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Ninety-Two Years After His Death, Mark Twain's Voice Still Heard in Collection of Letters

By Jo Kadlecek

Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain

On a Saturday evening in 1907, one of America's favorite writers picked up a pen and wrote his niece an apology letter for having missed an appointment with her: "What was it that happened, dear Pal? Did I make a mistake in the hour? I suppose so; I don't generally get anything right when there is a chance to get it wrong . . . so as dullness isn't a crime and is very very rare with me, I am fully expecting you to forgive me."

The habit of correspondence had been a long one for Samuel Clemens, also known as Mark Twain to the reading world and Uncle Mark to his niece, Mary Benjamin Rogers. Not only had Twain spent a lifetime writing stories, first as a journalist, then an author, but he conveyed his witty perspective of worldly matters in countless letters to a variety of people, especially his favorite niece by marriage. When he died 92 years ago this month --April 21 -- Twain had secured his place in the canon of American literature.

This past January, when Ken Burns aired his PBS documentary, "Mark Twain," he stirred a new, more contemporary interest in the American author. Book sales of Burns' biography and Twain's books themselves have since soared, and once again, Americans are curious about the man "Publishers Weekly" called, "this manic, profound, daft and provocative mad genius of American culture."

Beyond his books, however, researchers have been discovering another side of Twain for the past several decades by accessing his personal letters in Columbia's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Many of Twain's original letters were given to the University in 1953 by that same favorite niece, Mrs. H.H. Rogers. Ever since, countless biographers, documentarians, and literary scholars have held one of the 32 letters written by Clemens to Rogers in their hands, noting his loopy handwriting and getting another glimpse of the author's personality. Each letter offers clues not only of Twain's feisty humor, but also of his ability to use language to create a rise out of a reader.

The collection also includes correspondence with editors, friends, and personal photographs of Twain's, like his house in Riverdale on the Hudson, four letters written to Clemens and forwarded to him by Rogers with comments, and various clippings, cartoons, and photographs. Also included are 18 letters written to Clemens by Dorothy Sturgis, from 1908-1909, relating to the "Angel-Fish Aquarium," which was a girls literary club started by Twain in his final years. There is also one typescript of the Constitution of the Club, "The Aquarium, Issued by the Admiral" and a photograph album of the Mark Twain Dinner, 1905.

The collection offers personal insights into one of the most popular and enduring figures in American literature, known more for his stories than his letters.

"The obvious -- Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, etc. -- are the big and real things about Twain," says Jonathan Arac, Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature and chair of the department. "His books combine humor, an innovative prose style, and a series of subject matters that touch on many characteristic features of American experience, including the frontier, small town life, slavery -- but also the new wealth of the post civil war era, in its follies and corruption."

If his books touch a variety of American experiences, his letters reveal an intimate perspective of Twain's ability to capture life on paper. Shortly before her wedding on Oct. 25, 1900, for instance, Clemens wrote his niece from his New York residence, "Dear Miss Benjamin, I feel a deep personal interest in this fortunate marriage because I helped to rear Henry Rogers and make him what he is. I gave him the high moral touch which you will discover in him in spots. In order to testify to you how thankful I am to you for taking him off my hands, I had the idea of sending you a diamond coronet as a bridal present, but I gave it up because I was not able to find any fresh diamonds of this year's crop, they were all of earlier vintages and some were second hand; so I have finally decided to ask you to accept of a set of my books instead; and this is all the better anyway for diamonds invite the burglar, but he will not take books except by request. Hoping you two will have a long and happy life and great prosperity -- a wish in which Mrs. Clemens joins me -- I am Sincerely Yours, S.L. Clemens."

As he approached the end of his life, Clemens grew more lonely and melancholic, having survived the deaths of his wife and two children, financial crisis and other personal difficulties. Though he had written some of the country's best known stories in dozens of books, his final years were spent traveling between Connecticut and Bermuda for health and relaxation.

His death on April 21, 1910, caused newspapers around the country to declare, "The whole world is mourning." By then, Samuel Clemens had become Mark Twain, a proud possession of the American nation, and a legendary example of the adage he himself coined: "Truth is stranger than Fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't."

Published: Apr 19, 2002
Last modified:Sep 18, 2002

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