Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, had stipulated before his death in 1910 that his autobiography not be published for 100 years, so that he would be "dead, unaware, and indifferent," his family would not be hurt by anything he wrote, and he would feel unshackled by any need for self-censorship.
Last November, the Mark Twain Project published the first of the autobiography's three volumes.
The response has been striking. The initial expectation was that about 10,000 copies of the first volume would be sold. But it's been flying off the shelves, and has landed on numerous best-seller lists. There are now 500,000 copies in print.
That figure is especially impressive, considering that the book is a scholarly tome logging in at more than 700 pages, and weighing more than 4 pounds according to my bathroom scale. The introduction alone is 58 pages, and the "real" autobiography doesn't start until about halfway through.
I had a chance to chat with the head of the Mark Twain Project, Robert Hirst, before he began his presentation. The public reaction to the first volume is a clear indication that Twain's writings are as relevant today as they were in his time, he said.
"I think it's a sign that people are hungry for the kind of commentary he provided," Hirst said.
Twain's work touched on a gamut of issues that still resonate today, from race relations to American interventionism. He wasn't without controversy, but Hirst said the author never devolved into cynicism. He used humor to comment on human foibles, and subtle teasing to poke at social proprieties. He gave hypocrisy no quarter, and spared no one — himself included — from his scathing wit.
"Mark Twain is to us — to me and my editors — very much alive," Hirst said.