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The Icon Answers: 'Who Is Mark Twain?'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

From Jane Austen to the devil himself, Mark Twain didn't hesitate to make his opinions known on any number of topics, and after publishing more than a dozen books, including a couple of masterpieces and hundreds of shorter essays stories and speeches, you'd think there wouldn't be much left to say.

But a new collection of never before published works by Twain has just been released. Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley selected the material and wrote the introduction to the collection called "Who Is Mark Twain?" Hirst joins us now from a studio at the university. Good to have you with us, Mr. Hirst.

Mr. ROBERT HIRST (General Editor, Mark Twain Project, University of California at Berkeley): Good to be here.

NEARY: So what's the story behind these previously unpublished pieces? Where have they been hiding all this time?

Mr. HIRST: Well, they really haven't been hiding, at least as far as we're concerned. Mark Twain gave, or rather, his daughter gave his papers to the university in 1949. And about the mid '60s we started publishing them in a scholarly edition. And Bob Miller from Harper Studio came to us and said he'd be interested in publishing basically a popular edition of anything that we could come up with.

So we came up with 24 pieces that I think are really representative of the kind of thing that Mark Twain left behind him - sometimes deliberately not publishing it, sometimes just not finishing it and something that people can enjoy. Things that he would've published, for instance, if circumstances had been different.

NEARY: Well, it's really interesting because in one of the essays called "The Privilege of the Grave," Mark Twain writes about how the only time a person really has free speech is when he is dead. Let's hear a section of that from the audiobook. We're going to hear the actor John Lithgow reading.

Mr. JOHN LITHGOW (Actor): We have charity for what the dead say. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them as knowing they cannot not now defend themselves. If they should speak, what revelations there would be, for it would be found that in matters of opinion, no departed person was exactly what he had passed for in life. That out of fear, or out of calculated wisdom, or out of reluctance to wound friends, he had long kept to himself certain views not suspected by his little world.

NEARY: Of course I couldn't help but think of Mark Twain, what he would think of these works that were now being published from his grave.

Mr. HIRST: Of course.

NEARY: And I wondered if he'd have any reservations about any of these pieces being published?

Mr. HIRST: Well, that's a good question. I think basically you have to remember that Mark Twain says very clearly that he doesn't care whether his letters are published after his death. So long as he's not there, he's not going to be embarrassed by them. And he's very clear about saying I don't believe in the afterlife, I'm not imagining that I'm going to be looking down from heaven or up from hell and reading these and being embarrassed by them.

NEARY: Well, one of the pieces that I wondered about is called "Conversations with Satan."

Mr. HIRST: Yeah.

NEARY: And this piece, it starts off as a meeting with Satan and the narrator is saying I'd like to interview him, and he sits down with Satan. And then all of the sudden it becomes a dissertation on cigars. Satan is completely forgotten. And it just sort of feels like Mark Twain went off on some tangent and never returned to his original idea. What do you know about that story?

Mr. HIRST: Well, that is literally the case. I mean, I think it's actually a good example of the way Mark Twain jumps in and writes without any clear plan. And he can in certain circumstances get himself into this long detour that he can't really return from. That's really why it's unfinished. It's not something that I think a lot of people are going to want to have more and more of, but it's very illustrative of the way Mark Twain worked.

It is quite typical of him to write and write and write and then decide this isn't going anywhere and stop and sometimes go back and start over again. "Mysterious Stranger" is a good example of that. But even "The Jumping Frog," we have two early manuscripts of that that show he starts and he starts over in a slightly different way. Took him at least three tries to get "The Jump Frog" written.

NEARY: And in your introduction to this book you point out that some of these stories really might be better received now than they were written. Why did you say that?

Mr. HIRST: Well, I think it's because Mark Twain is a very forward-looking experimental writer. Not something the we - the world knows much about because they're so focused on "Huckleberry Finn," his masterpiece and so forth and so on. But many of these pieces are experimental. And he's really thinking in a way that probably isn't met by his contemporary audience.

"The Undertaker's Tale" is a good example. We know specifically that he read it to his family chuckling all the time. And of course there was just dead silence. They thought it was awful. And he never did really figure out why it wasn't funny to them. But of course he doesn't throw it away. I mean, so it's here for us to take in.

NEARY: So what do you think we learn about Mark Twain from these stories, including the ones we've talked about - some of them that were just works in progress, maybe weren't finished? I mean, do we as the public - not scholars -but does the public learn anything that maybe we didn't know already or not?

Mr. HIRST: Well, I dare say that the public is not aware of his experimental streak and not aware of the way he would plunge in and write as far as he could and then have to stop. So I think of it as a way to broaden our understanding of who Mark Twain is.

NEARY: Robert Hirst is general editor of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California at Berkeley. We spoke with him about the new book, "Who is Mark Twain?" a collection of previously unpublished works by the author. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. HIRST: Glad to be here.

NEARY: You can read a review of "Who is Mark Twain?" plus an excerpt of Twain's essay, "Conversations With Satan," on our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.