May 6, 2015
New collection of Mark Twain writings uncovered UPDATE: Or maybe not quite…
by Nick Davies
A trove of writings by Mark Twain has been discovered by scholars at the University of California, Berkeley, Janie Har reports for the Associated Press.
The prolific author lived for a time in San Francisco, where he worked as a journalist, and the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley has gathered a collection of dispatches that he wrote during that time. He wrote near-daily columns for local papers, many of which were destroyed in fires, but Twain scholars managed to find 110 of them, published in 1865 and 1866, when he was 29-30 years old.
General editor of the project Bob Hirst says, “This is a very special period in his life, when he’s out here in San Francisco. He’s utterly free, he’s not encumbered by a marriage or much of anything else, and he can speak his mind and does speak his mind. These things are wonderful to read, the ones that survived.”
Twain started filing six columns, or “letters,” for the Territorial Enterprise, a newspaper based in Virginia City, NV, for a salary of $100 a month. The job marked a time in his life—some ten years before the publication of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—when he was struggling with whether his humorous writing would be considered literature, and even contemplating suicide (partly because of his debts). Har surmises that his time in San Francisco might have helped him turn things around, pointing out that he moved to Hawaii the following year.
Twain’s reporting is marked, as Har puts it, by Twain’s characteristic “flair for embellishment and may not be entirely true.” One column tells the story of a pair of gold speculators stuck in a mine shaft, holding on to a horse with a length of rope. He reports that one of them said to the other, “Johnny, I’ve not lived as I ought to have lived. D–n that infernal horse! Johnny, if we are saved I mean to be a good man and a Christian.” Hirst acknowledges that it’s unclear how Twain would have gotten so much detail, and that the story is likely based on “some facts.”
UPDATE: Over at The Digital Reader, Nate Hoffelder tells a somewhat different story in a piece titled “That “Cache” of Mark Twain Writings Wasn’t a Cache, Nor Was it Recently Uncovered.” After seeing a report in the Guardian, Hoffelder wrote the Mark Twain Project and received an email back from its Associate Editor, Benjamin Griffin. According to Griffin, the Guardian‘s report was somewhat misleading. Rather than an “a-ha!” moment, in which a “trove” was discovered, the process has been slow and steady. The writings—some of which have not been published or annotated before—will be published in a forthcoming volume, titled San Francisco Writings, which will collect (surprise) Twain’s writings from the time he spent in San Francisco. As Hoffelder notes, The Mark Twain Project has published thirty previous volumes, which makes this story even less remarkable. Griffins’ email to Hoffelder is below; I’d like to thank Nate for bringing it to my attention.—Alex Shephard
Bob Hirst has forwarded your inquiry to me. I’m an editor here (in fact I’m working on the volume you’re talking about) and I’ll be happy to answer any questions you have about the Project.
Unfortunately some of the stories that are appearing this week are garbled. Especially, their headlines have been misleading. No “cache” or “trove,” as such, of anything, has been recently found.
The real situation is that the Mark Twain Project is preparing a critical, annotated edition of the articles (in journalistic terms of the period, “letters”) written by Mark Twain from San Francisco to the Virginia City (Nevada) Territorial Enterprise. The volume will also contain some articles written for other, mostly San Francisco, papers.
Identifying and recovering the print journalism of Mark Twain in this period is an ongoing process, not a single find. They are never extant as manuscript; they are found in library files of old newspapers. Some of these old newspapers are very rare. In our office we have the files of many researchers, some who devoted most of their lives to combing through old newspapers, long before digital archives.
The principal editor of the forthcoming volume is Rick Bucci, who lives in New York.
Of the articles he’s collected in this volume (San Francisco Writings), many have been published before in various collections; and much of the volume will indeed be “new” to most MT scholars and readers. Most have never been published before in reliable texts, with historical annotation to contextualize and explain them.
Sorry if the tone of this email is a bit sobering. It’s been our duty over the last few days to set the story straight — without, I hope, dampening anyone’s ardor for new and unfamiliar Mark Twain.
A publication date for San Francisco Writings has not yet been set. It’ll be published by Univ. of California Press, as the latest volume (of almost thirty published since the 1960s) in the Project’s complete edition.
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.