It seems there's nothing Robert H. Hirst doesn't know about humorist Mark Twain, a.k.a. "the father of American literature."
A bold statement, but true. Hirst is among the world's pre-eminent Twain scholars. As such, he is the editor-in-charge and curator of the Mark Twain Papers and Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley.
It was Hirst who led his team of editors in sorting through and annotating Twain's 5,000-page manuscript that is the basis of last year's best-selling "The Autobiography of Mark Twain: Volume 1" (University of California Press, $34.95, 736 pages).
"We're finishing the second of the three volumes of the autobiography now," Hirst said by phone from his office at the campus' Bancroft Library. "It may be in print by next fall."
Hirst had just returned from a conference of Twain scholars held in Hannibal, Mo., the boyhood home of Samuel Clemens, who was born in 1835 and died in 1910. "You can imagine what that was like," he said. Not really.
Maybe like a convention of nuclear physicists, only with a storyline?
Hirst said something startling about "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" (1876), a point that likely eludes most readers.
"Twain said the book doesn't have a plot, and he was right," Hirst said. "It's more a string of events told in almost a random way this happens, then that happens. It doesn't anticipate and Tom doesn't grow up."
Does that mean "Tom Sawyer" really isn't a novel?
"Twain called himself a 'jack-legged novelist,' meaning an amateur one," Hirst said. "His specialty was the short form; he knew he didn't have the instinct for the long tale that is a novel. 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn' (1884) is the thing that comes closest.
"My saying is that 'Tom Sawyer' is a game of checkers and 'Huck Finn' is a game of chess. The storyline is continuous, from the end of 'Tom' to the beginning of 'Huck.' They're almost one book, except the two halves are very different. 'Huck' is so much more serious."
Talent and good fortune
Twain's own life reads like a rollicking tale of good fortune and perseverance fueled by a unique talent. It was all that, but it also was marked by financial struggle (bad business decisions) and family tragedies and dark moods, particularly in the later years.
Clemens was a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River until 1861, the start of the Civil War. He came west with his older brother, Orion, who had been appointed secretary of the Nevada Territory.
"Clemens worked for Orion in Carson City, then got bitten by the silver bug," Hirst said. "He went off to strike it rich but ran out of money for supplies after 18 months. So he had to take a job."
Clemens had been sending "letters" wry and insightful essays from the mining fields to a number of newspapers, including the Virginia City Enterprise. That progressive paper offered him a job and "permitted him to do anything he wanted," Hirst said. "So one of his first columns was a hoax about the discovery of a 'petrified man.' Very soon after that he started writing essentially fiction, something you can't call newspaper reporting.
"Then he started writing letters from Carson City and in 1863 adopted the Mark Twain pseudonym."
Twain's next stop was San Francisco, where he wrote for the Call newspaper and two literary magazines, the Californian and the Golden Era.
"He didn't do enough writing to make a living, so he sold some of his mining stock and lived off the proceeds," Hirst said. "He'd never planned on making a career out of writing. You couldn't have a literary career as a humorist. 'Literature of a low order,' as he called it. Throughout his life, humorists certainly were not taken as serious literary people."
Soon, Twain talked the Enterprise into letting him write a daily 2,000-word column from San Francisco.
"All the major papers in San Francisco ran those columns, as well as the smaller papers all over California and Nevada," Hirst said. "They were some of the best things he ever wrote, but we don't have more than 20 percent of them because (so many files) were destroyed."
By 1866, Hirst said, the San Francisco police were giving Twain "a hard time because he was criticizing them in print. That's what led him to leave town. He contracted to write letters to the Sacramento Union from the Sandwich Islands. He was supposed to be there for just a few weeks, but he loved it and stayed five months."
Twain returned to San Francisco and joined the literary lecture circuit "because he thought he could earn some extra money. He'd never spoken in public before, but he turned out to be enormously charming and funny, and was a great success."
The Alta California newspaper gave him "an appointment" to travel wherever he wished and write letters back.
"That's when he left California in December 1866," Hirst said. "He went to New York with his scrapbook of articles and got 'The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches' published in 1867. It didn't sell well and he was very disappointed."
As a lecturer and speaker, Twain traveled the United States and the world in an era when getting from town to town was an arduous task.
"It was enormously backbreaking," Hirst said. "He talked about swearing off lecturing, but he never really stopped. He loved working with an audience and was very skilled at it, even though it was experimental in those years and not everyone approved of it."
Tom and Huck
Back to "Tom Sawyer" for a moment, please. First, there has been some debate over Tom's age. "Evidence suggests he was between 12 and 14," Hirst said.
Though Twain wrote that "Tom" was "mainly for the entertainment of boys and girls," it crossed over to become a classic for all ages. Why is that?
"While he was writing it, he went back and forth over whether it was for adults or children," Hirst said. "It turned out to be for both. You get the satire that adults can understand, told in a very sophisticated voice, yet it's a wish-fulfillment fantasy for kids, too.
"Tom and Huck find buried treasure and get to attend their own funerals and hear how sorry people are that they died. They get to be pirates on Jackson's Island and swim in the Mississippi. Twain had excellent instinct for what it was that was fun for boys."
On the other hand, "Tom" contains some shocking scenes and themes: murder, death by starvation, alcoholism, depravity, violence, theft, deceit, revenge.
"It was quite unusual that Twain managed to sneak that kind of stuff into a story supposed to be read by kids," Hirst said. "Apparently, readers didn't think these things were out of bounds, likely because they were used to the (brutal) gothic novels (coming out of England)."
Twain had high expectation when "Tom Sawyer" was published, but it "didn't do nearly as well as he had hoped. That's because the Canadian publishers figured out they could manufacture his books in Canada and import them into the U.S. and sell them at way under the price Twain's publisher was selling them.
"The copyright problem was something Twain wrestled with throughout his career. Nobody knew what the rules were. There was no international copyright law until 1891."
Here it is, 135 years after the rambunctious Tom Sawyer came into the world. Why has his story endured?
"I don't know the real answer to that," Hirst said. "Part of the answer lies with schools throughout the country. After all, it's the most frequently assigned American literary text. Maybe that's to prepare young readers for 'Huck Finn.' "
'TOM SAWYER' IS THE BIG READ SELECTION
The Sacramento Public Library invites everyone to join the community's biggest book club The Big Read/ One Book Sacramento 2011, from Thursday through Oct. 31.
The whole community is asked to read "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain and participate in the special programs at the library's 28 locations. They range from book discussions and music to family-friendly film viewings and storytelling.
"This book is much more than the exploits of a young boy in a small Mississippi River town," said library director Rivkah Sass. "The classic story is about integrity, the value of a human being, and how our choices especially as young people make long-term differences in our lives."
For a complete list of upcoming events, call (916) 264-2920 or go to www.saclibrary.org.