Accessibility links

Mark Twain Archive: A Hidden National Treasure - 2002-04-28

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, is considered one of America's greatest writers and humorists. His stories about life on the Mississippi River during the late 1800's are classics, and his work still provokes discussion and debate. But there's more to Mark Twain than 'Huckleberry Finn,' 'A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court' and a host of social commentaries. And all those writings can be found in a cramped and cluttered office, down a long corridor on the top floor of the Bancroft Library on the University of California's Berkeley campus.

Stuffed onto shelves and piled high on desks is the world's largest archive of Mark Twain's papers. It includes about fifty notebooks the writer kept from 1855 until his death in 1910, as well as his personal Bible and childhood photos.

"On your right we begin what's called the writings file. Basically a chronological file of everything we know of that he wrote either for publication or for his own amusement," says Bob Hirst, the collection's curator. He is proud to point out that the archive has the originals or texts of 11,000 of Clemens' letters - many signed 'Sam' or 'Papa.' There are also the originals and copies of Twain's speeches and literary manuscripts those that made it into print and those that didn't.

"This is from Chapter 3 of Tramp Abroad, it's called Baker's Blue Jay Yarn, and he goes on to tell a story about some actual blue jays, ostensibly actual blue jays in the Sierras. 'You may call a jay a bird. Well, so he is, in a measure, because he got feathers on him and don't belong to no church, perhaps. But otherwise, he is just as much a human as you be. And I'll tell you for why… a jay's gifts and instincts and feelings and interests cover the whole ground. A jay hasn't got any more principle than a congressman. A jay will lie, a jay will steal, a jay will deceive, a jay will betray, and four times out of five, a jay will go back on his solemnest promise. The sacredness of an obligation is a thing which you can't cram into any blue jay's head. Yessir, a jay is everything that a man is. A jay can cry, a jay can laugh, a jay can feel shame, a jay can reason and plan and discuss, a jay likes gossip and scandal, a jay's got a sense of humor, a jay knows when he is an ass just as well as you do… maybe better.'"

Mr. Hirst says the writer was so successful in his lifetime because his criticisms of society were sugarcoated with humor. He calls that 'Mark Twain's greatest achievement.' "He knew how to put the contradictions or the complexities in a humorous way so that the humor has a way of sliding things past you that you would otherwise resist," he says. "If you can laugh at something, you're in a much better position to judge it or re-judge it, judge it afresh, instead of judging it always in the way you've judged it before."

Mr. Hirst says his main goal as curator is to get Mark Twain's unpublished manuscripts into print, and that's one of the many reasons the non-profit Archive needs money.

To raise funds, fans of the author formed The Mark Twain Luncheon Club. The writer loved clubs. He created several… including the Modest Club, which had a membership of one. The sixty members of the Mark Twain Luncheon Club each pay an annual fee of fifteen hundred dollars to attend two luncheons a year, where they celebrate Samuel Clemens, the man, and Mark Twain, the novelist, journalist, author, humorist and orator.

Gwen Mitchell says she joined because she loved reading Mark Twain's books as a child. "His dialogue was very real," she says. "I know there's been criticism about some of the words that they used from back in those days but it was very realistic and you were transported into that time and that era. It was mostly about boys not too many girls in it but I guess that's why I enjoyed it. Full of adventure. Things I couldn't have done myself so I did them through reading the books."

Actor Hal Holbrook was the keynote speaker at the most recent Mark Twain luncheon (in March). Mr. Holbrook has been earning a living portraying Mark Twain in a one-man show for nearly 50 years and he says the writer has become a part of him. "The more I learned about him, the more I became acquainted with the astonishing wealth of material and the wealth of subject matter that he touched, the more I realized he was probably our greatest social critic in the disguise of a literary man," he says.

That 'social critic' was born at a time in America when life was uncomplicated and he observed, and commented on, its change and growth into an industrial nation.

Robert Middlekauff, a University of California History Professor Emeritus, is writing a biography of Mark Twain. He's also one of the founders of the Luncheon Club, and sees the writer as a fascinating character whose story offers readers insight into the 19th century. "I think it's a scandal that the Mark Twain Project isn't better supported," he says. "We have great writers in this country and though we read them, we neglect the important obligation of seeing that their works are published in really reliable texts and that's what this project is doing."

The Mark Twain Archive is open to visitors, students and scholars by appointment. Its wealth of memorabilia is the reason the collection has been called a hidden national treasure.