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On Publishing Mark Twain's Autobiography

Dec 1, 2010 (Fresh Air)

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In 1904, Mark Twain wrote that he had "hit upon the right way to do an Autobiography."

What he had discovered, says historian Robert Hirst, was the art of dictation. Instead of writing down his autobiography, Twain wanted to tell stories to another human being. And instead of telling his life story in chronological order, Twain wanted to talk about what interested him at that moment — and to allow himself to change the subject as soon as his interest flagged.

Hirst, the director of the Mark Twain Project, joins Fresh Air contributor David Bianculli for a discussion about the recent publication of Mark Twain's autobiography — in the structure the author himself wished — from dictated stories collected by the University of California, Berkley's Mark Twain Project.

Hirst explains that Twain dictated nearly 2,000 pages to stenographer Josephine Hobby and author Albert Bigelow Paine, his first biographer. But the autobiography was never published, partially because Twain felt some passages were too personal or inflammatory to appear in early editions. Even after scholars had access to the autobiography, Hirst says, editors weren't initially sure whether Twain had finished writing his life story.

"For the longest time, we thought Mark Twain had left a series of drafts, that he had never completed it and that we were going to be forced to publish it in some kind of arbitrary way, like everything chronologically," says Hirst. "But the last three years, the editors I've worked with for 40 years figured out that he had finished it, he knew exactly what he wanted in it and exactly what he didn't want in it — and how he wanted it ended and how he wanted it structured. So all of a sudden, out of what seemed to be a kind of chaos, emerged what seems to be Mark Twain's last major literary work."

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