On 17 June 2010, Sotheby’s presented a historical 19th century collection of original letters, manuscripts and photographs that shed light on the wit, pathos, and tragedy of the acclaimed author of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910). The selection of almost two hundred items valued at approximately $1 million* offers a rare picture of not only Mark Twain, the well-known rowdy and often bawdy humorist, but also Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the devoted husband and father.
The undisputed highlight of the collection is Clemens’ unpublished manuscript, “A Family Sketch,” his most intimate and introspective memoir of his family and his own boyhood days -- the missing chapter from his autobiography. Clemens’ notion of autobiography took a discursive approach, with his recollections of his youth, sketches of people he had met, and essays on various subjects cobbled together in rambling fashion. What initially began as a tribute to his late – and undisputed favorite – daughter Susy thus devolved into a narrative that encompasses the whole of this family and friends as well as glimpses of incidents of his own childhood. The 65-page manuscript, complete with numerous emendations throughout, is estimated at $120/160,000.
Clemens’ love and devotion for his wife Livy is evident in many items in the collection. Among them is a pleading letter to Clemens’ then-future father-in-law, Jervis Langdon, who was skeptical of his daughter’s engagement to Clemens (est. $30/40,000). In the nine-page letter dated 29 December 1868, the young, lovelorn Clemens defends his character and supplies a list of references to Langdon. He goes on to vow to show the father of his beloved “what I have been, what I am, and what I am likely to be.” In another letter, written from London a year-and-a-half after his marriage to his beloved wife, Clemens laments: “It is too dreary when the lights are out & the company gone.” Her mere presence rather than chatty companionship would greatly comfort him: “Don’t particularly want to talk to you, for I do hate talking – much prefer reading and smoking – but I simply need & want the company of there is in your presence.” So painful is the degree of his first marital separation that Clemens decided that “of 2 or 3 things must be done: Either you must come right over here for 6 months; or I must go right back home 3 or 4 weeks hence & both of us come here April 1st & stay all summer.” Penned in October 1872, the letter is estimated at $5/7,000.
Clemens’ humor and dual personality shine through in a letter to Century Magazine in which he Samuel Langhorne Clemens has “secured the services of [himself] to interview Mr. Twain.” He continued, “Mr. Clemens has a better opinion of Mr. Twain, than anyone I know of, and this is likely to afford a pleasant and complimentary interview.” Written from New York in September 1893, the one-page letter to a Mr. Ellsworth is estimated to sell for $5/7,000. In another charming letter, Clemens writes to his nephew and publisher, Charles L. Webster, savagely disparaging his proofreader (est. $3,500/5,000). “Charley, Your proofreader is an idiot; & not only an idiot, but blind; & not only blind, but partly dead.”
Another remarkable highlight of the collection is a letter which brings together two great literary minds – Clemens and Robert Louis Stevenson (est. $20/30,000). Clemens writes to Stevenson discussing plans to meet in New York City and then thanks the author “for writing Kidnapped and Treasure island, & for liking Huckleberry.” He heaps praise on Stevenson’s novels: “Those two great books!-how we bathed in them last summer, & refreshed our spirits.” The two authors spent a memorable afternoon together in Washington Square, conversing as Stevenson later recalled, “like a couple of characters out of a story by Henry James” (Stevenson to Clemens, 16 April 1893).
The library also comprises the tragic notes of Clemens’ life, including a rare photograph of the author’s only son, Langdon, who died after nineteen months of life in 1872 (est. $8/12,000). Also included are acknowledgements of condolences sent to Clemens following the death of his wife, Olivia Langdon, in 1904, where he writes in one note “You have said the true word: | I did worship her. SLC,” and in another, “I have not known & shall never know any one who could fill the place of the wife I have lost. I shall not marry again.”
A poignant tribute to Clemens on the 100th anniversary of his death, the collection also contains the funeral register of Smith & Fudge Funeral Home which contains the entries for the funerals of Clemens’ daughter, Jean, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens himself, as well as the Certificate of the Register of Deaths for S. L. Clemens and a synopsis of the great author’s last will and testament, dated 17 August 1908 and initialed by him. (All of the above together: $8,500/12,000).
Clemens’ spirit shines throughout the collection however, as in one letter dated 4 July 1894 to a Miss Bronson (presumably a friend of his daughter Jean): “My Dear Miss Bronson: Do lay this admonition to heart! Endeavor to so live that when you come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
The Mark Twain Collection will be included in a larger auction on 17 June: The James S. Copley Library: Arts & Sciences including the Mark Twain Collection. The James S. Copley Library is an astonishing survey in original manuscripts of American history and worldwide literary, artistic and scientific achievement. It was assembled by the California newspaper man, James Copley, mostly in the 1960s and 70s, and will be sold by Sotheby’s in a series of auction in 2010 and 2011.
Among the other treasures to be offered in the 17 June sale:
*A striking autograph quotation signed by F. Scott Fitzgerald Of the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby (est. $25/35,000)
*Walt Whitman writing his mother in 1864 about Grant, Lee and the Battle of the Wilderness (est. $18/25,000)
*A chapter from John James Audubon’s “Ornithological biography” entitled ‘The Ohio’ in which he recalls vividly his voyage down the Ohio River from Pennsylvania to Kentucky (est. $10/15,000)
*Albert Einstein’s autograph speech delivered to the California Institute Associates on 25 January 1932 (est. $40/60,000)
*Charlotte Brontë writing to W.S. Williams, her agent or publisher, on 18 October 1848 and expressing a pessimistic outlook on the study of human motivations (est. 35/50,000)
*Twenty-six bars of George Gershwin’s song, “Clap Yo’ Hands”, dated November 1926 (est. $8/12,000)
*Emily Dickinson writing in the spring of 1871 to Mrs. Henry Hills, a friend and neighbor from New York, on the subject of love and charity (est. $35/50,000)