Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1

To commemorate the 100-year anni­versary of Mark Twain's death, a crack team of editors at the massive Mark Twain Project at the University of California-Berkeley, headed by Harriet Elinor Smith, has produced the first of three volumes of the definitive Auto­biography of Mark Twain. It quickly rose to the top of the best-seller lists. Such sales figures for an author deceased for a century are impressive, especially considering the numerous dismissive and even cutting reviews this edition has received (most notably, perhaps, one by Garrison Keillor in the New York Times).

Almost immediately after the release of the first volume of the Autobiography, a new version of Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckle­berry Finn was issued. Edited by the esteemed Twain scholar Alan Gribben, this controversial version excises all uses of the word nigger (well over 200) and replaces them with the term slave. Charges of censorship and co-optation made headlines, local and national news programs clamored for sound bites from literary experts, and Stephen Colbert raised an eyebrow, peered into the camera and intoned with mock seriousness: "Who knows what other words it contains that are OK now, but that someday might be offensive?" This firestorm of protest and hand-wringing ensued just as the initially triumphant sales of the Autobiography began to wane, and for at least another few weeks rancorous debates about Mark Twain's achievements raged on.

Issues of censorship and artistic integrity aside, one is struck by the sheer weight of the man whom many have considered, both during his lifetime and for the century since, to be the quintessential American author. Fascination with Mark Twain continues unabated. His own trickery in demanding that this autobiography remain under cover of darkness until a century after his demise did what he expected it to do: it raised the level of public interest. Twain still sells big in postmodern America; somewhere he must be smiling.