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A Voice from the Vault


Granta 111: Going Back, published in the UK today, contains the first extract of Mark Twain’s forthcoming autobiography, which he forbade anyone to publish for a hundred years after his death. Benjamin Griffin, associate editor at the Mark Twain Project, reflects here on work once considered un-editable, and some advice the team has had from the great man himself...

Fixing the ‘final form’ of a long-dead author’s intentions is a tricky business at the best of times; but in the case of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, we’re dealing with a text which has actually been declared un-editable by one critic. I like to think the Mark Twain Project edition has shown it isn’t so; but there was some justification behind that sceptic’s panic.

Samuel Clemens composed things he said were ‘for the autobiography’, fitfully, over a period of more than thirty years before hitting on ‘The Final (& Right) Plan.’ So there is this large body of material that didn’t make it into his ‘final plan’. The editors here at the Project had the option of excluding these rejected first shots altogether, in the name of final authorial intention. But among these pieces are some of Clemens’s most striking writings on his youth; moreover, what Clemens ended up rejecting sheds light on the evolution of his ‘Final’ plan. And so we decided to print, preliminarily, everything that Clemens had intended, at some time, for his autobiography.

That ‘Final’ autobiography has never before been printed in anything like its true form – past editors having abridged and reshuffled it to suit their own whims. Clemens’s approach – quite modernist, considering he was born in 1835 – is a ‘stream-of-consciousness’ method, in which you

wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself into your mind meantime… In this way you have the vivid things of the present to make a contrast with memories of like things in the past, and these contrasts have a charm which is all their own.

To encourage spontaneity and caprice, Clemens dictated rather than wrote the bulk of the Autobiography. A stenographer took down his words in shorthand, which she later expanded and typed out.

That fact alone, of this oral stage of transmission, poses a challenge literary editors haven’t often tackled. The shorthand record (it is lost) gave Clemens’s words only as very abbreviated signs, and sometimes the stenographer’s subsequent re-expansions were understandably mistaken. For example, she produced ‘occasion’ where Clemens said ‘contagion’; ‘boring’ instead of ‘bearing’; and (endearingly?) ‘cocoa’ where he said ‘coca.’ Clemens later corrected these mis-expansions – but how many did he miss?

He marked the typed text, revising it sometimes quite heavily, and it was typed again from the corrected pages; and these he revised still further. It’s here that another big question arises. While working on the book, Clemens was serializing excerpts in the North American Review. Consequently, his revisions may stem from more than one motive. Some look like aesthetic improvements; others are ‘softenings’, intended to disguise the names of living persons, blunt the edge of the satire, or expunge risqué references.

We decided, after vigorous debate, to accept Clemens’s revisions where we deem them simple aesthetic changes, but to reject softenings on the grounds that they were intended only for that time and audience. Alas, the line between the two is not so easily drawn. If Clemens expunges a reference to an acquaintance as having an absurdly long beard, is he trying to spare the subject’s feelings, or has he merely decided the detail is unwanted?

It’s the purpose of a critical edition not simply to offer the best text, by choosing among variant readings, but also to feature the other readings so that alternate ways of constructing the text are made available. The list of variant readings in this edition includes not only major variations in wording, but also every variation of spelling, punctuation, italicization and so forth. With Clemens, stenographers, editors and typesetters all introducing variation at multiple stages into a text of roughly 750,000 words, the list of variants is huge – too big, in fact, to print. It’s the Internet that met this challenge: Mark Twain Project Online is where the list of variants will be accessible.

I can’t refrain from describing one of the most intractable editorial tasks I ever came across. In the piece called “Private History of a Manuscript That Came to Grief,” Clemens wishes to present a manuscript of his own that got incompetently revised by an editor (one of the recurring motifs of the Autobiography is that you can’t trust an editor). So, Clemens wants to reproduce the manuscript showing not only his original but also the editor’s revisions. Except, he has had the whole affair re-copied by a typist, showing the editor’s editing, but making his own revisions. So we had to edit Clemens’s editing of the editor’s editing…

Well, I can feel the wind of the wing of madness tousling my hair, just remembering it, but I know I’ll go back again and again to the epigram Clemens directed at his interfering editor, from which we all have derived much benefit:

‘You ought never to edit except when awake.’


The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume I, will be published by the University of California Press this autumn. See also – two pages from the manuscript of the autobiography, with an explanation of their importance from Robert H. Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project.

Visit the main page for this issue to buy your copy of ‘Going Back’ now. You can also browse slideshows of cover art there, and read about our launch at the British Library where Salman Rushdie, A.L. Kennedy, Richard Russo and Elizabeth McCracken talked about Granta and how the magazine has helped their work.


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