UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain Papers and Project examines Twain’s work as reporter, writer

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UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain Papers and Project is focusing on piecing together Mark Twain’s work as a young reporter and writer in the 19th century through campus archival work.

The project highlights the young life of Twain by examining and archiving available documents that show Twain’s beginning as a writer. Housed in Bancroft Library, the project includes first-edition books, manuscripts, a dozen scrapbooks, rare printings and even a lock of his hair.

According to Bob Hirst, the general editor of the project and curator, Twain, whose birth name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, had an identity crisis in 1865, six weeks before his 30th birthday. Twain’s rising debt led him to consider suicide. The crisis pushed him to become a writer.

Twain, who wrote “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” lived in the Bay Area during this period of struggle.

According to Hirst, Twain wrote for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada, from 1862-64. After Twain’s friend Steve Gillis was arrested after a bar fight, Twain posted bail for him. After posting bond, Gillis left town and urged Twain to flee Nevada. Gillis offered a place to stay on Angel Island in the bay, where Twain fled to in 1864.

Upon arriving in the Bay Area, Twain and his editor from Nevada, Joseph Goodman, worked out a deal for him to become the San Francisco Enterprise correspondent. For six days a week, Twain wrote 2,000 words a day for $100 a month about living in San Francisco. During this time, he also wrote for the the Dramatic Chronicle, which later became the San Francisco Chronicle.

Hirst describes 1865 as a “mystery year.” While Twain usually wrote from 40 to 100 personal letters to friends and family a year, there are only three letters known to exist from 1865. Additionally, the Great Fire of 1875 in Virginia City destroyed Twain’s file writings for the Enterprise.

Twain’s work believed to be destroyed in the Great Fire was saved in scrapbooks kept by the Twain family, which is how Hirst and his team were able to access the lost documents. The findings are focused on Twain’s stay in San Francisco from 1865-66.

“Yes, there will be things new and revealing to some people, but it’s not a sudden, great, revealing find,” said Mark Woodhouse, a Twain scholar in charge of the collection at Elmira College in New York. “For a scholar, it’s business as usual.”

In one of three personal letters, Twain wrote to his brother and sister-in-law about the identity crisis that evidently led him to become a writer.

“If I do not get out of debt in three months — pistols or poison for one — exit me,” Twain wrote.

In a post to the Mark Twain Forum, associate editor of the project Benjamin Griffin said he is working on copy editing and rechecking a critical, annotated volume focused on Twain’s newspaper correspondence from San Fransisco to the Enterprise.

Written by the project’s former editor, Rick Bucci, the volume critically analyzes Twain’s work from when he wrote to Virginia City from San Francisco over the course of about seven months.

“The discovery of new articles by Mark Twain is, as forum readers will realize, a constant process, not a single find,” Griffin said to the forum. “Of the things that are ‘new’ in this volume, some have been found by Rick, some by other researchers, over a period of many years.”


Contact Jamie Nguyen at [email protected].