Editor Ben Griffin on 10 Years Inside the Mind of Mark Twain

When Mark Twain died in 1910, he had published bits and pieces of his autobiography but left instructions that the rest should not be published until a hundred years after his death. In 2010 — just as Twain had asked — the University of California Press published the first volume of Autobiography of Mark Twain. It was a massive hit, selling nearly 500,000 copies and becoming the academic press’s best-selling title ever.

“Mark Twain quite deliberately wrote an autobiography,” said Ben Griffin, one of the editors on the project. “It had just never been fully published before. He published parts of it in 1906 and 1907, which was during the last years of his life. Twain wanted to be able to speak freely about everything, so he left instructions for it not to be published in full until a hundred years had gone by after his death.”

A second volume of Autobiography of Mark Twain followed in 2013, and the third and final volume was published this fall. Griffin, who has been involved with the project for a decade and was the lead editor on Volume 3, recently sat down with Signature for an engaging and entertaining interview about how the project came together.

Signature: Mark Twain died in 1910. Tell me for starters why you think people should still be paying attention to him.

Ben Griffin: I’ve never had to ask myself why anybody should still be reading Mark Twain or be interested in Mark Twain. I know that they always will be. There’s been a very excited reaction to the Autobiography of Mark Twain over the last five years.

SIG: The Mark Twain Project where you work is not exactly a library. How would you describe it?

BG: There are two entities. The Mark Twain Papers is the collection here in the Bancroft Library at Berkeley, and it’s the world’s largest collection of manuscripts by Mark Twain. It’s also a collection of rare editions and books from Mark Twain’s library. It’s an immensely important archive for the study of American literature. And within that, the editors here are working to produce an edition of the complete Mark Twain. We call that the Mark Twain Project.

SIG: Did he leave you much of a roadmap for how to do this? Did he have chapter numbers or sections or any way to indicate how he wanted the material presented?

BG: The editors here — not me in this case — discovered early on that there was a very specific organizational plan for the autobiography for the earliest parts of the book. After the early parts, it’s really a matter of a sequence of dated dictations. He doesn’t handle his life chronologically. On a given day, he talks about what he feels like talking about.

If you open the middle volume, you think it’s halfway through his life and that he should be talking about writing Huckleberry Finn. But he’s not. He’s talking about something he saw in the newspaper that morning in 1908. He calls this his autobiography — and it is — but what Mark Twain through was that the true portrait of a person is a portrait of what’s in their mind.

Mark Twain - Autobiography Volume 3

SIG: How much have you been able to deduce about whether Twain intended for some of this material to be exaggerated or fictional or inaccurate? This is Mark Twain we’re talking about.

BG: It’s really variable across the several years he was working on this. Sometimes he’s thinking of publishing it, and sometimes he’s making reservations not to publish it while he’s alive. The level of candor is pretty variable, and that’s true about Mark Twain in general. In a way, he was always writing autobiography. Even Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are at times autobiography.

SIG: Was the material hard to find?

BG: No, the Autobiography dictations, which are in typescript here in Berkeley, have been mined by scholars almost since Mark Twain’s death. It was always clear that this was an invaluable book, but for a hundred years no one treated it as a book. Bits of it came out at different times, but there was no attempt to take a rational overview of the whole thing as say, What’s the relationship between the manuscripts? We have four copies of one piece of work. Why is that? We have two copies of this one. Which one came later?

There was a lot of that work to do, and it was a huge editorial labor. In the end it took a group of scholars ten years working full-time at the Mark Twain Project to produce these three volumes. While the copyright belonged to Harper & Co., there was no commercial interest in undertaking a book that was going to be expensive to produce and would take ten years to get. It took an academic press.

SIG: Because you’ve got university support and some foundation money?

BG: We are partly supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and partly from private donations. The project has been here since the 1960s producing volumes of what we style as the definitive edition of Mark Twain.

SIG: This is three volumes and nearly 2,000 pages total. You are credited as co-editor on Volume 2 and editor on Volume 3. What was the actual workflow for the group of you who produced these books during these last ten years?

BG: You’ve got a group of scholars who are trained in Mark Twain, American literature, textual criticism and historical research making use of a huge array of works to establish the text as best we can. We annotated it using our own collections and the collections of UC Library. I can’t adequately describe the workflow. Sometimes we’re collating disparate texts. Sometimes we’re making decisions about what approach to take and how to be consistent. There’s a lot of different kinds of work.

SIG: Do you work for the university?

BG: We are university employees. The Mark Twain Project is part of the Bancroft Library, and that is the books and special collections of the University of California, Berkeley’s library. We’re on campus on the fourth floor of the Bancroft Library. We are library employees.

SIG: How did you get involved in it? Did you have a Mark Twain background?

BG: I have a Ph.D. in English. I originally specialized in Shakespeare, which has actually served me well. The discourse about how to edit texts was formulated in the field of Shakespeare studies. And then I had to become a Mark Twain scholar.

SIG: How did you do that? Did you teach Mark Twain for a while?

BG: No, I’ve never had the opportunity. None of us are faculty or have teaching responsibilities. In some ways it’s too bad, but it allows us to work continuously in a way that a professor would only be able to do in his spare hours. We’re full-timers, which is kind of unique in the world of literary editing.

SIG: Has the Autobiography been more or less a hundred percent of your job over the last ten years, or have you also worked on other projects?

BG: We all have other responsibilities. I help scholars come to the papers from as far away as Turkey or Japan to research the archive for their own work. I was also the editor on a little book called A Family Sketch, which is an appendix of private manuscripts that Mark Twain and members of his family wrote. That was all previously unpublished material too.

SIG: What is the reason for doing that at the same time as each of the volumes were published? Instead of, say, protecting the retail sales of the books and putting those online later?

BG: UC Press hasn’t been concerned that having the Autobiography available online interferes with sales. Volume 1 was the biggest-selling book they’ve ever had. It sold nearly a half-million copies.

SIG: Considering the time you’ve spent on this, have you considered writing a Mark Twain biography?

BG: I’m not sure I could ever get the long view back and see Mark Twain the way a biographer has to see him. I think I could write a good history of a single day of Mark Twain’s life. When you work as an editor, you start to see everything at a granular level. Also, there must be ten people writing biographies of Mark Twain at any given moment. There have been at least five biographies published in the last five years.

Mark Twain - Autobiography - Volume 3

SIG: Are there other projects that you’ll do after this — collections of letters or other things that you’re looking at doing?

BG: We are. This is — by design — going to be a complete edition of the works of Mark Twain. That means we have many more volumes to do of his letters, many more volumes of his notebooks and journals. And then there’s all the books and the short stories that we haven’t tackled. Right now, we are working on a critical edition of The Innocents Abroad, which was Mark Twain’s first book. I’m helping another editor right now on an edition of Mark Twain’s journalism that he wrote when he was in San Francisco in 1865 and ‘66. And we’re also working on the seventh volume of the letters series.

We are in the midst of a digitizing project to create digital images of all of Twain’s notebooks, which are mostly here in the library. They are very fragile, and many of them are written in soft pencil, so it will be good to have those digitized for preservation purposes. We also want to have a digital edition of the notebooks for our website.

SIG: How much did your ideas about Twain or your perceptions of his historical significance change over the course of this ten years? Is he more self-aware than you originally thought?

BG: He was more self-aware than I expected. He was not a professional intellectual, but he was a great intellect. In addition to having a sense of humor, he was a real thinker. He had no formal education past age twelve, but he was a great reader and had a great mind. Until you know those papers and journals, you mostly know a caricature of Mark Twain. Just being in contact with his mind is so stimulating.

SIG: When Twain was at the peak of his popularity, was he acknowledged as a Borat-type performance artist who was playing a Mark Twain character? Was he a stand-up comedian?

BG: They called it lecturing at the time, but they weren’t academic lectures. They were entertainment at a time when we didn’t have television. These were semi-orchestrated routines that he gave over and over again in different towns.

SIG: And that was different than what Timothy Leary or William F. Buckley were doing in the 1960s, which was more about advocacy?

BG: We have texts of some of the lectures, and they’re kind of a knitting together of funny stories and descriptions of places he had been. He was doing a parody of people’s lectures. People compare him to Jon Stewart, and I think there’s something to that.

SIG: Do you think of Mark Twain as a character that Samuel Clemens played?

BG: This is still a really divisive question in Mark Twain studies — whether to regard Mark Twain as a fictional creation of Samuel Clemens. I don’t. I think you’re talking about one theatrical guy, and Mark Twain was the name that he wrote and published under. In the period when he became a humorous writer for newspapers — the 1860s — it was absolutely typical for a humorist to write under an assumed name.

SIG: It’s not unusual now. Jon Stewart’s name isn’t Jon Stewart. [It’s actually Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz.]

BG: I think we’re coming out of a historical period in which Jewish comedians thought they needed to change their surname.

SIG: Sarah Silverman would agree with that.

BG: And there’s more than one reason to change your name. One is that performing under a different name is a boost of performative independence. Maybe he felt like he could say different things as Mark Twain than he could as Samuel Clemens.

SIG: If you wrote that one-day biography of Mark Twain, what would be a good day to do?

BG: I’m very drawn to the early part of his career — like the San Francisco period that I’m working on right now. Maybe the day in 1907 when he got his honorary degree at Oxford. He was seventy-two years old and traveled to England for the last of many times. He talked to George Bernard Shaw, talked to the king.

SIG: Any book of Twain’s that you would consider particularly significant or a personal favorite?

BG: My whole thinking has moved toward a broader appreciation of his whole output, but I’m very attached to Huckleberry Finn. It’s boring to say that, but the book is a masterpiece.

SIG: Do you feel like you’re through the looking glass sometimes? Like you have lost touch with what most people think about Mark Twain?

BG: [Laughs.] There’s no longer a world without Mark Twain in it. I feel that Mark Twain is the element in which I live. I used to be surrounded by air, and now I’m surrounded by Mark Twain. It used to be weird, but now it’s normal.