Saturday, February 19, 2011

Mark Twain’s Autobiography

Beth’s mother, colluding with Beth, gave me volume 1 of Autobiography of Mark Twain. Two more volumes await publication. The Mark Twain Project prepared the book. And I’m like, wow!

The Mark Twain Project, if you don’t follow the link, dedicates itself to producing scholarly work on Twain’s apparently abundant oeuvre, and to put most if not all of it online. This scholarly dedication fascinates me.

I like Twain, tho I cannot declare to be well-read in his work. Huckleberry Finn certainly rates as a classic, Tom Sawyer’s ok, Life on the Mississippi has some beautiful passages. And of course as a humourist/satirst ,Twain’s stature stands high. This book & project excites me because of its attempt to embrace the totality of scholarship.

The thing is, every writer/artist could be so embraced, so we can see juvenilia, sketches, marginalia, alternate and early versions. So we can learn the context of the artist. These things catch my interest. Practically speaking, one cannot delve so deeply into too many artists unless you are, professionally speaking, a scholar. I do not become a scholar by reading this book, but I get a taste of the enterprise.

I should mention that this book weighs in at a hefty 700+ pages of small print. Those pages break down interestingly. The introduction and such front matter entail the first 200 pages. Explanatory notes begin on page 469. Appendices, chronology, index, and sources flesh out the back matter. Two hundred pages of actual autobiography, the rest is meta to the meta meta degree.

Even tho the cadre of editors seek to produce something authoritative, it is an editorial work (editoreality, if you will). They construct an idea of what Twain wanted from whatever evidence before them. The author is just one voice in this.

The business end of this reveals itself. Someone controls the project (necessarily, of course). Or several someones. So the work must bend to not just scholarly necessity, but to, oh, the editor’s career and interest. Furthermore, family or whoever was entrusted with the ‘ownership’ of the work will have goals outside whatever pure vision we want to imagine.

I used to love the diligence and clarification that George Butterick put into Charles Olson’s work. I now realize, and accept, that he did it his way. Olson left a mess, and Butterick interpreted it. It is collaboration where we cannot easily, if at all, define who did what. So it goes. I still respect the work that Butterick did, but recognize that he shaped the mass of papers that he worked with.

I do not expect to blast thru this autobiography, but I shall enjoy my reading. And plus also: Twain is after all officially hilarious.

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