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WATCH: Preserving the Treasures of Mark Twain

As Mark Twain’s authorized and uncensored autobiography is released, explore UC’s rare editions of his works in the century following his death.

Date: 10/14/2010 12:00:00 AM
By: Dawn Fuller
Phone: (513) 556-1823
Photos By: Lisa Ventre

UC ingot   Video of Mark Twain, filmed in 1909 by Thomas Edison, courtesy of The Internet Archive.

Mark Twain may well be described as one of the country’s most famous and most mysterious characters of all time. Now, scholars and lovers of literature are anticipating previously unpublished and personal observations of the celebrated author and humorist.

Volume one of Twain’s three-volume uncensored autobiography – published by the University of California Press – becomes widely available next month. The autobiography was published 100 years after his death, according to Twain’s wishes.

The buzz over Twain’s autobiography follows the American Library Association’s observance of Banned Books Week earlier this fall, which draws attention to censorship by highlighting banned books and attempted bans of books across the United States. Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” with its setting in the south and references regarding race and slavery, is among books that regularly turn up on the list. A TIME Magazine article reported that the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned the book for its “coarse language” in 1885, one year after it was first published.

Kevin Grace, foreground, and Robert Arner
Kevin Grace, foreground, and Robert Arner

“If you really want to sell books, have them banned,” says book historian Kevin Grace, head of UC’s Archives and Rare Books Library. “While it’s a characteristic of many cultures, I think it’s especially true in America. If something is banned, we can’t wait to get our hands on it.”

Twain could also be grouped among authors whose works are constantly in print.

“Twain’s continuing relevance to the American culture and society lies first of all in his concern with race, race relations and racism in the United States, and then in his critiques of political corruption, corporate greed, American imperialism and the excesses and foolishness of the American political process,” says Robert Arner, UC professor of English & Comparative Literature. “Any one of those issues, all of which inspired one or more of his writings, could be taken from the headlines of today’s papers or straight off CNN,” Arner says.

“One-hundred-forty years after his first books were published, his humor is still relevant,” Grace says.

First edition, first printing of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
First edition, first printing of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Here at the University of Cincinnati, first editions of Mark Twain, housed in UC’s Archives and Rare Books Library, have been researched by American literature and journalism majors as well as history and business students. Among them have been students of Arner, who has taught courses on Mark Twain and on American humor.

UC’s Archives and Rare Books Library recently had a first edition of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” conserved in the original leather binding, and conserved two copies of Twain’s “The Gilded Age,” first published in 1873. The library acquires and provides access to materials for instruction and scholarly research and contains rare books spanning several centuries.

In addition to standard book repairs of the University of Cincinnati Libraries’ holdings, UC’s Preservation Services Department, located in Langsam Library, is dedicated to the conservation of books, among them UC’s rare collections. The department also employs student workers who learn the craft of book preservation such as reinserting loose pages, performing spine repairs or building enclosures that keep smaller books from getting lost on the shelves.

Archives & Rare Books Library

The Archives and Rare Books Library has several sets of Mark Twain publications as well as first editions and early printings. Some of the collection has come from the generosity of alumni and friends of the library.

Arner says Twain’s writings remain relevant because his themes of ambivalence and critiques of capitalism remain in contemporary American society. “He saw the excesses of capitalism, but he was not a Marxist. In fact, he was a great friend of American financier J.P. Morgan,” Arner says.

And, while literature lovers would in no way want to compare Twain with contemporary figures such as, say, Lady Gaga, they did share some commonalities in terms of spectacle.

“He was also one of the first people in America who was famous for being famous,” notes Arner. “He sold his image for all sorts of commercial products.”

Yet, his contributions to literature make him a major figure who remains famous today. “In large part, he invented the American West as a subject for fiction and, in another large measure, he extended the American South as a subject for fiction.” Arner adds that his copy of the autobiography is on order.

Archives & Rare Books Library

Grace is looking forward to reading the autobiography as well. “In the end, his life was very tragic. The untimely deaths of his wife and daughter sent him into severe depression, and you almost weep to see how sad his life had become when he should have been reveling in his glory as an author and public figure.”

“It’s really an understatement to say he was a brilliant author,” says Grace. “It boggles my mind how someone could have such a mastery of the written word.”

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