Sketching a season for Mark Twain Papers & Project

It’s a busy summer at the University of California, Berkeley’s Bancroft Library for Mark Twain scholars, who are preparing for the release of the never-before-published “Autobiography of Mark Twain” on the 100th anniversary of the author’s death.

The first of three volumes of the autobiography will come out this fall, memorializing the life of author Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain, who died in 1910 at the age of 74. Meanwhile, Robert Hirst, general editor of The Bancroft Library’s Mark Twain Papers & Project that is home to six editors working on a comprehensive scholarly edition of all of Clemens’ published works and private papers, says his team continues to chalk up other major successes.

For example, they just celebrated the publication of an expanded, 125th anniversary edition of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” as well as of a 135th anniversary edition of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.” And topping that, the project archives recently received a significant addition, by special delivery.

A Family Sketch

From the hand of Mark Twain, a page from "A Family Sketch." (The Bancroft Library's Mark Twain Papers & Project)

At a Sotheby’s auction in New York City last month, the Mark Twain Papers managed to bid its way to ownership of the original manuscript of “A Family Sketch,” Clemens’ 64-page, unpublished tribute to his daughter, Olivia “Susy” Clemens, who died of spinal meningitis at the age of 24.

The manuscript records remarkable details about the entire Clemens household, servants included. Most of the news accounts of the manuscript sale identified Ursus Books of New York as the June 17 buyer, but Ursus acted as the agent for the Mark Twain Papers, bidding according to its instructions, bid limits and overall budget, said Hirst.

“I consider it a major triumph to be able to bring in from the cold, and make available to anyone who wants to read it, a manuscript of this importance,” said Hirst, noting stiff competition for the manuscript from top collectors and others. “I said before the auction that any collector or archive would happily go hungry for two or three years, just to be able to buy it.”

The auction “hammer price” hit $200,000, exceeding the pre-auction, high-end estimate of $180,000, but just matched the pre-auction maximum agreed upon by Bancroft Library officials. With assorted regular fees, the final price was $249,500, the highest price ever paid for a Twain manuscript entirely handwritten by the author. By comparison, Hirst said that in 1909, banker J.P. Morgan gave Clemens $2,500 for the book-length manuscripts of both “Pudd’nhead Wilson” and “Life on the Mississippi.”

Hirst said that the Mark Twain Papers could only buy “A Family Sketch” manuscript “because generous donors, who admire and support the project’s work in preserving and publishing Clemens’ writings, stepped up to make the purchase possible.”

Hirst endorsed the purchase of the manuscript that he said is “particularly suitable” for the Papers because it is an intimate family portrait — written in 1901 and revised five years later — that was never intended for publication and possibly never finished.

“We do intend to publish it, but with the manuscript literally in hand, it is much easier to do that accurately and well — with illustrations, for instance, but also with much better knowledge of who wrote what on the manuscript page,” Hirst said.

“Working from photocopies challenges our ability to understand exactly what Clemens wrote, how he changed it and how others changed it,” he said. “It is very exciting, from our point of view, to edit from the original documents.”

The Mark Twain Papers already controlled the copyright to “A Family Sketch,” but, nevertheless, may not have been able to decipher the text and changes made to it by the author and perhaps earlier editors, like Albert Bigelow Paine. Even publishing images of its handwritten pages would have been difficult or impossible if the manuscript had been bought and controlled by a private collector, Hirst said.

A core of original documents by and about Clemens was deposited at UC Berkeley in 1949 and bequeathed to the campus upon the 1962 death of his sole surviving daughter, Clara Clemens Samossoud. Since 1949, The Bancroft has added original documents to the collection in the form of letters, manuscripts, scrapbooks kept by Clemens and his brother Orion, first editions and other rare printings, photographs and other collateral documents.

“When you have a big collection like this, you have an obligation to add to it,” Hirst said, noting that for big ticket items like “Sketch,” The Bancroft’s budget for acquisitions needs supplemental donations from its supporters.

Over the years and especially since the 1990s, the project has added an average of two photocopied Twain letters every week. But it has also purchased several dozen original letters and such valuables as the fraying and fragile printer’s copy revised by Clemens for one of his sketchbooks. Hirst said the project recently bought — in staggered purchases — six manuscript chapters of “A Tramp Abroad,” left by Clemens with publishers who eventually let it be sold chapter by chapter.

“If you ask what kind of other things we have wanted to add, ‘A Family Sketch’ was right at the top of my list,” Hirst said.

Also at the Sotheby’s auction, the project purchased one of those manuscript chapters of “A Tramp Abroad,” Twain’s factual and fictional account of 18 months of travel across Europe in 1878 and 1879, as well as half a dozen original letters.

“We intend to serve both the current and the future population of Mark Twain scholars,” Hirst said. “And you can’t persuade me that people won’t be interested in Mark Twain 50 years from now.”

Additional information:

letter by Mark Twain

An 1883 letter from Mark Twain, newly acquired by The Bancroft Library's Mark Twain Papers & Project