An Interview With Virgie Hoban About Six Degrees of Mark Twain

Virgie Hoban, in collaboration with the Mark Twain Project and it’s General Editor and Curator, Robert H. Hirst, has created a unique introduction to Twain’s social network. 6 Degrees of Mark Twain combines images and primary sources from the Mark Twain Papers with video interviews with Dr. Hirst and Hoban’s explanatory narrative to explore Twain’s relationships with a diverse sextet of his contemporaries, all of whom were celebrities in their own right. In addition to being a welcome resource for Twainiacs of all stripes, this interactive, multimedia experience would make a great resource for classrooms.

Virgie Hoban is a graduate of University of California, Berkeley (where the Mark Twain Project resides) and now works as a writer for the communications office at the Berkeley library, covering exhibits, collections, events, and the library’s digitization and open access initiatives. She kindly took time to answer a few questions about how 6 Degrees of Mark Twain came together.

1.) How did you become interested in Twain? Have you worked with the Mark Twain Project before?

My father gave me Tom Sawyer to read as a kid, and I loved it. When I was an undergrad at Berkeley, studying English, I read Huck Finn for a class and was blown away by its heart and humor. At some point, I took a tour of the Library for an English class and saw treasures from the Mark Twain Project. This “6 degrees” project was my first time working with or writing about the Mark Twain Project — a dream of mine since I applied for this position. 

2.) What surprised you most as you pursued this research? Was there a particular relationship that you found most intriguing? Why?

I have been endlessly amazed at how infinite Twain seems, in his relationships with people and in his opinions on everything in the world. He speaks in such great hyperbole, too, with so much conviction that it feels almost impossible. I loved exploring those sides of him with this very tangible guide: the people he called friends.

There were a couple favorite moments. P.T. Barnum was a quirky one that was weirdly enlightening. I loved the bit about Twain collecting strange letters from Barnum just to learn more about humankind. That was a sort of light-bulb moment that made me feel like I was starting to get to know Twain a bit more. I was also intrigued by Twain’s fascination with Barnum. The guy is this shameless showman — I read articles comparing Barnum to Trump — and yet Twain can’t help but admire him, because he’s got that love for theatrics too. But Twain does sort of keep Barnum at a distance, declining to write ads for the circus, etc. As Bob Hirst told me, it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly is going on between them.

I think my favorite relationship was probably Twain and Helen Keller. It was astounding to see this larger-than-life person shrink in comparison to this woman, in the way Twain praises her. Like I said, I think Twain likes to exaggerate, but when he calls Keller the “8th wonder of the world,” you believe it. Also, I was floored by the way Keller sees right through Twain’s cynicism and old-man griping. There was love and understanding and encouragement in that friendship, which was very sweet to witness.

3.) As you point out, Twain’s life intersected with lots of public figures. How did you narrow it down to this particular half dozen? Were there particular demographics, issues, events, etc. that you wanted to highlight?

Haha, well I joke with my colleagues that I will do a sequel featuring Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Edison, Charles Dickens, Teddy Roosevelt, and hopefully more women. I picked these people with the guidance of Bob Hirst, who brainstormed with me about all the possible candidates. I chose Harriet Beecher Stowe over Dickens because I wanted another woman. Tesla seemed a little wonkier than Edison, and Twain was closer to Grant than Roosevelt. The other relationships were just who I found most interesting, I suppose. 


Please check out 6 Degrees of Mark Twain, as well as all the great digital resources available from the Mark Twain Project.

Elmira Joins Forces with Berkeley and Normandy for “Twain & Joan of Arc” Project

The Center for Mark Twain Studies is a pivotal partner in an ongoing research project that will culminate at the 8th International State of Mark Twain Studies Conference in August, following a lecture and exhibit in Rouen, France, in June.

Did you know that at different times, Clemens acquired, read, and heavily annotated a number of authorities that he later acknowledged in a list at the beginning of his historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc? And that a majority of these books were in French? Some of those references now reside in the Mark Twain Papers at the UC-Berkeley’s Bancroft Library. While scholars have commented upon Clemens’s debt to these sources, the annotated materials remain largely untapped. Co-sponsored by the CMTS, Linda Morris (UC-Davis) and myself (U. de Lille, France) received a France Berkeley Fund Grant for a project to study just that. It is entitled: “‘The French Marginalia’ of Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1895-96) at Berkeley: Patriotism without Borders.”

The France-Berkeley Fund supported an exhaustive study of these marginalia, the result of which is to be published in the Spring 2017 issue of Mark Twain Journal. The article highlights the role played by those historical sources in the making of the most Franco-American of Clemens’s works, sheds new light on the legendary “flying leaf” incident, disentangles the complex origins of Twain’s narrator, de Contes, and reveals the author had far better command of French than he ever publicly acknowledged.

Still unfolding, the project’s next stage is a lecture, to be given by Linda Morris at Historial Jeanne d’Arc in Rouen, Normandy, a museum dedicated to the French heroine. The lecture will take place June 8, 2017, the same week as the D-Day celebrations. If you happen to be in Normandy, please join us!

There will also be the showing in Rouen of a short film illustrating Mark Twain’s lifelong fascination with Joan of Arc made, in part, of rarely seen pictures from the Berkeley archives, as well Elmira and Quarry Farm, thanks to the assistance of Vic Fischer. The film will then run for a few weeks inside the museum. It will also be aired at the Quadrennial Conference in August.

The whole project reinforces the cosmopolitan dimension the American icon is increasingly assuming. It also helps reframe Joan of Arc as the climax of Twain’s longtime and paradoxical relationship with France and the French, a crucial aspect of his biography analyzed in Mark Twain and France: The Making of a New American Identity, forthcoming in June 2017 (University of Missouri Press). This book was co-written by myself and Paula Harrington (Colby College), who is also a partner of this project.

Ronald Jenn is Professor of Translation Studies at Université de Lille, France and a former Quarry Farm Fellow.