Mark Twain autobiography, 100 years old, debuts Saturday

Modesto BeeOctober 13, 2010 

ANGELS CAMP, Calif. — Mark Twain had a dying wish — that the public not see his complete autobiography for 100 years.

Time's up.

The first volume of the book will be released Saturday in Angels Camp, a tiny town that played a big part in Twain's emergence as a writer. The unveiling by the University of California Press has drawn international attention.

People involved with the book said Twain ordered the century long hold so as not to offend anyone living at the time of his death on April 21, 1910.

"This is his uncensored work that he wanted to hold back for 100 years," said Bob Rogers, an organizer of the Mark Twain Motherlode Festival, where the unveiling will take place. "He really didn't want his family embarrassed or his friends embarrassed."

Twain seemed to rarely shy from speaking his mind during a life that took him from Mississippi River steamboats to Mother Lode goldfields to the South Seas. But in the autobiography, dictated to his secretary starting in 1906, he was an especially fierce critic of the nation's political and religious culture.

In an excerpt from UC Press, Twain complained that financier Jay Gould "rotted the commercial morals of this nation and left them stinking when he died."

He believed the Christian faith of Americans had declined into "nothing but a shell, a sham, a hypocrisy."

Twain criticized U.S. intervention abroad, referring to its soldiers as "uniformed assassins" for their suppression of a native revolt in the Philippines.

'Quintessential American'

Gregg Camfield, a University of California at Merced literature professor and Twain scholar, said the author feared the United States was headed toward monarchy.

"People talk about Mark Twain being the quintessential American," Camfield said. "You will see that he is like most Americans, because he can be critical of America, too."

Parts of the autobiography have been published in various forms over the years, but this is the first time the public will see Twain's life story organized into a book.

Lead editor Harriet Elinor Smith and her colleagues combed through the vast collection of Twain papers at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library. The second and third volumes are expected within five years.

Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Missouri in 1835. His early travels included a winter 1864-65 stay near Angels Camp, where he heard a tavern tale that inspired him to write "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." This short story brought his first literary fame.

Twain went on to turn out a prodigious number of works — novels, short stories, newspaper pieces, travelogues — and drew crowds on the lecture circuit. This year is the 125th anniversary of his most famous book, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn."

Camfield, who will take part in Saturday's event, read Twain's autobiographical material for his doctoral dissertation in 1989. He is among the chosen few who got an early look at the new book.

Camfield said Twain could express himself freely by dictating rather than writing his autobiography. And it shows that the author was not depressed late in life, contrary to the impression left by a 2002 Ken Burns documentary, he said.

"It reads so beautifully," Camfield said. "He was a master storyteller, and he was at the peak of his art."

The release of the book has been reported in The New York Times, the Independent of London and other media. Mass marketing will start next month, but the organizers of Saturday's festival will have about 70 copies for sale Saturday.

"They're at an undisclosed, secure place in Calaveras County," Executive Director Caroline Schirato said.

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