Robert Hirst, The Accidental Celebrity

Robert Hirst, The Accidental Celebrity

Fame is a vapor; popularity an accident; the only earthly certainty is oblivion. —Mark Twain, from Mark Twain’s Notebook

In the eight months since the publication of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1, Robert Hirst’s world has gone from a sedentary float down the Mississippi to hopscotching the interview circuit like the jumping frog of Calaveras County. A glance at his schedule for 2010 tells the story in numbers: prior to May, Hirst—adjunct Cal professor and general editor of the Bancroft Library’s renowned Mark Twain Papers and Project—was lucky if he averaged one interview request per year. But within days after the London Independent wrote a piece about the forthcoming three-volume, complete and uncensored Twain tell-all, Hirst’s calendar started to look like a dartboard in an English pub.

By November 2010, as the behemoth 760-page tome went on sale, Hirst was giving as many as two interviews a day to everyone from the BBC and Reuters to NPR’s Fresh Air and the CBS Evening News.

“We had no idea how big this would be,” says Hirst, who lives in Oakland and teaches a course on Twain to undergrads. “The London Independent story lit some kind of fire in the world. Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of me. U.C. Press was initially going to print 10,000 copies, which was a lot for us. They decided to up that to 50,000 copies and then they upped it again. Still, we thought we would be lucky if the book sold 100,000 copies. We weren’t even close. They ended up printing more than 500,000 copies. Everyone was completely blown away.”

For the small band of scholars toiling away in the quiet and tidy offices on the fourth floor of the Bancroft Library, where the world’s largest collection of Mark Twain manuscripts has been ensconced since the 1970s, their newfound literary rock-star status has been quite a shock.

Hirst—a soft-spoken academic with a wavy mane of white hair, droll expression, and a tendency toward frankness who bears more than a passing resemblance to the erstwhile Samuel Langhorne Clemens, has dedicated the last 43 years to procuring, analyzing, editing, and reconstructing Twain’s writings. The Project’s modest goal: to publish annotated and critical editions of every single scribble Mark Twain ever put down on paper.

“There is such a vast amount of Twain’s writing not yet available to the public. I won’t live to finish it. But the idea is to get it all in one place, either online or in books,” Hirst says from behind a desk piled high with books, papers, folders, and files.

Exactly how much material are we talking about? Walk into the windowless, climate-controlled Twain vault and you’re met with wall-to-wall and nearly floor-to-ceiling file cabinets and bookshelves. Within them lie an estimated half-million pieces of paper: more than 30 books and pamphlets, some 600 unpublished manuscripts (including 11 file feet of autobiography), 11,000 letters by Twain and 17,000 letters to him, close to 4,000 newspaper and magazine articles, 50 notebooks, and thousands of essays, speeches, editorials, typescripts, proofs, drawings, business documents, photographs, and Twain ephemera as obscure as

the calling cards he used during different periods of his life. And that doesn’t include the constant influx of new material that’s still coming in.

“We’re still finding three letters a week,” says Hirst. “They’re in people’s libraries and they don’t even know it. Great-grandsons pull them out of old books. Libraries get chunks of stuff that they can’t afford to catalog right away. We’re constantly in the process of getting copies of everything.”

While he’s thrilled, of course, at the publicity (and profits) that the Autobiography has brought in, Hirst admits he also finds it disconcerting that so much attention has been paid to just one work. “What we do is so much bigger than the autobiography,” he explains. “We want to publish every single piece of work, every letter—everything of significance that Twain ever wrote.”


The long and arduous process actually began in 1906, four years before Twain’s death, when he named Albert Paine his official biographer and granted Paine access to his unpublished papers. A later editor, Dixon Wecter, convinced Twain’s daughter, Clara, to let him take the papers to Berkeley when he took a job in the history department in 1949. Eventually, Clara bequeathed the collection to Cal. For Hirst, the lifelong love affair began in the 1960s as a struggling Cal grad student in American literature.

“I was fired from my job as T.A. [teaching assistant] because I wasn’t moving fast enough toward my Ph.D.,” he recalls with a chuckle. “I saw an advertisement for a job ‘checking and proofreading’ for the Mark Twain Papers and they hired me along with several other grad students, two of whom I still work with every day. It was an amazing time. We were given access to the whole archive, and eventually, the grad students became the experts. It’s the kind of job you’d kill for after your Ph.D. and we got it—for $2.38 an hour—as grad students.”

After finishing his doctorate, Hirst went on to teach Twain at U.C.L.A. Through grants, he kept working on the early tales and sketches he’d begun in Berkeley, and in 1980 he was named the general editor and curator of the Mark Twain Papers and Project.

Hirst acknowledges that the Autobiography (a publication he oversaw, but that was edited by colleague Harriet Smith and others) may be the most sensational publication to come out of the Mark Twain Papers, but it’s not the only bombshell. In 1990, the first half of the original manuscript for Huckleberry Finn was discovered in an attic in Los Angeles where it had been languishing for decades. Twain had sent the second half to the Buffalo, New York public library in 1885, but thought the first half had been lost or destroyed. In fact, Hirst explains, Twain found it in his own papers in 1887 and subsequently sent it to Buffalo as well, where the librarian, for some reason, never entered it into the collection.

“When he [the librarian] died 10 years later, all his manuscripts were packed up and given to his daughter,” Hirst says. “They ended up in a trunk in the attic of the librarian’s daughter’s nieces. And lo and behold, when they opened up the trunk—634 pages of Twain’s masterpiece.”

After an ownership tug-of-war, the manuscript was returned to Buffalo, but the Twain Project was allowed access and published a scholarly edition of Huckleberry Finn in 2003. The new edition not only introduced the lost “raft” chapter to the book, it restored all sorts of words, punctuation, and spelling that Twain had put in his original manuscript.

“It was a big, big deal for us,” Hirst remembers. “We published a text of his masterpiece that was better than anything we could have come up with before. Because we could compare the original manuscript to the first edition, we were able to get a very precise record of how Twain revised.”

Still, the new and improved Huckleberry Finn never exploded in the public’s imagination the way the Autobiography has, a fact that Hirst speculates has much to do with the forbidden fruit factor. Though sections of the autobiography had made it to print before, Twain left explicit instructions that the full text should remain unpublished until 100 years after his death, when his words could no longer scandalize friends or family.

“It was an irresistible hook and U.C. Press put the pressure on us to get it out in time for the 100-year deadline,” he says. “What was exciting for us was that for the longest time, we didn’t think Mark Twain had finished it. But when Harriet and the editors got working on it, they found out he knew exactly what he wanted in it and what he didn’t want, and in what order.”

Hirst also maintains that Twain, more than almost any American writer, continues to hold a fascination for people that has never diminished. “People want to know more about Mark Twain, the man. The Autobiography is him talking in his own words, and he’s enormously charming. His mastery of humor and language is unparalleled. He was the most traveled writer of his time. He went through all the archetypal experiences of 19th-century America—gold miner, riverboat pilot, newspaperman. There’s no one else like him, even today.”

The fascination certainly hasn’t ebbed for the editors at the Twain Project, most of whom have been there upwards of 20 years. Hirst jokes that they’re going to bury him in a pine box in the corner of his Bancroft office.

“I’ve never been bored for a single moment,” he says. “There’s too much going on, it’s too much fun. Twain keeps all of us entertained—by the problems he presents, the editorial quandaries. For editors like me, it’s endlessly entertaining.”


San Francisco journalist Bonnie Wach’s writing has appeared in publications ranging from The New York Times Magazine to the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times. She last wrote for The East Bay Monthly on vegetarian food pioneer Mollie Katzen.

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