Lost classic revealed
‘New’ Mark Twain manuscript published by Meridian
Center: A page from a never-before-published speech by Mark Twain
Right: Cover of the current issue of Meridian
Left: Samuel Clemens, whose pen name was Mark Twain
Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to ask. That was the lesson for Cory MacLauchlin, a graduate student who introduces an unpublished — and likely undelivered — Mark Twain speech in the current issue of Meridian, a literary magazine edited by students in U.Va.’s Creative Writing Program.
The magazine regularly features a “Lost Classic”— poetry or prose by renowned authors from the past — but to actually hold an unpublished Twain manuscript left MacLauchlin’s head spinning.
“I’ve had trouble doing my class work,” he said, smiling. “I wanted to keep working on this.”
MacLauchlin first heard about the manuscript when he met with Michael Plunkett, the U.Va. Library’s director of Special Collections. The Twain speech is preserved in the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, alongside manuscripts by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Ellen Glasgow, Jorge Luis Borges and others. The Twain manuscript entered U.Va.’s holdings in 1992 when the library purchased it from an antiquarian dealer.
“The dealer knew it was Twain and thought it was unpublished,” Plunkett said. So when MacLauchlin asked if Plunkett could think of any potential “Lost Classics,” the Twain manuscript came to mind. “The dealer never did know exactly where it came from, so it seemed like a possibility, something worth a little research,” he added.
To get started, MacLauchlin took a copy of the speech to U.Va. English professor Stephen Railton, a Twain expert who has written “Mark Twain: A Short Introduction” and who maintains a Mark Twain Web site through the library’s Electronic Text Center.
“We’d never met,” MacLauchlin said, but Railton “really went the extra mile for me.”
The rediscovered Twain manuscript runs 11 handwritten pages — with copious revisions — and appears to be the draft of a speech for a Hartford, Conn., Yale University Alumni Banquet on Feb. 6, 1889. Twain’s subject was the teaching of religion at Girard College, which had faced court challenges due to its secular charter. Twain’s humor is evident: “I may venture to propose a scheme of crime here which might defeat itself if broached publicly. Our University needs money…”
But after promising to divulge his money-making scheme, Twain instead spends his time skewering Girard’s trustees and officers, the wealthy John Wanamaker and a goodly portion of Philadelphia’s elite. It’s a bait-and-switch: offering Yale alumni a way to make money, but hurling Twain wit and criticism instead. He directs special ire at those seeking to introduce religion at Girard, a place where Twain believed the school’s founder, philanthropist Stephen Girard, “wanted his boys to be left undisturbed by doctrinal clashings while in the college.”
However, Samuel Clemens, the man behind the Twain persona, appears to have had second thoughts on actually delivering the speech. By one scholar’s account, Clemens actually prepared two Twain speeches for the dinner, shelving both at the last minute for an informal discussion on his recent sojourn to Washington and his meetings with Ulysses S. Grant.
“It shows the great care — even manipulation — that Samuel Clemens used to preserve and enhance his public self, Mark Twain,” Railton said. “He knew there were things he wanted to talk about that might be too controversial for the time.”
“We’re really pleased to give this manuscript some exposure,” said Jeb Livingood, Meridian’s faculty adviser. “It just demonstrates the sort of treasures housed in Special Collections.”
Meridian has previously showcased other U.Va. holdings, including fragments of Robert Frost poems, the first chapters of an unpublished John Dos Passos novel, an unpublished essay by Ezra Pound and a “history” by Washington Irving.
Meridian exists, Livingood said, to give University students experience editing a national literary journal. “I think Cory got a sense of that tremendous responsibility here. It’s a thrill — and a little scary — to have Mark Twain in your hands.”
MacLauchlin said the project gave him insight into Twain’s writing process: “The first time I read the speech, sitting in the Special Collections Library, I couldn’t help but smile at Twain’s editing choices, as if I were witnessing the process of his craft unfold before me.”
Asked about the likelihood of the speech never having been published, Livingood shrugged and said, “You never know for sure. It only takes one publication, one scholar out there, but we’re 99.9 percent sure.”
Meanwhile, another graduate student, Margaret Konkol, is researching some Alice B. Toklas material, trying to discern if it is a candidate for Meridian’s Fall/Winter 2005 issue.
“Margaret’s lead looks promising,” Livingood said. “It’s time to start asking questions again.”
The current issue of Meridian is now available in the U.Va.
Bookstore and local newsstands. Readers also can receive the
Twain issue in the mail by subscribing to Meridian at its Web site,
http://www.readmeridian.org, or from amazon.com.