Apodaca: Twain still has much to teach us

I love books, and one of my all-time favorites is "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

I first read the classic Mark Twain novel when I was about 12 years old, and revisited it with my two sons, taking full advantage of the chance to ham it up while giving voice to all the colorful characters. Each time, I fell in love all over again with Twain's wry observations of human nature and societal shortcomings.

So when a friend asked me to join her at a lecture by the director of UC Berkeley's Mark Twain Project in Newport Beach earlier this week, I eagerly agreed.

Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, had stipulated before his death in 1910 that his autobiography not be published for 100 years, so that he would be "dead, unaware, and indifferent," his family would not be hurt by anything he wrote, and he would feel unshackled by any need for self-censorship.

Last November, the Mark Twain Project published the first of the autobiography's three volumes.

The response has been striking. The initial expectation was that about 10,000 copies of the first volume would be sold. But it's been flying off the shelves, and has landed on numerous best-seller lists. There are now 500,000 copies in print.

That figure is especially impressive, considering that the book is a scholarly tome logging in at more than 700 pages, and weighing more than 4 pounds according to my bathroom scale. The introduction alone is 58 pages, and the "real" autobiography doesn't start until about halfway through.

I had a chance to chat with the head of the Mark Twain Project, Robert Hirst, before he began his presentation. The public reaction to the first volume is a clear indication that Twain's writings are as relevant today as they were in his time, he said.

"I think it's a sign that people are hungry for the kind of commentary he provided," Hirst said.

Twain's work touched on a gamut of issues that still resonate today, from race relations to American interventionism. He wasn't without controversy, but Hirst said the author never devolved into cynicism. He used humor to comment on human foibles, and subtle teasing to poke at social proprieties. He gave hypocrisy no quarter, and spared no one — himself included — from his scathing wit.

"Mark Twain is to us — to me and my editors — very much alive," Hirst said.

He has devoted his entire professional career to trying to understand Twain's genius. Hirst earned a bachelor's degree in English from Harvard; in 1967, while attending graduate school at UC Berkeley, he took a job at the Mark Twain Papers. He eventually became curator of the papers and general editor of the Twain project.

After all these years, he told the audience, he's "still learning" about Twain.

Hirst's dedication to his subject is a lesson in painstaking, no-stone-left-unturned academic rigor. He and his team still turn up at least three new Twain letters every week. Each must be examined thoroughly, and many contain small gems of the famous Twain drollery.

A few examples: In Twain's response to an orphanage's plea for a donation, he offered to give the institution two of his own children. In another missive, he mischievously threatened to shoot a proofreader who corrected his grammar.

One Twain remembrance involved his wife's admonition that he not wear winter galoshes to a White House dinner. Twain asked then First Lady Frances Cleveland to sign a card on which he had written, "He didn't."

After Hirst's lecture, I asked him what Twain might think of the world today.

Undoubtedly, Twain would have had something to say about America's current military campaigns. In his own time, the author initially supported the United States' intervention in Cuba and the Philippines as a way to spread freedom. But he quickly became disillusioned and steadfastly opposed what he viewed as America's imperialistic forays.

It's also easy to envision Twain taking aim at the Wall Street of today because he had little respect for the financial titans of his time.

Twain might also have been fascinated by our celebrity-obsessed, reality-TV-driven culture. Hirst said that the author was very cognizant of his own fame and shrewdly managed his public image — a thoroughly modern concept.

Ultimately, though, Twain's assumption that delaying publishing his autobiography would free him to be completely forthright proved somewhat illusory, Hirst said. Twain found he couldn't bring himself to write a "confessional" type of memoir in which he'd bare himself to the world. He did, it seems, still care about what people would think.

Even so, I for one am grateful that Twain's insight into what it is to be American — indeed, what it is to be human — continues to shape our collective consciousness a century after his death.

PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.

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