Best Paragraphs In Sunday Newspaper Not About Protests, Death, Or Taxes

I am in one of those coffee drinking, grab a sweatshirt as I am chilly, feet up, protest weary, sad over Japan, chocolate eating moods.   As such I am reading all sorts of newspapers today and found the following in the Wisconsin State Journal that alerts me that life is about more than stressful topics.

Right off the bat, I love Mark Twain.  At Christmas one of the presents under the tree for James was volume one of the autobiography series from the famed writer.  James also loves Twain, but let me say I really did not buy the book  just so I could read it too. 


Today a follow-up news story about the success of the edition just made me glad that this project is gaining the respect it deserves.  It speaks volumes (no pun intended) about readers in America.

The first volume of the planned trilogy has remained a national bestseller since its release in November, 100 years after Twain’s death at the age of 74. There are nearly half a million copies in print, putting it as high as No. 4 on the Los Angeles Times’ hardback nonfiction list and No. 2 on the New York Times’ list.

“It’s not often that you get these events where the scholarly world and the popular sphere collide,” Benjamin Griffin, the memoir’s associate editor, said recently. He spoke in the small office he and Smith share in UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, near the repository of the world’s largest collection of Twain manuscripts and letters. Most of the 20,000 items came to the university in 1949 with permission of Twain’s daughter Clara, who later donated them.

The project’s staff worked for 43 years in relative obscurity, producing volume after volume of what are considered the most accurate and complete editions of Twain’s large body of work, including such classics as the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Prince and the Pauper,” along with letters, travelogues and essays.

Robert H. Hirst, the Twain center’s general editor, said he expected the memoir’s first volume to sell perhaps 10,000 copies, still much higher than his previous releases. “You’d have to be a fool to expect something like this to be a bestseller,” Hirst said of the often rambling reminiscences and many scholarly notes.

As sales took off, however, editors realized that Twain’s sly humor and skepticism about wealthy elites, U.S. militarism, politicians and organized religion hold a seemingly timeless appeal. “It’s a time when his particular sort of tone and attitude is very welcome,” said Hirst, who has headed the center for 30 years.

The strong sales mean a welcome windfall for the Twain project, perhaps $800,000 this year, which its editors said would be used to create an endowment to increase its seven-member staff and for costs that funding from UC, federal and private sources may not cover.

But even with the extra money, getting the entire autobiography to print will not be easy, Hirst said.

The book’s publisher, the University of California Press, had pushed for all three volumes to be published together last year, a task the Twain project said was impossible. The publisher now wants the second volume in stores next year and the third by 2014. Hirst says he will not meet those deadlines if it means diluting the quality of editing, historical annotation and Web presentation.

“We are going as fast as we can. Maybe it’s not fast enough for this commercial pressure. But I don’t consider it my job to give in to that,” the white-haired Hirst, 69, said in his office, cluttered with stacks of Twain books and files.

He escorted a visitor into the center’s climate-controlled storeroom, where metal cabinets are filled with Twain’s handwritten manuscripts and a trove of letters to and from him. On top of the cabinets are enlarged photographs of Twain in his signature white suit and the battered travel trunk in which his daughter Clara, a singer, carried her sheet music.

Hirst showed off one of his favorite items, a tiny purple velvet case containing a photograph of a 34-year-old, handsomely mustachioed Twain from 1869, which he inscribed with a love note (“I XXX you, Livy! Don’t tell!”) to his future wife Olivia Langdon.

The archive room also holds the documents that form the basis of the autobiography, a freewheeling, non-chronological melange of the writer’s memories, opinions and diatribes.

It’s not as if Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, left behind a well-organized memoir. After several false starts, he started dictating his thoughts and memories in 1906 in a manner he called “a complete and purposed jumble.” That continued over four years. 

Within a few pages, he details the whereabouts of childhood friends from Hannibal, Mo.; recalls trips with his late daughter, Susy; and denounces President Theodore Roosevelt for a 1906 U.S. military action in the Philippines that resulted, Twain said, in the “slaughter” of 600 tribal people.

Working from the sometimes conflicting typescripts of the dictation sessions, the project’s scholars painstakingly decipher the writer’s – and previous editors’ – handwritten corrections and deletions. They keep lists of every change, even shifts from commas to semicolons.

They also research accompanying explanations about many of the people, events and places Twain mentions. About 200 of the first volume’s 736 pages are devoted to such notes.

On a recent day Smith, 64, was puzzling over a June 12, 1906, transcript, in which Twain discussed acquaintances who had lost their property in that year’s San Francisco earthquake. The couple split up to find work, the woman heading to New York and the man to what the original typescript said was Oregon until Clemens crossed that out and wrote Montana, possibly to hide his identity. Smith is trying to determine if “Oregon” should be restored.

Sitting at a computer nearby, Griffin, 42, was researching a July 30, 1906, session in which Twain, a former Mississippi riverboat pilot, recalled a brief, youthful romance with a passenger. Nearly 50 years later, Twain said he had received a letter from the woman, Laura Wright, that “shook me to the foundations.” Wright was appealing for help for a disabled son and Twain sent her $1,000, asking himself: “What had that girl done, what crime had she committed, that she must be punished with poverty and drudgery in her old age?”

Griffin is preparing a biographical note about Wright, including an allegation, based on a friend’s letter in the archive, that she was a Confederate spy. Other project editors will decide whether the evidence is strong enough to mention her possible espionage. 

Twain had instructed that no one publish the entire memoir until a century after his death and no one seemed to want to. Dating to the 1920s, several abridged versions were produced, all of which took liberties with the writer’s format. Previous editors and Twain heirs also cut much of his earthy humor and more virulent attacks on former business partners, politicians and others; UC Berkeley’s scholars put it all back in.

“Huckleberry Finn” Should Not Be Censored, ‘Nigger’ Helps Us Understand Racism And Should Not Be Removed From Text

I deplore the word ‘nigger’.

I deplore the word ‘faggot’.

I do not want either used in common every-day conversation, and can say I have no friends that do.

But there comes a time when the  word ‘nigger’ conveys the tone and message required, such as in the book “Huckleberry Finn” that many of us read as youngsters in conjunction with “Tom Sawyer”.  At least I did.  In fact, “Huckleberry Finn” was a classroom text for me and my school peers.

I mention all this as “Huckleberry Finn” that was penned in 1884 is now being published without the word ‘nigger’.  In its place will be the more sterile word ‘slave’.  I find this censorship highly troubling.  To add salt to this wound is also the removal of the word “injun”.  Again, not  a word we want used today, but one that puts the reader into the times of which the author has constructed in his book.  (Let us not forget, it IS his book.)

I think it asinine to touch the words penned by Mark Twain.  I have enough problems when some in Hollywood condone colorizing old films.  But when someone remakes the words of a classic read I want to scream.

Racism was, and remains a real and troubling part of our society.  To attempt to whitewash it from a text takes away the one thing that we need more than anything else.  That being a protracted and highly engaged conversation about racism.  University scholar Alan Gribben is responsible for the censoring of “Huckleberry Finn” in what he describes as an attempt to get the book back in the hands of high school literature courses.   The edited book is soon to be published and released for sale.

While I applaud the desire to have youth read “Huckleberry Finn”, I throw-up over Gribben’s means to achieve it.  To not address racism in the manner it was presented in the book by Twain removes a great teaching moment for the folks who will read it.

Even after the many decades of work and public policy aimed to construct our society to be more equal we are still limited from a real dialogue on racism.  If we can not get over the mere usage of the word ‘nigger’ in a text as highly praised as “Huckleberry Finn” how can we move to a higher  level of awareness in our communities or legislatures when confronting racism?