Six years after its discovery, the original manuscript of Huckleberry Finn is about to appear in Britain. But does the much-hyped book tell scholars anything new about Mark Twain and his attitudes to blacks? Simon Targett reports
Little did Hollywood librarian Barbara Testa realise when she picked out a yellowing manuscript from an old Mississippi steamer trunk languishing in a dusty attic that she had stumbled on the first draft of an American masterpiece. It looked old, and so she contacted Sotheby's, who immediately sent an armoured escort to take it to head office 3,000 miles away in Manhattan. Before long, the bulky manuscript was confirmed as the long-lost first half of the holograph of America's greatest novel: Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Twain scholars were ecstatic. It was hailed as the most sensational literary find of the 20th century. Victor Doyno, professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo and one of the first academics to see the manuscript, said it was like "finding Shakespeare's working manuscript of Hamlet or King Lear".
That was 1990. Six years on, the early euphoria has given way to a raging controversy over the publication of the manuscript, which is already available in the United States and which is due to hit the bookshelves of Britain next week. On one side is the publishing giant Random House, the popular publisher of such political potboilers as Primary Colours, which last year won the multi-million dollar race for the rights to reproduce the manuscript. On the other side is a loose gathering of Twain scholars, headed by members of the small but scholarly Berkeley-based Mark Twain Project, who are fuming over what they think is an example of not only wayward editorial judgement but also naked commercial opportunism.
Huckleberry Finn is, of course, no stranger to controversy. Ever since 1884, when it first appeared, the story of Huck and Jim, the ragamuffin and the runaway slave, has ruffled the feathers of readers. One month after publication, it was banned by the trustees of the influential Concord Public Library in Massachusetts, who objected to Mark Twain's use of the Missouri backwoods dialect, or what they called "the systematic use of bad grammar". It was, they judged, "trash" which was "suitable only for the slums".
In recent years, Huckleberry Finn has been condemned as uncompromisingly racist. Black educationist John Wallace, dubbing the book "racist trash" and taking particular exception to Twain's inclusion of the word "nigger" over 200 times, has even produced a version with the so-called "N word" taken out. But the new controversy has ignited more quickly than any previous one, and with razzmatazz book launches planned around the globe, it is set to engulf the whole community of Twain scholars.
Twain buffs are not calling into question the importance of the Huckleberry Finn manuscript. The 665 pages, written in black and purple ink between 1876 and 1883, amount to an academic treasure trove that scholars feared was lost forever. Originally given to James Fraser Gluck, a small-time collector of rare manuscripts, on the understanding that it would be deposited in the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, home of the second half of the draft Huckleberry Finn, the manuscript found its way into Gluck's private papers. There it remained, until his granddaughter made her chance discovery.
After more than 100 years - to say nothing of the 17-month ownership dispute between Gluck's descendants, the library and the Mark Twain Foundation - the two parts, totalling 1,361 pages, have now been reunited. Together, they give new insights into the creative process of the man behind the Mark Twain nom de plume - Samuel Langhorne Clemens. But what most excites scholars is the fact that the manuscript contains several episodes which were either excised altogether or subtly modified in the first published edition. That said, some Twain specialists fear that the Random House edition is making exaggerated claims about these new and variant stories, puffing the manuscript's importance to boost sales.
One key episode is the so-called "Ghost story", where Jim tells the frightening and funny account of his time in a doctor's dissection room. Soon after acquiring the publishing rights last year, Random House rushed the story into print, reproducing Jim's tale in a special double issue of the New Yorker. Bill Buford, the magazine's fiction editor and former Granta editor, trumpeted the newly-discovered story, calling it "brilliant". Dedicated Twain scholars were less impressed. Louis Budd, emeritus professor of English at Duke University, said "the New Yorker hype about this is laughable - that it is a little masterpiece", adding that its removal from the final text was probably because "it is embarrassingly bad".
Other scholars question the claim that the manuscript presents a Huckleberry Finn that is significantly darker and more brutal than the final version. Yes, it has Huck consuming pig swill. Yes, it has Huck's father, a miserable and violent drunk, dying in a seedy one-woman brothel. But even the published edition gives a bleak portrayal of so-called "sivilisation", detailing as it does some 13 corpses and 34 deaths.
But the biggest dispute concerns the impact of the manuscript on the bubbling issue of racism in Huckleberry Finn. In one changed episode, a black woman is portrayed embracing fellow white congregationalists at a religious camp-meeting. The scene apparently provides final, if controversial, proof that Mark Twain was driven by an anti-racist impulse. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, professor of American studies and English at the University of Texas and president of the Mark Twain Circle, endorses this reading of the scene. But she says that "it does not radically change the prevailing interpretation". This is because in the academic world, if not in the wider community, the battle to show that the book is anti-racist has long been won. The debate has moved on, and Fishkin, who calls Huckleberry Finn "the greatest anti-racism novel in American literature", contends that there are several unrecognised fragments - notably Which Was It - which are far more important for the racism issue than the uncovered manuscript because they show that Mark Twain was a substantial anti-racist thinker, tackling topics which interested later African-American authors. "There is a Who's Who of 20th-century black American writers," she suggests, "whose work, though not necessarily indebted to Twain, is prefigured by these unpublished fragments."
If Twain scholars are sceptical about the grandiose claims being made on behalf of the new-old manuscript, they are more anxious about the promotion of the text by Random House. Subtitled "the only comprehensive edition", the 400-page expensively-packaged volume is, according to the blurb on an inside flap, "sure to become the standard text not only for school and universities but for the general reader". Victor Doyno, editor of the Twain tome, has inserted four major episodes - which Twain himself consciously excised - in what he calls "their intended narrative places". He justifies this selection process by pointing out "that these stories were in the book for seven to nine years".
This has dismayed Twain scholars who recognise Doyno as one of the leading commentators on Huckleberry Finn in the US. Fishkin contends that Doyno's editorial principle is "distorting". By over-ruling Twain on what should appear in the novel, he has created a book "which is antithetically opposed" to the one Twain wanted published. Peter Messent, reader in modern American literature at Nottingham University, calls the work "a fairly dubious enterprise" which is "not really acceptable". As he says: "The passages might be really good - but that doesn't give him the permission to put them back in the text."
The greatest outcry, however, comes from scholars attached to the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley's Bancroft Library. Victor Fischer, co-editor of the widely acclaimed "definitive" edition of Huckleberry Finn, which first appeared in 1988, rejects the idea that the Random House volume is the comprehensive edition. He prefers the pejorative term "hybrid". His opposition is driven by the fear that the Random House edition will establish itself as the standard version. It is something he finds "worrisome".
This is partly because it could threaten the wider understanding of Twain's work. "I'm concerned," says Fischer, "that the general reader will not be getting the whole story, that they will take this version without any of the warnings." But it is also because the Random House edition could jeopardise the future of the Mark Twain Project and other such small-budget scholarly ventures. The Random House book is as much about making money as about bringing a long-lost manuscript to the attention of the public. "That is the aspect which is frightening for us," admits Robert Hirst, head of the Mark Twain Project.
The project, which began in 1966, is producing the definitive edition of all Mark Twain's works. The plan is to revise the Huckleberry Finn published eight years ago. "I just hope we last long enough to do it," Hirst says. "It's not guaranteed by any means." Other scholarly editions are threatened too. Fishkin is editing the Oxford Mark Twain, a new series that will reproduce the first American edition of Twain's work. The Huckleberry Finn volume, introduced by Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison, is expected in October. But by then, the handsome Random House volume, put together in barely one year and aggressively marketed, will be in every major American and British bookshop.
For the Mark Twain Project, which relies on sales to support a tottering tower of private and public funding, it will be a battle for survival, and it is not one Robert Hirst is over-confident about winning. As he says with a sense of foreboding: "I think in publishing there is a phenomenon similar to Gresham's Law in which bad texts drive out the good."