Mark Twain's embargo on his autobiography was brilliant brand management.

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Oct. 28 2010 10:12 AM

Mark Twain's Amazing Embargo

The brilliant brand management behind the handling of his autobiography.

In 1906, Mark Twain wrote to his friend and frequent correspondent, William Dean Howells, updating him on the progress of his autobiography:

To-morrow I mean to dictate a chapter which will get my heirs & assigns burned alive if they venture to print it this side of A.D. 2006—which I judge they won't. There'll be lots of such chapters if I live 3 or 4 years longer. The edition of A.D. 2006 will make a stir when it comes out. I shall be hovering around taking notice, along with other dead pals. You are invited.

Autobiography of Mark Twain.

Twain did live four years longer, working on the autobiography, hinting that it might be his masterpiece, and emphasizing its embargo. "In this Autobiography I shall keep in mind the fact that I am speaking from the grave," he wrote in the preface he prepared for his book. "I speak from the grave rather than with my living tongue, for good reason: I can speak thence freely." When he died in 1910, the clock started—which means this year we finally get to feel Twain and his dead pals hovering over our shoulders.

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But you probably knew that. Later this month, the Mark Twain Project will publish "the complete and authoritative edition" of Twain's autobiography. The news has been simmering all summer, and Twain's impending autobiography has occupied media outlets both high (Granta got the exclusive first excerpt) and low (Gawker investigated his "vibrating sex toy"). The coverage has gotten so thick that the Onion ran a story poking fun at it. And everyone has worked from the same set of talking points: Here, after a century of silence, we will meet a realer, darker Mark Twain. He will get his dying wish honored; we will get him uncensored and at a time when we need him more than ever.

It's all very exciting. It's also nonsense. There have been three previous editions of Twain's autobiography—published in 1924, 1940, and 1959—and each of them has selectively ignored Twain's 100-year embargo. This makes sense—first, because Twain's instructions remain confusing and contradictory; he wrote 50 years by some passages, 75 by others, and even, by the stuff he warned Howells about, 500 years. But it also makes sense from a marketing standpoint. In fact, each edition of Twain's autobiography, thanks in large part to Twain's embargo, has become a literary event, with scads of reviews, bestseller status, and a side-helping of scandal. With the new edition parked on the top of Amazon's sales rankings, it looks like Twain will go 4 for 4. Never mind speaking from the grave: Twain is probably laughing in it, pleased to see some cagey brand management—and the American public—go his way yet again.

From the beginning, Twain knew his material would sell. "I have never yet allowed an interviewer or biographer-sketcher to get out of me any circumstance of history which I thought might be worth putting some day into my AUTObiography," he told his brother in 1887. Twain had been working on his autobiography, off and on, since 1870, and money was never far from his mind. In 1906, Twain commissioned Albert Paine to write an authorized biography, and, privately, he agreed with Paine that the autobiography's less inflammatory sections might be "published sooner, either serially or in book form." In fact, that same year, Twain authorized publishing 25 "Chapters from My Autobiography" in the North American Review. Already, Twain was walking back his own rules, but with good reason: The Review paid him $30,000.

In 1912, when Paine finished his biography of Twain, he folded in some juicy extracts from the autobiography—including, 498 years early, some of the stuff Twain had mentioned to Howells, which turned out to be a series of chapters detailing Twain's problems with organized religion. Paine had the power to do so because Twain's will specified that he, along with Clara Gabrilowitsch, Twain's surviving daughter, would handle his "literary productions." Paine also had the power, 12 years later, to publish the first edition of the autobiography—and to quietly hold back some of its nastier social and political criticisms, as well as the chapters on religion.

The Los Angeles Times predicted Twain's autobiography would be "the season's most widely discussed book." That didn't quite come true, but most reviewers praised it—and just about all of them mentioned Twain's mysterious embargo. In fact, the embargo worked a little too well, stirring up suspicions that Paine had pulled some of the dead author's punches. "Are there still further candors to be expected?" one reviewer asked. "Or was Mark Twain really so cautious that the occasional objurgations of this book seemed to him untempered violence?"

Further candors did await, though Paine wasn't interested in sharing them. When Bernard DeVoto, a novelist and critic writing a book about Twain, asked to look at the author's papers, Paine told him they were "refuse" and that "nothing more need ever be written about Mark Twain." DeVoto's book, Mark Twain's America, came out a few years later, and in it he described the whole exchange, deadpanning that "public benevolence constrains me to offer the [Twain Estate] my services."

After Paine's death in 1937, Clara took DeVoto up on his offer, then promptly set about making his life miserable. The Twain estate had become a big business, selling the rights to so many Mark Twain movies, musicals, comic books, translations, and radio programs that its lawyers had trouble keeping them all straight. DeVoto planned to do his part—and to start correcting Paine's portrait of Twain as grandfatherly humorist—by forging two new books from the "refuse": Letters From the Earth, a collection of short fiction and satire, and Mark Twain in Eruption, a new edition of the autobiography compiled from everything Paine had left out. When DeVoto showed Clara the manuscript for Letters From the Earth, though, she demanded he remove the title piece, which Twain had written from Satan's point of view. DeVoto could not sway her, and Harper's had to scrap the book.

With his first project dead, DeVoto turned to Mark Twain in Eruption. Again, Harper's told him to piece together the best book possible. Paine had used about half of Twain's autobiographical material; DeVoto planned to use about half of what remained and to organize it topically, under sections like "Theodore Roosevelt" and "The Plutocracy." Soon after the publisher signed off on the manuscript, however, Clara was overcome by "insurmountable objections." She refused to approve anything attacking anyone "whose relatives are still living." (DeVoto's exasperated response: "On that basis half or more than half of our book is suppressed.") And she refused to include Twain's chapters on religion.

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