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A Mysterious Manuscript

BY Greg Barber  June 25, 2001 at 1:15 PM EDT

The year was 1876, and from the desk of Mark Twain came the notion of a writing competition of the grandest proportions.

The idea was simple: Well-known writers would take an agreed-upon plot, flesh out their own characters and conclusions, and then compare their creations in a respected journal. It would be a literary exercise, a publicity stunt and a good time rolled into one endeavor.

Twain, who had already established himself through his popular “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” published earlier that year, told his good friend William Dean Howells, publisher of the Atlantic Monthly magazine, the idea couldn’t lose.

For Twain and his compatriots, the plan offered an opportunity to examine variations on a theme for differences in writing style. And for Howells and his magazine, the idea would draw famous writers – and with them paying readers – to the Atlantic’s pages.

Twain was so excited by the prospect, he wrote his version of the story — titled “A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage” — in just two days, according to current Atlantic editor Michael Kelly.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Bret Harte and Henry James were on Twain’s list of possible co-conspirators But, according to Kelly, Howells couldn’t convince anyone to participate and finally gave up on the idea.

Twain didn’t let go so easily — he prodded Howells and other publishers for nearly 20 years. But Twain did not live to see the idea come to the conclusion he’d planned.

Now, 125 years after Twain completed his version of the skeleton novelette, his story is at the center of an international writing competition and was finally published in today’s issue of the Atlantic.

The competition, sponsored by the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, which owns the original manuscript of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and other Twain writings, enjoins would-be writers of all ages to read the first two chapters and craft their own endings to Twain’s tale.

Entries will be judged by noted writers Joyce Carol Oates, Garrison Keillor, Roy Blount and others. The winner gets a $5,000 prize.

But how “A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage” wound its way to Buffalo is a whodunnit all its own.

A procession of one

Throughout 1876, an ebullient Twain prodded Howells for news on his progress in filling out a roster of writers for the story project.

Although he moved on to other projects — including “Huckleberry Finn,” which he started that August — Twain never quite let go of the skeleton story plan.

In an April 1879 letter to Howells, Twain asked “Can’t you get up a plot for a ‘skeleton novelette’ & find two or three fellows to join us in writing the stories? Five of us would do. I can’t seem to give up that idea.”

But, Kelly said, despite his enthusiasm, Twain told Howells he realized some authors might be hesitant to “trot along in my procession.”

By 1884, Twain had begun shopping the idea to other publications, but with no success.

When Twain died in 1910, the idea – and his finished manuscript – had been largely forgotten.

Publish or perish

The story surfaced in 1930 in the papers of English bookseller James B. Clemens — no relation to Twain, whose real name was Samuel Clemens.

James Clemens willed the manuscript to his wife, whose estate sold it after her death in 1945 to bookseller Lew Feldman for a reported $1,250.

Feldman printed a handful copies of the story later that year so he could apply for a copyright and conduct a wider distribution of the novelette. Trustees of the Twain estate quickly sued to halt printing.

In their case before the New York Supreme Court, the trustees argued that the story was not meant to be released and publication would injure Twain’s reputation.

Feldman told the court his purchase of the manuscript granted him the right to print the story.

Justice Aron Steuer dismissed the trustees’ claim in early 1948, but an appellate court reversed his ruling the following year, ruling 3-2 that Feldman had “no title to the literary property in the manuscript.”

Unable to publish the story as he’d hoped, Feldman sold “A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage” to Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee, who wrote mystery stories themselves under the pen name Ellery Queen.

Dannay and Lee kept the novelette to themselves, and the story sat, unpublished, in their private collection.

A ‘mystery’ rediscovered

It was from the papers of Ellery Queen — now housed at the University of Texas at Austin — that “A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage” finally reemerged

Word of the story floated to Patrick Martin, a lawyer for the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, in 1998. Martin worked with the Twain foundation and the Mark Twain Project at The University of California at Berkeley, which owns the publishing rights to Twain’s works. When the logistics were worked out, Martin brought the story to the Atlantic, which bought it on the spot.

Kelly won’t comment on how much the Atlantic spent to buy the manuscript, but said “it’s more than we would have paid in 1876.”

Meanwhile, Martin said, the Buffalo Library’s competition will finally fulfill Twain’s desire to make “A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage,” more than just one author’s story.

“This kind of public event is something that he loved,” Martin told Buffalo’s WBFO radio. “He loved it in touring and speaking to people, he loved it in the way that he approached some of his literary efforts. So it’s very much in keeping with his approach to things.”

Mark Twain Foundation trustee Richard Watson said Martin was the first person to suggest structuring the publication of “A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage” the way Twain himself had planned it.

“There were some people over the years who had expressed an interest in publishing the work as Twain wrote it,” he said. “But no one until Pat got involved in this got the other idea, which was to go back to do what Twain wanted to do … to publish the first two chapters and then let people take it from there.”

“A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage” will be published and distributed by WW Norton and Company this fall.