UC Berkeley’s best-kept secret isn’t trying to hold its title.
To find this secret’s location, embark on the labyrinthine journey by first entering through the front doors of Doe Memorial Library. Go up the left side of the marble staircase (or take the elevator) to the second floor, through the Heyns Reading Room and past Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s mammoth 1853 painting, “Washington Rallying the Troops at Monmouth,” then turn down a long hallway to arrive at the Bancroft Library.
The Bancroft Library has its own Campanile-facing entrance, of course, but the above route passes by the bronze statue of Mark Twain within the lobby of Doe. That’s crucial. In Gary Price’s statue, Twain sits holding a copy of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” left arm resting over the back of a park bench. It’s a statue commonly mistaken for Albert Einstein, but its plaque reveals that it commemorates an endowment established to benefit the Mark Twain Project.
The project, founded in 1963, houses the Mark Twain Papers, an extensive collection of the private manuscripts, sketches, essays, poems, notes, photographs and letters of the man behind the pseudonym, Samuel Clemens, as well as first editions of Clemens’ works as Twain. They were first deposited in the Bancroft Library in 1949 and bequeathed to the university by Clemens’ daughter, Clara Clemens Samossoud, in 1962. Since then, the collection has grown: It presently comprises 50 of Clemens’ notebooks, 12,000 letters by Clemens and his immediate family, 150 books from his personal library and 600 unpublished literary manuscripts.
Never heard of the project? You wouldn’t be the first.
“I grew up in Berkeley and never knew the Mark Twain collection was here. Never knew that. No one breathed a word of it. I was an undergraduate in English here and nobody told me about it,” said Benjamin Griffin, associate editor of the Mark Twain Project.
As a student at Berkeley High School, Griffin wrote a pseudonymous column for his school newspaper, wherein he attempted to emulate Twain’s humor and sarcasm. Now, he’s also the professor of an English 190 course on Mark Twain, which is taught within the Mark Twain Project’s office.
“I grew up in Berkeley and never knew the Mark Twain collection was here.”
– Benjamin Griffin
Griffin led me on a Willy Wonka-esque golden elevator ride up to the fourth floor of the Bancroft Library. We turned left down a hallway with wooden trim and stopped at room No. 475 — the project’s office. Once inside, a left and then a right led to “the vault” — a room filled with row after row of metal filing cabinets, shelf after shelf of first editions and books from Clemens’ library. Thumbing through the shelves, Griffin pulled out Clemens’ copy of “Dracula” by Bram Stoker. The front cover of the American first edition gave the comforting crack of a well-worn hardcover as Griffin opened it and read the inscription: “From Bram Stoker. 1 June 1897.”
The file cabinets contained even more treasures than what initially met the eye. Opening a drawer near a worn steamer trunk labeled “C. Clemens,” he selected a pencil-written letter sent by Clemens to author Charles Dudley Warner in 1873. Griffin shared that he was taught in library school that white cotton gloves are more destructive to primary source documents than fingertips. Touching these moments of history with his bare hands was best, he explained.
He put it back and rummaged for his favorite letter: An October 1865 message from Clemens to his brother and sister-in-law in Nevada, headed with a postscript (as there was no room at the bottom). “P.S. You had better shove this in the stove — for if we strike a bargain,” the note begins.
“He means him and a publisher,” Griffin clarified.
“I don’t want any absurd ‘literary remains’ & ‘Unpublished letters of Mark Twain’ published after I am planted,” the handwritten note ends.
Griffin laughed at the suggestion that the Mark Twain Project was operating against Clemens’ written desires. He agreed that his work directly contradicts the postscript, but then qualified his response.
“He took a great deal of care to publicize himself and his writings, and he did arrange at the end of his life for an edition of his letters to be printed. He’s a very complex person, especially in his relations between the public and the private,” Griffin said. Although some of Griffin’s colleagues are uncomfortable with the project’s peering into Clemens’ private life, he maintains the importance of the work.
“His private papers are so uniquely wonderful. … He’s really one of the great letter writers in English literature,” Griffin said. “He’s a volcano of literary energy.”
The project works to restore Clemens’ explosive intents. A typical day of editing a published Twain work involves searching for its manuscripts, early printings, typescripts or any remaining fragments. The project researchers analyze volume after volume to attempt to bring back Clemens’ original voice in each document. They hope to recover intentions and words lost in his negotiations with publishing houses and years of reprintings.
“His private papers are so uniquely wonderful. … He’s really one of the great letter writers in English literature. He’s a volcano of literary energy.”
One of the most pristinely preserved words is, infamously, the N-word, which appears a staggering 219 times in “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In 2011, Dr. Alan Gribben — a UC Berkeley doctoral graduate — published a controversial version of the text through NewSouth Books that replaced the N-word with “slave,” inciting debates about censorship. Some, mainly white, journalists claimed that this prohibited productive classroom discussions on race and attempted to sanitize the past. Some Black students shared their experiences online of their white colleagues being overly excited to read the word during English classes.
“Clemens would have been very shocked, I think, to hear that his work was being approached as racist. It was banned for being not racist enough when it came out. People were initially concerned that ‘Huckleberry Finn’ was encouraging young white boys to hang out with grown Black men or to pick up bad habits from them, habits of speech,” Griffin said. “The word ‘ain’t’ was more controversial than the N-word.”
He admitted that he had no real way of knowing what Clemens thought, however — that even after all of those hours studying his private letters and notes, there was no true way of ever knowing what went on in his head.
Moving from the sections that house Clemens’ newspaper clippings back to the cabinets of his private letters, I asked how long it took Griffin to memorize the contents of the vault during his 13 years with the project. It’s a room that feels claustrophobic because of the sheer immenseness of the knowledge it contains. And yet it’s organized to a degree that feels impossible, as though its seemingly airtight filing system couldn’t only have started in the 1960s.
“I don’t know everything that’s in this collection. I’m constantly being surprised,” he said. “It’s incredibly important, I think, to be able to rummage in the physical archive. Because you’ll find things that you weren’t looking for. Whereas online, it’s a truism that you’re only going to find the things you searched for. But how are you going to find the things you don’t know how to look for?”
“Here’s a major American writer, of whom a lot you can only read by coming here”
– Benjamin Griffin
While Griffin emphasized the importance of the Mark Twain Papers’ physicality, he also pridefully shared that since the ‘90s, the project has digitized Twain’s work, improving its accessibility. In 2007, it launched the Mark Twain Project Online with the goal of eventually publishing complete, interactive versions of the texts.
“This is an ongoing effort. All of Melville has been published. All of Hawthorne has been published. Here’s a major American writer, of whom a lot you can only read by coming here,” Griffin said.
While it might take a journey to find the Mark Twain Project, once there — whether for a class, research position or interview — it’s impossible for the grandeur of the work to dissipate, its importance swirling in one’s head long after the golden elevator reopens on the Bancroft Library lobby.