Home / News / Update on Mark Twain Project Online and “Is Shakespeare Dead?”

Update on Mark Twain Project Online and “Is Shakespeare Dead?”

On May 12 of this year, the SOF posted a news item on this website, “SOF Responds to Omission of Authorship Book from Mark Twain Project,” in which we reported that the University of California at Berkeley’s Mark Twain Project Online, whose purpose is to “produce a digital critical edition, fully annotated, of everything Mark Twain wrote,” had so far omitted Twain’s masterpiece of Shakespeare authorship skepticism, Is Shakespeare Dead?

Title page of "Is Shakespeare Dead?"

Title page of “Is Shakespeare Dead? From My Autobiography.” Photo by Linda Theil.

Most puzzling was the fact that the MTPO omitted Is Shakespeare Dead? from its digital version of Twain’s Autobiography despite the fact that Is Shakespeare Dead? was originally published with the subtitle, “From My Autobiography.”

SOF president Tom Regnier, on behalf of the SOF Board of Trustees, sent a letter to Elaine Tennant of the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley, urging the Project to include Is Shakespeare Dead? in the Twain autobiography, or at least make definite plans to edit it in the near future and give it an honored place in the MTPO.

On May 19, the SOF received the following letter from Benjamin Griffin, an editor of the MTPO:

Dear Mr. Regnier:

Thank you for your recent communication to Professor Elaine Tennant. I’m replying as one of the editors of the Mark Twain Project edition.

Since the edition we are creating will comprise, eventually, Mark Twain’s complete writings, it goes without saying that we intend to edit and publish Is Shakespeare Dead? 

The matter of inclusion in the Autobiography edition is a separate one. To some extent, the Autobiography’s final form is a matter of analysis and conjecture.

Both bibliographical and biographical evidence reveal a process by which, in March 1909, Clemens ceased to think of the completed Is Shakespeare Dead? as a part of his Autobiography and reconceived it as an article, and then as a book.

The biographical evidence is in transcriptions by Isabel Lyon from her 1909 diary and stenographic pad (in a letter in the Berg Collection, NYPL). When the manuscript went hastily into print as a book (Harpers didn’t want it in the Monthly), Clemens did not revise his original subtitle “From My Autobiography,” — preserving, as if in amber, his earlier (January 1909) intentions.

Meanwhile, the bibliographical evidence is negative: Clemens’s non-insertion of Is Shakespeare Dead? into the sequence of typescripts from which he built the Autobiography. Elsewhere he is punctilious about where his manuscript insertions were to go, and he had his amanuenses revise and re-revise the typescript page sequence(s) of the whole. None of the manuscripts and typescripts of Is Shakespeare Dead? show revisions and repaginations that would fit the work into the continuous Autobiography sequence.

On 25 March 1909 Clemens made a dictation (really a manuscript) beginning:  “About two months ago I was illuminating this Autobiography with some notions of mine concerning the Bacon-Shakspeare controversy …” (AutoMT3, 303). He makes no mention of his completed pile of manuscript on the topic, written January through March, which was now with the Harpers, and would soon be Is Shakespeare Dead?. If that material had been part of “this Autobiography,” he would have dropped some form of cross-reference or order to insert; instead he says nothing: evidence that the two projects had diverged.

While the editors concluded that Mark Twain was satisfied with Dead’s final disposition as a free-standing book, the decision was based on the above considerations; and not, I had hoped it was clear, on disdain for the book’s thesis, as you seem to imply. Nor is a “place of honor” — or of dishonor — possible, for any of these works; a Complete Works is quite undiscriminating.

Yours sincerely,

Benjamin Griffin
Mark Twain Project
The Bancroft Library
University of California, Berkeley

While relieved to hear that Is Shakespeare Dead? would eventually be included in the MTPO, the SOF Board felt it necessary to reiterate its objection to the exclusion of Is Shakespeare Dead? from the Autobiography and to ask Mr. Griffin for an approximate time frame in which Is Shakespeare Dead? might appear in the MTPO. With the SOF Board’s approval, Tom Regnier sent the following response to Mr. Griffin on June 13:

Dear Mr. Griffin,

Thank you for your thoughtful reply of May 19 to our letter of May 11. First of all, speaking on behalf of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship Board, I will say that we are happy and relieved to hear that the MTPO is committed to the inclusion of Is Shakespeare Dead? Would it be possible for you to give us an estimated time when that might occur?

Regarding the MTPO’s editorial decision whether to include Is Shakespeare Dead? in Twain’s autobiography, we still do not find that the reasons that you state outweigh the facts that the words, “From My Autobiography” clearly appear on the title page and that the book contains significant autobiographical material concerning Twain’s riverboat experiences. When editing Is Shakespeare Dead?, does the MTPO intend to include the subtitle, “From My Autobiography”?

For the sake of completeness, I would like to recap the events that aroused our uncertainty about whether Is Shakespeare Dead? would be included in the MTPO and prompted us to write.

One of our members, Linda Theil, noticed that Is Shakespeare Dead? had not yet appeared in the MTPO. She exchanged some correspondences with Sharon Goetz [of the MTPO], who referred to Mark Twain as “benighted” in regard to Shakespeare. “Benighted” is defined in the Oxford American Dictionary as “in a state of pitiful or contemptible intellectual or moral ignorance, typically owing to a lack of opportunity.” Ms. Goetz also said, “I expect that MTP will edit ‘Is Shakespeare Dead?’ but have no clear sense of when.”

Although this may not have been Ms. Goetz’s intent, these statements suggested to us that Is Shakespeare Dead? was held in low esteem by the MTPO and that you had no definite plans to edit it in the near future. We are glad to know that the Complete Works will be, as you say, quite undiscriminating.

Tom Regnier, President
Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship

As of this date, Mr. Griffin has not responded to the SOF’s request for an estimated date when Is Shakespeare Dead? will be included in the Mark Twain Project Online.

If you wish to voice your opinion on this subject, you may email the following:

Benjamin Griffin, MTPO: bgriffin@berkeley.edu
Elaine Tennant, Director, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley: etennant@berkeley.edu
William D. Adams, Chair, National Endowment for the Humanities: info@neh.gov

[Note: The National Endowment for the Humanities has provided over $4 million in funding for the MTPO.]

For more background information on the MTPO and Is Shakespeare Dead?, see Linda Theil’s blogpost, Mark Twain’s Benighted Book, on the Oberon website.

Mark Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead? remains freely available online.

[posted July 8, 2016]