Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Mark Twain Project and the Autobiography of Mark Twain

The Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2  was published in October 2013 in print and digital form.  Twain dictated much of his autobiography during the later years of his life.  He insisted that the lengthy work not be published until 100 years after his death. The first volume of this complete authoritative autobiographical series was published accordingly in 2010.

The second book in a three volume set picks up where his dictation left in April 1906 and continues until February 1907.  The writing reflects a stream of consciousness writing style and often wanders off in various directions at once.  Many of the entries begin with reference to contemporary events, newspaper articles, or letters, which Twain then expands on, rants about, or analysis.  The work includes many personal reflections, political views, and discussions of his contemporaries.  These often scathing comments highlight Twain's reasoning for a long publication ban.  He spares no feelings when discussing those he dislikes.

Twain's writing is often self centered and vain but you can't help but being drawn into his world.  The pages are infused with his famous humor and wit.  Twain is also very open about the fact that he is selective about what is being dictated and that he is presenting himself in a good light. The Autobiography is not at all what I expected as it is more personal recollections of events or people that are often disconnected from each other.  There is no overarching 'great man' narrative or grand story propelling the work.  But, the nontraditional format does allow Twain's personality to come forth and reveals previously unpublished insights into the life of Twain.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, Seattle Tacoma, 1895
To call Mark Twain a prolific writer might be an understatement.  Born in 1835 as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the man published over 30 books and over 300 articles in his lifetime.  He also penned a massive amount of material that was unpublished at the time of his death. 

Some of this unpublished material was later published under a series of editors selected by Twain or his daughter Clara.  And the bulk of it was eventually donated to the University of California in 1949.  Since this time a series of editors at Berkley have worked diligently to edit and publish parts of the Twain papers.  In 1980 Robert H. Hirst took over as editor of the project and expanded the scope of the project to be as comprehensive as possible, aiming to collect everything Mark Twain wrote.

In 2001, the Project began incorporating digital components into its work. This movement allowed for the digital markup and encoding of Twain's writings, the digital publication of his works, continuous updating of publications.  One of the best features of this movement online is the ability to compare transcriptions of texts (eg. original manuscript vs. typescript) and the hyperlinking of references and emendations.

I enjoyed the print edition of the Autiobiography but I did find myself frequently wishing the notes were more accessible.  The 733 page volume contains roughly 450 pages of the autobiography with the rest being notes and index.  The notes provide a lot of insight and context to the news clippings and people referenced by Twain.  However, flipping back and forth between the main text and the line notations can be disruptive while reading.  The digital version's feature which hyperlinks notations and places the explanatory notes next to the main text is much less cumbersome. 

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