting over commas and obscure references to 19th century personalities.

So Smith was stunned recently to be recognized by a fellow BART train passenger who had seen her on television, speaking about the astonishingly successful first volume of Twain's massive memoir. The other woman even complimented Smith on her hairstyle.

Thrust into a publishing success about which other academics can only fantasize, Smith and her colleagues at UC Berkeley's Mark Twain Papers & Project have become celebrities in the rarefied world of literary research and editing.

But like rock stars with a first hit record, they are coping now with hugely elevated expectations for the autobiography's next two volumes, which will bring the much-loved author's complete dictated memoir to print for the first time. And they worry about all the work ahead if they are to meet deadlines of 2012 and 2014.

"It's very strange and it's quite uncomfortable at times," Smith said of the shift from a scholarly but small audience for the Twain center's previous books to the runaway success now.

The first volume of the planned trilogy has remained a national bestseller since its release in November, 100 years after Twain's death at the age of 74. There are nearly half a million copies in print, putting it as high as No. 4 on the Los Angeles Times' hardback nonfiction list and No. 2 on the New York Times' list.

"It's not often that you get these events where the scholarly world and the popular sphere collide," Benjamin Griffin, one of the memoir's associate editors, said recently. He spoke in the small office he and Smith share in UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, near the repository of the world's largest collection of Twain manuscripts and letters. Most of the 20,000 items came to the university in 1949 with permission of Twain's daughter Clara, who later donated them.

The project's staff worked for 43 years in relative obscurity, producing volume after volume of what are considered the most accurate and complete editions of Twain's large body of work, including such classics as the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "The Prince and the Pauper," along with letters, travelogues and essays.

Robert H. Hirst, the Twain center's general editor, said he expected the memoir's first volume to sell perhaps 10,000 copies, still much higher than his previous releases. "You'd have to be a fool to expect something like this to be a bestseller," Hirst said of the often rambling reminiscences and many scholarly notes.

As sales took off, however, editors realized that Twain's sly humor and skepticism about wealthy elites, U.S. militarism, politicians and organized religion hold a seemingly timeless appeal. "It's a time when his particular sort of tone and attitude is very welcome," said Hirst, who has headed the center for 30 years.

The strong sales mean a welcome windfall for the Twain project, perhaps $800,000 this year, which its editors said would be used to create an endowment to increase its seven-member staff and for costs that funding from UC, federal and private sources may not cover.

But even with the extra money, getting the entire autobiography to print will not be easy, Hirst said.

The book's publisher, the University of California Press, had pushed for all three volumes to be published together last year, a task the Twain project said was impossible. The publisher now wants the second volume in stores next year and the third by 2014. Hirst says he will not meet those deadlines if it means diluting the quality of editing, historical annotation and Web presentation.

"We are going as fast as we can. Maybe it's not fast enough for this commercial pressure. But I don't consider it my job to give in to that," the white-haired Hirst, 69, said in his office, cluttered with stacks of Twain books and files.

He escorted a visitor into the center's climate-controlled storeroom, where metal cabinets are filled with Twain's handwritten manuscripts and a trove of letters to and from him. On top of the cabinets are enlarged photographs of Twain in his signature white suit and the battered travel trunk in which his daughter Clara, a singer, carried her sheet music.

Hirst showed off one of his favorite items, a tiny purple velvet case containing a photograph of a 34-year-old, handsomely mustachioed Twain from 1869, which he inscribed with a love note ("I XXX you, Livy! Don't tell!") to his future wife Olivia Langdon.

The archive room also holds the documents that form the basis of the autobiography, a freewheeling, non-chronological melange of the writer's memories, opinions and diatribes.

It's not as if Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, left behind a well-organized memoir. After several false starts, he started dictating his thoughts and memories in 1906 in a manner he called "a complete and purposed jumble." That continued over four years.

Within a few pages, he details the whereabouts of childhood friends from Hannibal, Mo.; recalls trips with his late daughter, Susy; and denounces President Theodore Roosevelt for a 1906 U.S. military action in the Philippines that resulted, Twain said, in the "slaughter" of 600 tribal people.

Working from the sometimes conflicting typescripts of the dictation sessions, the project's scholars painstakingly decipher the writer's — and previous editors' — handwritten corrections and deletions. They keep lists of every change, even shifts from commas to semicolons.

They also research accompanying explanations about many of the people, events and places Twain mentions. About 200 of the first volume's 736 pages are devoted to such notes.

On a recent day Smith, 64, was puzzling over a June 12, 1906, transcript, in which Twain discussed acquaintances who had lost their property in that year's San Francisco earthquake. The couple split up to find work, the woman heading to New York and the man to what the original typescript said was Oregon until Clemens crossed that out and wrote Montana, possibly to hide his identity. Smith is trying to determine if "Oregon" should be restored.

Sitting at a computer nearby, Griffin, 42, was researching a July 30, 1906, session in which Twain, a former Mississippi riverboat pilot, recalled a brief, youthful romance with a passenger. Nearly 50 years later, Twain said he had received a letter from the woman, Laura Wright, that "shook me to the foundations." Wright was appealing for help for a disabled son and Twain sent her $1,000, asking himself: "What had that girl done, what crime had she committed, that she must be punished with poverty and drudgery in her old age?"

Griffin is preparing a biographical note about Wright, including an allegation, based on a friend's letter in the archive, that she was a Confederate spy. Other project editors will decide whether the evidence is strong enough to mention her possible espionage.

Twain had instructed that no one publish the entire memoir until a century after his death and no one seemed to want to. Dating to the 1920s, several abridged versions were produced, all of which took liberties with the writer's format. Previous editors and Twain heirs also cut much of his earthy humor and more virulent attacks on former business partners, politicians and others; UC Berkeley's scholars put it all back in.

Hirst said about 5% of the first volume had never been published; that is expected to rise to about 40% for the next two parts.

But its editors say the memoir holds no major revelations, no intimations that Twain felt he married the wrong woman or was unfaithful in his 34-year marriage. Nor are there any startlingly unknown insights into the origins of his novels, such as "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Innocents Abroad."

"There is not a lot of stuff that is so terribly hot that you can't hold it," Hirst said of the first volume, which is available free online.

Many reviews have been positive, but the Berkeley edition's comprehensive approach has bothered some critics. Writing in the New York Times, "Prairie Home Companion" host Garrison Keillor blasted the book for including everything: "Think twice about donating your papers to an institution of higher learning, Famous Writer: someday they may be used against you."

Lynne Withey, who recently retired after eight years as the UC Press director, described the Twain Project editors as "the most perfectionist of people who are all perfectionists." But the memoir, Withey said, is "kind of a capstone for what they've been doing quietly for year and years…. For something that's so scholarly and serious to get this kind of attention is remarkable."

It is also a major boost for UC Press as it emerges from a recession-influenced sales dip. Officials say it is too soon to know what they will net from their record bestseller, but expect to invest some of the gains in new databases and capacity for digital publishing.

The Twain project has an annual budget of $600,000, including $190,000 from UC. Among its private donors is UC Berkeley's Class of 1958, which gave $1 million to mark its 50th reunion, and the Koret Foundation. And it receives crucial backing, $7 million over four decades, from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

In the past, the endowment had criticized the project's slow pace of publication. But Jane Aikin, the endowment's director of research programs, said she has not heard any complaints recently.

Underlining the memoir's popularity, Hirst recently gave speeches at the endowment's Washington, D.C., headquarters and on Capitol Hill to audiences that included members of Congress, who are now considering the Endowment's continued funding.

After the autobiography, the Twain project has plans for full, annotated editions of several more of the author's books, including "A Tramp Abroad" and "Life on the Mississippi," along with publishing more of his letters, perhaps online. Hirst said there is work enough to last 30 more years.

Thirty years "sounds enormously grandiose to anybody looking in from the outside, but my standard answer is basically we will do what the world will support," Hirst said. "It's only if the world wants an accurate reference for all of Mark Twain that we will come close to completing it."

larry.gordon@latimes.com

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