Margin Notes Written By The Author Are Stuff Of Literary Study
By MARK SPENCER
September 03, 2011
HARTFORD —— Anyone who saw the two women on their hands and knees in the library of the Mark Twain House in March might have thought they were cleaning.
Chief curator Patti Philippon and curatorial associate Mallory Howard were, in fact, doing a bit of dusting. The two women are the Twain museum's entire curatorial staff, and when it comes to passing menial tasks down the chain, they run out of links fast.
But their primary mission was to inventory the books in the library of the Victorian Gothic house on Farmington Avenue where Samuel Clemens, who published as Mark Twain, and his family lived from 1874 to 1891.
As volunteer tour guides patiently explain to the 70,000 people who visit the home each year, the books in the ornate library are of Clemens' era and interests, but are not actually the valuable editions he owned or had personally read.
"That turned out not to be the case," said Howard.
As they rummaged through the stand-in books, Howard and Philippon were stunned to find a long unaccounted-for book that had in fact been owned, or at least read, by Clemens. The book had appeared on previous inventories so the staff knew it existed, but as in many American homes, they didn't exactly know where it was.
"It's the kind of thing that doesn't happen very often and when it does it's just amazing," Philippon said.
While the two women were thrilled to find the book, Howard hit the literary jackpot when she later examined the copy of "Boat Life In Egypt and Nubia," a travel book by William C. Prime that Clemens detested.
There in the margins of many pages were scribbled notes, often acerbic or sarcastic, that Howard was almost certain had been written by Clemens as he read the book more than a century ago.
While perhaps mundane to most people, the discovery is the kind of thing that quickens the pulse of literary types. Appropriately called marginalia, scholars study it to get a glimpse into the thoughts of great writers.
"These are his own off-the-cuff, unedited thoughts," Philippon said. "It gives people an insight into him and what he really thought."
"Boat Life" occupies a unique niche in both Clemens' career and his relationship with Hartford. Twain's "Innocents Abroad," published in 1869, is his humorous account of a boat trip he took two years before through Europe and the Middle East.
It was his biggest-selling book during his lifetime and brought him to Hartford for the first time, where his publisher was based. And he devoted an entire chapter to savagely satirizing Prime and his book. Scholars have lusted to see Clemens' copy.
They will not be disappointed. After one overwrought passage, Clemens wrote, "This person was drunk."
Howard is intimately familiar with Clemens marginalia. She had worked as a tour guide and intern at the Mark Twain House & Museum before being hired after graduating last year with a bachelor's degree in American history fromCentral Connecticut State University.
As an intern, Howard was assigned the task of reviewing a collection of about 300 Clemens-owned books it acquired in the mid-1990s and for the first time cataloging the marginalia. Howard knows that most people would find it tedious going through thousands of pages in hundred of books searching for every pencil stroke and deciphering nearly illegible comments.
But she is the kind of person who can, unprompted, interrupt a conversation with a wistful, "Oh, I love marginalia," and said she couldn't wait to get started.
"I do geek out," Howard said. "This project was perfect for me."
To confirm the "Boat Life" find, scans of the marginalia were sent to Twain experts around the country.
Alan Gribben, a Twain library and marginalia expert at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala., responded simply, "Wow."
Robert Hirst, chief editor of the Mark Twain Papers & Project at the University of California at Berkeley, has been studying the author for 45 years and instantly recognized his marginalia. For years experts have wondered what happened to Clemens' copy of "Boat Life."
"I've been doing this for a long time," Hirst said. "It's still exciting."
The Mark Twain Papers & Project is now working on a new edition of "Innocents Abroad." Hirst said Clemens thought Prime was a "phony, sentimental traveler" and the marginalia will provide insights into what rankled him so much.
"Mark Twain almost never read a book he didn't write in," Hirst said. "He has a conversation with the book in the margins."
Clemens repeatedly skewers Prime's inflated sense of self-importance, at one point writing, "And so he goes about, being mistaken everywhere for God."
The museum's staff has its favorite marginalia from other books, including Clemens' notes in a copy of "Plutarch's Lives of Illustrious Men." He would scrawl a comment, with an arrow to show where it should be inserted, or add it to the end of a sentence, shown in italic.
Printed in the title page of the book is "Translated From the Greek into rotten English by Jon Dryden." Below that is, "The Whole Carefully revised and corrected by an ass."
Were he alive today, it's easy to see Clemens as an unrepentant tagger, a large black Sharpie in the pocket of his white suit jacket, furtively looking over his shoulder as he vented his ire on Hartford signs and billboards.
Twain remains enormously popular. He had ordered that his autobiography not be published until 100 years after his death. When published last year by the University of California Press, it was a best-seller, hardly expected for a 760-page tome by a long dead writer.
Despite generations of admonitions from teachers and parents that writing in books is vandalism, editions with Clemens marginalia are highly prized by collectors, fetching $5,000 and up, Hirst said.
His copy of "Boat Life" is now safely enshrined in a specially designed, acid-free box in the museum's temperature- and humidity-controlled special collection room, under Howard's loving care.
Her enthusiasm is still obvious as she dons white cotton gloves, carefully places the book in black wedges to cradle it and starts turning pages in search of more clues. Often as she is squinting to decipher the great man's scrawls, an image comes to her of Clemens propped up in bed.
"I totally picture him smoking a cigar, pen in hand, mumbling to himself and shaking his head."
Howard will present a lecture, "Mark Twain in the Margins," at 5:30 p.m. on Sept. 14 at the museum, the first in the "Trouble Begins at 5:30" series, which will run every Wednesday through Oct. 12.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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