2010-10-23

MT's autobiography

Is Mark Twain's 'New' Autobiography Covered By Copyright? | Techdirt

 

I used to work at the Mark Twain Project and helped edit some of the letters volumes. I also read the MS comprising this newly published volume, along with a lot of other of his so-far unpublished work. The perennial question was the one posed by the title of the discussion on Techdirt, but also the larger one, "why even have an edited version of the text?"—especially as Twain's writing was uncommonly legible. One answer to the latter q. was that editorial content provided necessary context. But in effect, it situated the the text in an historical narrative that arguably, by sheer dint of plausibility, isolated it from alternatives. I don't really buy into that view, but it's a prevailing one in liberalist discourse and pedagogy: you don't fill in the details but you let the student do it.

I rather value editorial supplementation, at least as practiced by the MTP, for the scholars working there were and are first rate and their insights into the historical narratives explicating the text are invaluable and probably correct. They are also not limiting. None of their narratives, for instance, framed and bounded my own work on vagabondage in Twain, but all helped, as did the wealth of archive available.

And that raises a last point. Archive fever, a condition of finding new narratives in vast depositories, as much by serendipity as by acute insight (hey, looky here cum I wonder if this fits into....) has changed irrevocably by the perfusion of the Internet and in particular by the dumping of huge amounts of material onto it, edited or not.  Automatic search engines hunting for likes irrespective of conditioning narratives further abet this process of radical fragmentation and reformation. Narratives linking events, people, causes (laugh), consequences, effects, spurious or not, are proliferating and will hugely proliferate in the years to come. And this is good. It does damage to the book, to what we privilege as the identity derived therefrom, even to a kind of oldschool copyright. But it give golden advantage to a new golem of identity scholarship. (And yes, I'm referring to Alfred Bester's wonderfully wacko last work, Golem to the 100th.)

 

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