You may have heard recently that never-before-seen pieces of writing by Mark Twain have been discovered. However, just as the news of his death once was, reports of new writing by Twain are somewhat exaggerated.
The good news, however, is that rare pieces of writing by the man considered by many to be the father of American literature are being compiled for a complete volume of his works. But as far as new stuff goes?
“The fact is, stories have made it sound like there was (a discovery) of a discreet, specific cache of Mark Twain writing. That’s not really the case,” said Ben Griffin, editor at the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley.
“What’s happening is that we’ve been working for some time on a volume, and an ongoing series of volumes, that are the complete works of Mark Twain. This volume is going to contain his journalism written in San Francisco in 1865 and a little bit of 1866. Some pieces in this collection will be unfamiliar even to Mark Twain scholars. Somehow, it had gotten around that we had found something [new].
“What we’re talking about here is a collection which will contain over 100 short pieces of journalism with annotations and introductions. Some of it was discovered in the 1940s, some of it was discovered in the 1960s and some of it was discovered in the last year. It’s an ongoing process of looking through old newspapers and finding things that are, or may be, Mark Twain.”
Griffin said the process is “the ongoing drudgery of compiling an edition rather than a set of Indiana Jones-style glamorous discoveries.”
Still, Griffin said of the volume, “this is a key year for (Twain’s) development—1865 is the year that he’s in San Francisco, writing for the Virginia City, Nevada Territorial Enterprise. It’s the year that he fully embraces his destiny as a writer instead of a [riverboat] pilot or miner. It’s a year of great writing.”
Griffin said the writing isn’t the short stories or novels that Twain would become known for, but rather “maybe a paragraph or part of a paragraph about how good or bad the oysters are at a particular restaurant in San Francisco. It’s journalistic writing. It’s miscellaneous; it’s column writing. These are glimpse of early Mark Twain.”
Griffin expects that work on the volume is ongoing, and he expects it to be released to the public within the next three years. “It will be new to a lot of people; it just that it seems wrong to claim that it’s new as such,” he said. After all, he added, “how can any newspaper article be new? It was, by definition, published in a newspaper.”
In the meantime, the search for Twain material continues. “Sometimes, new discoveries are being made. I don’t want to downplay that,” Griffin said. “There are people spending their lives over old newspapers and now ransacking online databases trying to find snippets that are, or could be, him.
“We’re happy that there’s interest in early Mark Twain and in our project,” Griffin said. “We consider all of his work from that period to be important.”