Mark Twain, editor's nightmare

Recent highlights from the Ideas blog

By Joshua Rothman
November 7, 2010

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The newly released “Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1” is a bona fide literary event. It’s also a triumph for the crack team of editors who’ve been tunneling out from under a mountain of his manuscripts for six years.

That is how long, according to a great article in California’s East Bay Express, it took a team of 12 editors working in the University of California Berkeley’s “heavily guarded, multimillion-dollar climate-controlled” Mark Twain vault to put the “Autobiography” together. The team used custom computer software to compare and collate the nearly half-million pages of typed and handwritten material associated with the book; the computer analysis revealed which pages were part of the “master” copy and which were revisions or drafts.

The sheer volume of material was only part of the challenge, however. Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, was not exactly a cooperative subject. His adventurous, perhaps even “postmodern” writing style sometimes flummoxed the editors. Writing in Granta, one of them, Benjamin Griffin, describes a particular section of the “Autobiography” as “one of the most intractable editing tasks I ever came across.” In that section, called “Private History of a Manuscript That Came to Grief,” Twain includes the emendations of a fictional editor, and his corrections of those emendations. “We had to edit Clemens’s editing of the editor’s editing,” Griffin recalls. “I can feel the wind of the wing of madness tousling my hair, just remembering it.”

Jurassic church
Buildings have stories to tell — but so do the materials from which they’re made. The Cathedral of St. Ambrose in Vigaveno, Italy, was built in 1612, on a spot where there’s been a church since before the year 1000. Yet the stone out of which it’s constructed is even older: So old, in fact, that a fossil, almost certainly a dinosaur skull, was recently discovered embedded in the altar.

According to Andrea Tintori, the paleontologist who discovered the fossil, the rock is called Broccatello, and comes from a quarry in Arzo, Switzerland. “We know,” he says, “that this type of rock dates geologically to the Lower Jurassic, about 190 million years ago.”

This particular kind of rock has been widely used in church construction for hundreds of years, in churches across Europe. The masons who built the Vigaveno cathedral took one chunk of rock and cut it into thin slabs — and there appear to be two cross-sections of the skull, one in another slab of rock used nearby. Paleontologists hope to combine the two cross-sections and produce a 3-D image of the fossil. So the cathedral, already a historic building, turns out to house an even deeper history. Just the sort of thing Tennyson had in mind when he wrote about the dinosaurs in his poem “In Memoriam”:

From scarped cliff and quarried stone

She cries, “A thousand types are gone:

I care for nothing, all shall go....”

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Harvard English department, and an instructor in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.