Mark Twain PHOTO: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images (Mark Twain)

Dishing some new old dirt

Century-awaited Twain memoir release and Huntington Bukowski exhibit show the truth isn’t always pretty

By Justin Chapman 08/26/2010

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Important writing isn’t necessarily polite. 
 
Many great books become great only by peeling back social niceties to reveal deeper, sometimes darker truths about the human condition.
 
So expect to find some rough edges this fall in a pair of highly anticipated literary events exploring the lives of two writing icons — an October Huntington Library retrospective on the life and work of LA people’s poet Charles Bukowski and November’s first publication of Mark Twain’s long-secret dirt-dishing memoirs.  
 
Before his death in 1910, Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens, dictated to assistants a 500,000-word autobiography, but gave strict instructions that the work not to be published for at least a century — a guarantee that all those mentioned in the work would be long dead, freeing him to speak his “whole frank mind,” he wrote in a 1904 letter. 
 
Twain’s approach to autobiography was also novel for its time.
 
“He constructed the book in a way where he could speak about whatever was foremost in his mind, rather than a systematic cradle-to-grave autobiography,” explained Ben Griffin, an associate editor with the Mark Twain Project at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library.
The University of California Press will release the memoirs in three volumes, the first 743-page edition hitting shelves Nov. 15. 
In those pages, Twain explores personal doubts about religion, heaps criticism on American imperialism and the persecution of former slaves in the South, and offers brutal judgments about the character of friends and acquaintances. 
 
Though Griffin points out that most of the memoir actually isn’t dedicated to early 20th-century trash talking, he confirmed that the third volume would contain Twain’s saucy 1909 “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript,” in which the normally genteel Twain describes one of his secretaries as a “slut” and claims she seduced him in an effort to control his estate.
 
“[Twain] specifically said the only way he’s going to be able to speak frankly and candidly is if publication of the book happens way after he’s dead and the people he’s talking about are dead,” said Griffin, who described the writings as very accessible to contemporary readers. 
 
While it hasn’t taken 100 years, the Huntington’s public unveiling of some of Bukowski’s most personal possessions also promises visitors a chance to see the celebrated author in a new light. 
 
“Charles Bukowski: Poet on the Edge” opens Oct. 9 and will feature more than five dozen artifacts, including hand-corrected typescripts, photographs, drawings and even racing forms that reveal the Santa Anita and Hollywood Park regular’s methods of handicapping. 
 
The exhibit includes items donated to the Huntington’s extensive literary collections four years ago by widow Linda Lee Bukowski and others she has loaned just for this exhibit, which runs through Feb. 14.
 
Linda Lee, who would often spend afternoons exploring the Huntington while her husband gambled at the track, spoke to this writer in 2006 about their relationship. 
 
“I had read all his books and gone to his poetry readings. At one of his readings, I decided to introduce myself, and it began a friendship that evolved later on into what ended up being our loving marriage. It was interesting because it was at the time he was doing ‘research’ for the book ‘Women.’ He was just curious; I was another curiosity. But he was a curiosity to me, too, because I felt that I knew him in a certain way through his books, and I think I knew him in a spiritual way before I met him. I think people feel that about him because he speaks the truth from the gut,” she said at the time.
 
“He was a great guy. He was the best — beyond all that wild and crazy stuff, which was there. But he evolved,” she continued. “He decided to open a little door of compassion. And I didn’t try to tell him anything or teach him anything. That’s not my thing. I just loved him.”
 
Several upcoming free events at the Huntington offer fans a chance to get to know Chuck better, including an Oct. 27 reading by Linda Lee and special guests, a Nov. 15 screening of the Bukowski documentary “Born into This” and a Dec. 8 program of short films based on his writings. 
 
“Bukowski is one of the most original voices in 20th century American literature, and his words resonate today as strongly as they did when first published,” said Sara Hodson, curator of literary manuscripts at the Huntington. “He used a natural language that was highly charged at times, raw and incredibly accessible.” 

The Huntington is at 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Call (626) 405-2500 or visit Huntington.org.

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