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Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn

An Introduction to the Exhibit

By Ronald D. Patkus, Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections

The exhibition “Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn” in the Vassar College Library marks two anniversaries: the 125th anniversary of the publication of Huckleberry Finn, and the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death. These anniversaries provide an opportunity for Vassar to focus attention on its remarkable holdings relating to Mark Twain and his family. The exhibition is actually long overdue, since 25 years have passed since the last time examples from Vassar’s Mark Twain collection were displayed. A listing of the materials included in the exhibition is provided in the checklist, found elsewhere in this publication. I hasten to point out to interested readers that the items in the exhibition form just a small portion of our Mark Twain holdings.

Photograph of Samuel Clemens at desk [Elmira, NY, 1874?]. Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn will be on display from January to May 2010 in the Vassar College Main Library.

A full description of our Mark Twain papers is provided in the essay by Alan Simpson which follows this preface. The essay is actually a substantial excerpt from a piece written by Simpson, president of Vassar College, in 1977. The essay appeared in a publication titled “Mark Twain Goes Back to Vassar,” which was issued by the college for the dedication of the Francis Fitz Randolph Rare Book Room, then located in the Helen D. Lockwood Library. It served as an introduction to the Jean Webster McKinney Family Papers, which had recently been acquired by the library. Simpson reviewed the history of the papers, and noted highlights within them. The section on Mark Twain is featured here; the final sections, which deal with Jean Webster and the McKinney Family, are not re-printed, but are available from the Archives & Special Collections Library. We trust that those reading the essay will gain an understanding of Vassar’s Mark Twain holdings, and their potential uses for both teaching and research.

It should be noted, however, that the essay deals strictly with the papers, and does not touch on book holdings at Vassar which relate to Twain. There are some significant holdings in this regard, such as first editions of “Tom Sawyer,” “Huckleberry Finn,” and other works. We also house a number of later editions of works by Twain, as well as a substantial number of scholarly monographs that have been published over the years. The book holdings provide an important complement to the manuscript materials described by President Simpson. Readers interested in these bibliographic materials may search the online catalog of the Vassar College Libraries, and should feel free to contact the Archives & Special Collections Library directly for more information.

This catalogue also includes a lengthy and learned essay by H. Daniel Peck, Professor of English at Vassar. Professor Peck is an expert on American literature of the nineteenth century, and during his career he has on a number of occasions written about Mark Twain, including the introduction to the recent Barnes & Noble edition of Tom Sawyer. His essay here discusses the autobiographical nature of both Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, and eloquently illuminates key themes in both of these novels. It will provide all readers with a useful introduction to Twain’s literary masterpieces.

A number of people have been involved in the production of the exhibition and its associated programming. I would like to thank Sabrina Pape, Director of the Libraries, for her ongoing support of these exhibitions and the programs that accompany them. Marisa Goudy, Assistant to the Director, assisted in the production of the exhibition. I am very grateful to Dan Peck for early on agreeing to collaborate with us on this exciting project, despite a busy schedule. At every stage we have greatly benefited from his wonderful interpretations of Twain and our collection. George Laws, Director of Publications at Vassar, provided an impressive design for this publication; he and Janet Allison, Production Manager, worked hard to make this publication a reality. Sarah Goldstein of the Visual Resources Library and Matthew Slaats of Academic Computing Services (ACS) were very helpful in producing images, and Jim Pape provided helpful advice relating to photography. Carolyn Guyer and Kevin Smith of College Relations must be thanked for their efforts in creating a wonderful website for the exhibition. Steve Taylor, Director of ACS, gave advice at key moments, and Baynard Bailey, also of ACS, oversaw the creation of a video introduction to the exhibition. Diane Butler of the Art Center and librarians Sarah Canino, Laura Finkel, and Gretchen Lieb all provided research assistance on holdings in their respective areas. Rare Book Cataloger Samantha Klein cataloged all of the Mark Twain items that had not previously been available in the online catalog. Anna Frumkin, a work-study student, was very helpful in retrieving items for the exhibit and assisting in the production of the text.

Ronald Patkus is Associate Director of the Libraries for Special Collections at Vassar.