Ensconced on the top floor of the Bancroft Library, a tiny band of scholars have been laboring for more than four decades on an impossible assignment: to collect, organize, annotate, and publish everything Mark Twain ever wrote, including letters, manuscripts, scrapbooks, business documents—even laundry lists.
"The Bancroft often has been called the jewel in the campus’s crown," says Bancroft Director Charles Faulhaber. "But the Mark Twain Project is the jewel in the Bancroft’s crown." That jewel is shining brighter thanks to a $1 million donation from the Class of 1958, which they presented to Chancellor Robert Birgeneau at their 50th reunion on October 5, 2008. "We didn’t want just another gate or another statue," said reunion chairman Roger Samuelsen. "We wanted a living legacy." Class gift chairman Ed Peterson said the original goal was $580,000, in honor of their graduation year. "But we reached that months ago, so we figured, why not go for an even million?"
To date, the Twain Project has published 30 definitive volumes, with the complete edition expected to top 70. It has also ushered Twain into the digital age with an innovative annotation system that allows scholars to trace every change Twain made in various drafts of a text, without interfering with the general reader’s ability to read it for pure pleasure.
Collecting Twain is a Sisyphean task because new writings keep popping up—in attics, used book stores, auctions, even on eBay—at the astonishing rate of about two new items per week. All that paperwork makes for an impressively comprehensive record. "We know very little about Shakespeare’s life, but with a 19th-century author who was famous in his own day, like Twain, we have his cancelled checks—literally," says editor Ben Griffin. "I can look at those checks and track him day by day, hour by hour."
"Twain would have appreciated the humor of the situation," says general editor Robert Hirst. And he would have loved all the attention. "It is human to like to be praised," Twain once wrote. "One can even notice it in the French." Hirst has been with the Twain Project since 1967 when he signed on as an entry-level fact checker. "I thought it was just a temporary job to get me through grad school," he says. "The next thing I knew, it was 1980 and I was general editor." Today he probably knows more about Twain than Twain did.
Hirst and his colleagues habitually refer to Twain in the present tense because he is as real to them as if he were still with us. And that can be bittersweet, because they know how his life turned out. "Editing his letters is wonderful and painful at the same time," says editor Victor Fischer, a member of the project since 1967. "It’s heartbreaking to read his letters to his children because you know they are going to die young."
One of the bigger challenges for the editors is determining the real intent behind Twain’s words—no easy task, given his mischievous streak. "For instance, in his courtship letters [to Livy, his future wife], he sometimes crosses out things in a way that still lets her read what’s underneath," says Hirst. And what’s underneath is something like, "I knew you would try to read what I crossed out."
Currently, the Twain Project has about 17,000 letters in its possession, but Hirst thinks another 50,000 are still out there, waiting to be discovered. Some of the ones he’d most like to get his hands on are the dispatches Twain wrote in 1865, when he was a young reporter for the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada. Originals are extremely rare and hard to track down. One letter includes a parody of a snooty society column: "Miss C.L.B. had her fine nose elegantly enameled, and the easy grace with which she blew it from time to time marked her as a cultivated and accomplished woman of the world…."
That $1 million gift won’t be just paying for new acquisitions, however; it’s an investment in people. Hirst and his colleagues say they’re understaffed, and some of them are approaching retirement age. "That’s why the Class of ’58’s donation is so important," explains Hirst. "It’s the seed money for a permanent endowment that will enable us to train the next generation."
Griffin, a relative newcomer who joined the project in 2005, agrees. "The senior editors are themselves a tremendous resource. The danger is that because they are the same generation, there could be a break in continuity in institutional memory. I’ve been here for three years, and I’m still learning."
"So am I," says Fischer. "And I’ve been here for 41."
That may sound like a long time to devote to one author, no matter how prolific. For every day of his professional life, Hirst has been reading Twain, yet he insists it’s still as fresh as the day he joined the project four decades years ago. "You’d think it would get old, but it never does."