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The Return of Twain

June 25, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: One hundred twenty-five years ago, Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, wrote a mystery story that was never published and disappeared from public view. The story, “A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage,” was written for the Atlantic Monthly. It is finally being published by the Monthly in the magazine’s current edition, more than a century late, and thereby hangs a tale.

For more on the story and how it resurfaced, we turn to Atlantic Monthly Editor Michael Kelly; and to University of Virginia English Professor Stephen Railton, who is writing a book about twain and produces a Web site entitled “Mark Twain in his Times.” Michael Kelly…


TERENCE SMITH: An unpublished story by Mark Twain is not an everyday event. How did this come about?

MICHAEL KELLY: It wasn’t for us either. Well, the short answer is, we had it at one point, and we sort of lost it. The longer answer is a little more complicated. It begins with one of the great literary friendships between Williams Dean Howells and Mark Twain. Howells was editor of the Atlantic Monthly in the 1870s, was America’s foremost literacy arbiter. He was a great friend, supporter, promoter of Mark Twain and of other what they called regional writers, wild west writers.

In 1876, in March, Howells went to visit Mark Twain in his Hartford estate, and Mark Twain proposed an idea. It was, I think for both men, frankly commercial, an attention-getter, a market attention-getter, and that was that Mark Twain would write a skeleton plot, working in the new, relatively new genre of a murder mystery, and he would give that to William Dean Howells, and Howells would find half a dozen other famous writers, tell them the plot, and they would write versions of the novelette while twain wrote his own version.

TERENCE SMITH: And then the Monthly would publish them all?

MICHAEL KELLY: The Monthly would publish them all. It’s called a blindfold novelette. Both men got terrifically excited about it, thought it was a great idea. Twain liked it so much that he sat down and wrote his version of the novelette in two days, sent Howells a letter, said that Mrs. Clemens had looked at it and thought it was good, which he said was high praise from her. But he apparently, as far as we can tell, didn’t show it to Howells because he really wanted it to be blindfold.

Howells went off and tried to get various writers — Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bret Harte — to do what Twain had proposed. None of them would do it, and as Twain himself said a few years later, he realized the problem. He said, “the other authors don’t want to trot along in my procession,” which I think was probably precisely it. But Twain didn’t give up, and Howells didn’t give up, and they kept it up for several years, trying various ways to put this contest together. Howells eventually did lose interest, but Twain kept it up for years. Some 20 years he tried in one way or another to put this together.

TERENCE SMITH: So he really wanted to do this.

MICHAEL KELLY: He really wanted to do it, and he approached various editors, various magazines, and various versions of the contest — never happened. The manuscript, if it ever was in the possession of the Atlantic Monthly, disappeared. Neither was it in Twain’s papers when he died in 1910.

It surfaced in 1930 in the estate of an English bookseller named Clemens. As it happens, no relation, James Brentano Clemens. Clemens left it to his wife. She in turn, when she died in 1943, left it to her estate. Her estate sold it to an American bookseller named Lew Feldman. Feldman tried to get it published. The Twain estate enjoined publication, successfully sued.

Feldman then sold it, oddly enough, to the two men who make up or made up the two halves of Ellery Queen. They were interested in it as a genre story, a mystery story. Their estate left it to the University of Texas in the 1950s, and it stayed there until 1998, when a man named Patrick Martin, who’s the lawyer for the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, heard about it, heard about its existence, talking with the people at the Mark Twain Foundation, whom he worked with. And he got the blessing from the Mark Twain Foundation, if he could put it together, to see if this could be published again.

His idea from the beginning was to publish it in such a way that it was analogous with Twain’s original intent, involving a contest published in the Atlantic. He worked on this for a couple of years, to get all sorts of ducks in a row — permission from the Twain Foundation, permission and blessing of the Twain Papers; eventually did get it all done and came to us in the fall of 2000 and owned the rights to the story and offered them for sale.

TERENCE SMITH: And you have in fact bought it, and you’re publishing it.

MICHAEL KELLY: We bought it on the spot.

TERENCE SMITH: What did you pay for it?

MICHAEL KELLY: I can’t really say, I think, under the terms of the agreement, but I’ll say we paid a fair market price for it, and a good deal more than we would have paid in 1876.

TERENCE SMITH: (Laughs) I suspect so. Stephen Railton, did you find the story interesting?

STEPHEN RAILTON: I think it’s going to be very interesting to people who’ve read a lot of Mark Twain. There will be some surprises in it. People think of Twain as growing cynical about life in the small southwestern village where this is set and “Tom Sawyer” is set, but there’s already a good deal of cynicism about that small-town world that you don’t see in “Tom Sawyer” and that even “Huck Finn” doesn’t find its way to. That’s when the story was written, between his finishing “Tom Sawyer” and his starting “Huck Finn,” and that’s another really interesting feature.

It’s hard to get a handle on the whole story. It has some of Twain’s greatest strengths, and it has some of his greatest weaknesses, too. It has a love story that just sits there. The mystery is really interesting. It anticipates a lot of his late fiction. This mysterious stranger who comes to town, who behaves a little bit like the king and the duke in “Huck Finn.” One of the most interesting or telling things about it is the way that Twain was determined to try to make money, not just by writing his own story, but by marketing it.

TERENCE SMITH: He was a good marketer.

STEPHEN RAILTON: He was always trying to maximize his financial returns from the work of his imagination.

TERENCE SMITH: All right. Now, Michael Kelly, I understand that the Buffalo and Erie County Library is doing today what Twain proposed 125 years ago.

MICHAEL KELLY: That’s right. They put up on their Web site, back in March, I think, a contest, open worldwide, of course, anybody can enter it. They got some thousands, I think, maybe even tens of thousands of inquiries, and some 300 applications, I think. People actually wrote versions of the story, and those entries are all in now. They’re going to be judged by a panel of writers, including Joyce Carol Oates and Garrison Keillor and Roy Blount, and a winner or winners decided in October.

TERENCE SMITH: And are you going to publish the winner?

MICHAEL KELLY: We’re going to sure take a look at it. It depends what price we can get it for.

TERENCE SMITH: Stephen Railton, is there other unpublished Twain work out there?

STEPHEN RAILTON: Still, yes. The Mark Twain Project at the University of California has been digging through the many boxes that Twain left full of manuscript at his death, but I doubt there are many completed unpublished Twain manuscripts out there. That’s one of the special features of this text.

TERENCE SMITH: Has anybody come to you with anything else?

MICHAEL KELLY: No, and we’d be interested, but I think the professor’s right. To get a complete, finished, polished, a reasonably polished piece of writing probably must be fairly tough to come by.

TERENCE SMITH: It’s something exceptional.

MICHAEL KELLY: And it’s of length. It’s 8,000 words. So it’s a real….

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Did you enjoy the story?

MICHAEL KELLY: I did. I have to agree that the love story is not his long suit. It doesn’t even really get… Develop much of an obvious interest. The humor in it is funny. It’s got a surprise ending, which is very modern, involving Jules Verne. It is… And the mystery is interesting. But to me the most interesting thing was the darkness that is in there that is not in the earlier works, and that… The people he’s describing in this small town, there’s a lot of what comes up later in “Huckleberry Finn,” a really new and honest and in some ways very tough view of what people do.

TERENCE SMITH: So, very quickly, it’s something of a literary bridge between “Tom Sawyer” and “Huck Finn”?

STEPHEN RAILTON: …”Tom Sawyer” and the realism of “Huck Finn.” I think you could read it that way.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, then. Thank you both very much.