The Sunday Edition

The Twain letters

A project to collect hundreds of long-lost letters by the great American writer Mark Twain, is providing surprising glimpses into his early life. As a young man, Twain was plagued by doubt and debt, and even contemplated suicide. Fortunately for us, he did not succeed. MIchael talks to Robert Hirst of the Mark Twain project.
Robert Hirst, general editor of the Mark Twain Project, holds up a photo of Twain at The Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley. (Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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"If I do not get out of debt in three months - pistols or poison - exit me." Those solemn words were written by a desperate young journalist in a letter to his brother - over 150 years ago. The young man threatening to end it all was the great American author and humourist, Mark Twain. The year was 1865, and he was 29 years old. He was broke and drinking a lot. He was living in San Francisco trying to make a go of it as a newspaperman, filing stories for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Nevada. 

That we have this glimpse into the mind of a then unknown Mark Twain, is due to the efforts of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley. For decades, archivists there have been collecting Twain's letters, private papers, and literary manuscripts. But the task of collecting the news dispatches he wrote for the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, has proved to be the most challenging. These rare stories, along with other material that has been archived over the decades, will soon be available in a book. And for the first time, we will be given a portrait of "the artist as a young man." 

Robert H. Hirst  is curator of the Mark Twain Papers at the University of California at Berkeley, and General Editor of the Mark Twain Project.

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