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Scrawled in the Margins, Signs of Twain as a Critic

By Joachim Koch. May 8, 2010. 4:12 AM.

Topics: American Literature, Biographies

By the end of his life, Samuel Langhorne Clemens had achieved fame as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, a globe-trotting lecturer and, of course, the literary genius who wrote “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and other works under the name Mark Twain.

He was less well-known, but no less talented, as a literary critic. Proof of it has resided, mostly unnoticed, in a small library in Redding, Conn., where hundreds of his personal books have sat in obscurity for 100 years. They are filled with notes in his own cramped, scratchy handwriting. Irrepressible when he spotted something he did not like, but also impatient with good books that he thought could be better, he was often savage in his commentary.

“The English of this book is incorrect & slovenly & its diction, as a rule, barren of distinction,” Twain scribbled in his copy of a 1906 autobiography of Lew Wallace, the Civil War general who wrote “Ben-Hur.”

Now, for the first time, this little-known side of Twain’s life, plumbed occasionally by scholars, can finally be appreciated by his fans. In honor of the centennial of his death on April 21, the library granted The New York Times permission to examine this trove of books and record notes and markings Twain left behind in their margins.

In Kate Saint Maur’s 1909 book, “The Earth’s Bounty,” Twain’s snake-like pen strokes suggest that the book would improve if Pages 370 and 371 disappeared.

He was not any fonder of Melville Landon’s “Saratoga in 1901,” in which he scrawled, “The Droolings of an Idiot.”

“He didn’t mince words,” said Heather C. Morgan, the director of the Redding library, which has called itself The Mark Twain Library almost from the moment Twain moved to town in 1908. In high dudgeon upon learning that his Connecticut neighbors had no library, he led the campaign to start one by donating $6,000 and thousands of books from his own shelves and asking well-heeled friends like Andrew Carnegie to kick in, too.

Though Twain’s books are still the library’s prized possessions, Ms. Morgan went so far as to say that her library’s former benefactor could be “incredibly rude” about writing he deemed flawed.

Not even friends like Rudyard Kipling escaped the thwack of Twain’s lash. Kipling received an honorary degree from Oxford along with Twain in 1907, and Twain considered Kipling a friend whose poems he often read aloud. Yet, there on Page 249 of Twain’s copy of Kipling’s “Departmental Ditties, Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses,” Twain could not resist changing “heaved” to “hove.”

Two pages later, he turned a comma into a semicolon.

Samuel Johnson and Robert Louis Stevenson came in for similar grammatical reproach.

“Twain could just lacerate a book,” said Kevin Mac Donnell, a collector of rare books in Austin, Tex. who owns more than 150 books once owned by Twain. Badly written books bore the brunt of his annotations, Mr. Mac Donnell said, but the author “would also correct a book if he thought it was a gem.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he corrected the Bible and Shakespeare,” he added.

All in all, the books tell a tale nearly lost to posterity.

Library records suggest that Twain and his lone surviving child, Clara, gave the fledgling library at least 1,751 of the volumes it owned since its inception. His former books still bear red hand-written numbers that correspond to entries in the library’s earliest known roster.

Twain plucked 400 to 500 of those books from his own “overburdened shelves,” as he put it, and supplemented those gifts with later ones, as did Clara.

For decades, Twain’s books were allowed to circulate. Some may have worn out, and in the early 1950s, when space got tight, a librarian, whose name Ms. Morgan said she did not know, weeded the shelves of books that had not been borrowed in a while. A book dealer carted off a truckload for what is believed to be $20. Only belatedly, when the books began popping up at auctions, did the library realize that it had tossed treasures and sought to safeguard what was left.

In 1970, when the library invited a noted Twain scholar to examine the collection, he helped round up a few stragglers still lurking in the stacks. “It was really like a scholarly Easter egg hunt walking down the shelves and pulling books off the shelf,” recalled Alan Gribben, a professor at Auburn University at Montgomery.

On March 10, Ms. Morgan unearthed another likely gem hiding in plain sight over in fiction: a 105-year-old book by G. K. Chesterton called “The Club of Queer Trades.” Ms. Morgan said she would show it and other recent finds to Dr. Gribben on his next visit for authentication.

Judging from the 240 or so books in Redding’s custody that have been authenticated, Twain was a voracious reader, worlds apart from the unschooled innocent he sometimes played.

Many of his books concern topics Twain explored in his own writing, like Hiram Chittenden’s history of steamboat navigation and Josiah Flynt Willard’s study of tramps, with its glossary of terms.

Twain’s tastes also touched on politics, religion, history, the arts and science.

He owned classics like Epictetus, the Koran and the Bible, and kept up with contemporaries like H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad, Charles Darwin and Victor Hugo. His selections show he had a knack for sniffing out great promise. For instance, he instructed someone named Theodore to “pay $1.50” for an early translation of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days” so Twain could share it with his wife, according to a penciled notation in front.

That purchase fit in well with his other books about far-off lands. One, a guide to walking tours in Florence, had Twain chiding its authors, Susan and Joanna Horner, for careless writing on Page 79. “Of course, a procession moves in procession,” he observed.

Publishing in other languages offered no refuge. Twain owned grammar texts in French and German — and a 1904 book by John Charles O’Connor that was billed as a complete guide to Esperanto. An 1878 work entitled, “Memoirs of Hans Hendrik, the Arctic Traveller,” notes it was “translated from the Eskimo language.” Twain gave it a rare compliment: “A very valuable book & unique,” he concluded.

Several books, like the 321-page tome that he owned about ant communities, were picked out with his daughter Jean, a nature lover, in mind, while books about music were inscribed to Clara. Scholars can generally distinguish Twain’s style of annotation from those of his kin. The women in his life tended to be more charitable in their written comments, too.

In another discovery, Ms. Morgan pointed out how George Iles, an acquaintance of Twain’s, may have been curious to see what Twain thought of a book he had given him. The sign-out card lists Mr. Iles as a borrower.

Had Mr. Iles gotten to Page 114, he might have spotted Twain’s handwriting near a poem about death by William Cullen Bryant — the man whose meditative presence graces Bryant Park in Manhattan.

“Written at 19!” Twain scrawled to the left of the poem’s last lines.

He seemed impressed.

Source: The New York Times


More About Mark Twain

Joachim Koch
Book buyer. Bookseller. Factotum Generalis. Believes in not attempting to be the smartest person in room and enjoys growing success.


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