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Mark Twain Goes Back to Vassar

By Alan Simpson

ON A soaking-wet day in May 1885 Mark Twain went to Vassar with his daughter Susy to tell two of his stories at a celebration of Founder's Day—“A Trying Situation” (from A Tramp Abroad) and “The Golden Arm.” He did this without fee, as a courtesy to a Vassar alumna, and was not at all pleased by his official reception. Presi­dent Caldwell, who had failed to show up during all those dismal hours while his damp guest was smoking cigars in angry solitude, expected to introduce him, but was told, in substance, "You have allowed me to get along without your help thus far, and if you will retire from the platform I will try to do the rest without it." When Mark Twain described this Vassar visit in his autobiography, he called the President "a sour old saint" and the whole experience "ghastly," apart from "that great garden of young and lovely blossoms," his student audience. He still remembered their charms twenty years later when he appeared on a platform in New York to help a Vassar fund-drive and generously found room beneath his moustache for the kisses of some of the old girls whom he had met on his earlier visit, as well as for the more invigorating tributes of the new girls. This was in 1906. By that time his own great-niece Jean Webster, a Vassar alumna of the class of 1901, had already made a name for herself as a storyteller.

The Jean Webster McKinney Family Papers

This unique collection of family papers, which makes Vassar College one of the significant centers of Mark Twain scholarship, was given to the College in honor of Jean Webster on February 12, 1977. "This is Mark Twain's second visit to Vassar," said President Simpson, in announcing the gift, "and he is here to stay."

The donors are Jean Connor, daughter of Jean Webster, and her hus­band Ralph Connor, a former trustee of Vassar. They live at Tymor Farm, LaGrangeville, Dutchess County, New York, where Jean Webster and her husband Glenn Ford McKinney lived before them, and where manu­scripts, letters and memorials of Mark Twain have been stored in attics and barns for several decades. Mrs. and Mr. Connor have also pledged a Chair in American Literature, Creative Writing, or Drama in honor of Jean Webster.

The Jean Webster McKinney Papers are truly family papers. They consist of letters, manuscripts, notebooks, account books, line-a-day diaries, newspaper clippings, playbills, souvenir programs, menus, wed­ding announcements, death certificates, wills, obituaries, faded family photographs, portraits, sketches, pictures of family homes, postcards from abroad, a treasured book, a lock of hair, a four-leaf clover. Memen­tos like some of these might be found in the attics or cupboards of any old house. Others—such as a letter from the scene of a gold rush with a speck of gold embedded in it, or a personal letter of 1863 from Sam Clemens in which he signs himself (for the first time to our knowledge) "Mark Twain" would be collector's items anywhere. And then, after the merely old, and curious, and rare, there are the papers of the highest historical and literary value. Taken as a whole the collection represents a confluence of three streams which were flowing through the culture of middle-class America between about 1840 and 1916—the letters and memorials of Mark Twain and his relatives, those of Jean Webster and her friends, and those of the McKinney family into which Jean Webster married.

The Mark Twain papers in this collection will fill one of the biggest gaps in modern Twain scholarship. The bulk of Twain's private papers, including several hundred manuscripts of his works, forty-five of his notebooks, and many hundreds of letters from and to him, travelled after his death from his house in Redding, Connecticut, first to Harvard, then to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and from there to their final resting place in the Bancroft Library of the University of Cali­fornia, where the collection has been enlarged by further acquisitions. Albert Bigelow Paine, Bernard de Voto, Dixon Wecter, Henry Nash Smith and Frederick Anderson have in turn served as literary editors of the Mark Twain Estate, which owns the copyright to Mark Twain's writings by deed of Clara Clemens Samossoud, Mark Twain's daughter. Under the last two editors the definitive, multi-volumed edition of Mark Twain's unpublished manuscripts, and a fuller edition of his letters than Albert Bigelow Paine produced in 1917, has been projected and in part completed. The editors have drawn on significant collections of Twain manuscripts at Harvard, Yale, the University of Virginia, the New York Public Library and elsewhere, but with the exception of Dixon Wecter they have not had access to this collection. Their knowledge of it has been derived from Paine's Mark Twain's Letters (2 vols., New York: Harper and Bros., 1917), which used some of the letters; from Samuel Charles Webster, Mark Twain, Business Man (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1946), which was based on this collection; and from typescripts made by Dixon Wecter when the manuscripts were on loan to Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Charles Webster.

Origins of the Collection

To identify the scope and legal ownership of this Tymor collection it is necessary to recall that Jean Connor and her issue are the only surviving descendants from the marriage in 1823 of John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton, the father and mother of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain). There are no descendants today from Samuel Clemens' own four children. Langdon died in infancy; Susy, who came to Vassar with him in 1885 at the age of thirteen, died in 1896; Jean died at the age of twenty-nine in 1909, the year before his own death. Only Clara sur­vived him; and her daughter died childless in 1966. Samuel Clemens' younger brother Henry, a favorite with everyone, was killed in a steam­boat explosion when he was only twenty; the family feared at the time that Sam himself might have been killed in this explosion, but he had been forced to leave the boat because of a row with the ill-natured pilot which he had undertaken on Henry's behalf, who was serving as clerk. His older brother, Orion, who took Sam out west with him when he was made Secretary of the Territory of Nevada by Abraham Lincoln, died without issue in 1897; his only daughter, Jennie, had died as a child in Carson City. Only through his sister Pamela was the line continued.

Pamela Clemens married William Moffett and gave birth to a daughter, Annie Moffett, who reached the age of ninety-seven and was for many years before her death in 1950 the last living link with her uncle Mark Twain. It was she who married in 1875 Charles Luther Webster, descen­dant of Noah Webster the lexicographer, and a civil engineer in Fredonia, New York. Mark Twain made young Charley Webster his publisher, and it was from the marriage of Annie Moffett and Charley Webster that the manuscripts and memorials at Tymor Farm were derived. Some of them had descended to Annie from the Moffett home in St. Louis where her grandmother Jane had lived with her mother Pamela and the young Sam Clemens had stored his belongings when he was a river-pilot. Others were written to her mother and grandmother when they moved to Fredo­nia before Annie's marriage. Others came to her husband, the publisher, or were sent to his publishing house. All this and much else stayed with Annie Moffett Webster after her husband died in 1891, passed from her ownership to that of her daughter and son-in-law, Jean Webster and Glenn Ford McKinney, and from them to their daughter, Jean Connor. It was while they were in Jean Connor's ownership that the trunks at Tymor Farm were borrowed by her uncle, Samuel Charles Webster, to write Mark Twain, Business Man. The Connors have compiled an inventory of the papers, pictures, and photographs before handing them over to Vassar.

It is for the expert in Twain scholarship to say which items in this col­lection contribute most to our knowledge today, and for the professional appraiser to estimate their market value. But here are a few suggestions for browsers.

Guidelines for Browsers

First, there is Twain's earliest surviving notebook, the only one of forty-­nine extant notebooks which has not been available in its original form to the editors of the Mark Twain Notebooks. Samuel Charles Webster summarized its contents in Mark Twain, Business Man, and his wife sent a photocopy to California in 1954 from which a text with commentary was published in Mark Twain's Notebooks and Journals (Vol. I [1855­-1873]: University of California Press, 1975).

Mark Twain was an inveterate note-taker. Horace Bixby, to whom he was apprenticed as a river-pilot, told him to keep a little memorandum book. In later life he kept notebooks as a reporter, a writer, and a traveller as well as for ordinary social purposes. This earliest specimen is a little pocket notebook filled with random jottings in the summer of 1855 by a redheaded young man of nineteen, a typesetter in a print shop. He tries out his signature three or four times on the cover, starts off with a French vocabulary which he soon gives up, jots down appointments, a laundry list, a game of chess, and scraps of family business. He includes the names of Miss Jule Violett (age sixteen), Miss Em Tandy (age seventeen), and Miss Em Young (age nineteen), to whom he had just been introduced. He stops and starts again, uses the notebook upside down, and seems to be working out his wages, or counting ducks, on the back page. There is a good sketch of a head, which he had copied from a book on phrenology, together with descriptions of four temperaments, one of which, the san­guine, he identifies with himself and another, the nervous, with his brother Orion, his boss in the Keokuk printshop. He also took considerable pains with a word-picture of a coquette, ending "True worth in rags, with her, is easily overbalanced by stupidity in broadcloth," though whether he copied this as a literary exercise or created it in contemplation of Miss Em Young, nobody knows.

Second, there is a lifetime of Mark Twain's letters. They run all the way from the hilarities of his youth in Nevada and California to the depressions of his old age. There are witty, droll, tender, ferocious letters, letters filled with nostalgia for the purer, uncorrupted America of yester­day, and letters filled with zest for making as much money as he can today and tomorrow. The earliest was written on October 26,1853, from Phila­delphia, to his brother Orion—he was nearly eighteen, on his first trip east. The last was written on Christmas Day 1909 to his niece Annie Moffett Webster—he was seventy-four, and his daughter Jean had just died. "I thank you most sincerely," he wrote, "but nothing can help me." There are letters from the prentice printer in Keokuk, Iowa; from the pilot of a steamboat after having his fortune told by a spiritualist in New Orleans; from the prospector in Esmeralda; from the journalist in Virginia City, Nevada, and San Francisco; from the travelling correspondent in Hawaii or on board The Quaker City in its tour of the Holy Land; from the lec­turer whose celebrity rivalled Dickens'; from the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn at the height of his powers; from the founder of Charles L. Webster and Company, Publishers, Union Square, New York; from the incorrigible promoter who lost a small fortune in unsuccessful inventions; and from the devoted son, husband, father, and uncle.

It is the publisher and promoter who are most fully represented. Of the more than six hundred letters and telegrams to his family and business associates, about sixty are to Orion and his wife Mollie, over a hundred to his mother Jane Clemens and his sister Pamela Moffett who lived to­gether, but more than half the whole collection—about three hundred fifty—to his nephew and business manager, Charley Webster. Only twenty-three of these, as printed in Mark Twain, Business Man, were included in Hamlin HillMark Twain's Letters to His Publishers 1867­-1894 (University of California Press, 1967), with the explanation that the originals were "presently inaccessible for scholarly research."

Third, there is Charley Webster's own correspondence—letters from others besides his volcanic boss, and from him to others, many of them celebrated authors who were being published or courted by his press. The full story of Mark Twain's relations with Charley Webster has yet to be written. Some have thought that Webster imposed on Twain—an opinion which Twain violently endorsed on more than one occasion. Webster's son Sam thought that Twain imposed on his father. Hamlin Hill felt that the truth lay somewhere between. Whether these unpublished papers will illuminate, or obfuscate, this question remains to be seen. The Webster

Publishing Company, after spectacular successes, was to end in bankrupt­cy after Charley Webster's retirement and death, leaving Mark Twain to discharge its obligations out of the profits of authorship and lecture-tours.

A collector's item from this Webster correspondence is the file on the publication of General Grant's Personal Memoirs, one of the huge coups of subscription book publishing which Twain and the young Webster pulled off together. It includes letters from the dying General, photo­graphs, letters from his son, who represented his father's interests, and re­ceipts from the General's widow for the largest sums then paid to an au­thor. Her first check was for $200,000. Payments in all came to $425,000.

Fourth, still more letters: a sprinkling of letters from all Twain's nearest family, from his father John Marshall Clemens, who died when he was a boy; from his mother Jane Clemens, whose high spirits flowed through him and in whom he admired the art of telling the funniest stories as if she had no idea they were funny at all; from his brothers, Orion and Henry (a solitary, high-spirited letter from Henry in the year before he was killed), his sister Pamela, his wife Livy, and his daughters Clara and Jean. There are also letters from not-so-close relatives who discovered him when he was famous; from companions of his youth, who reminded him of foggy nights in the wheelhouse on the Mississippi and of days in Virginia City "When we was poor and roughing it" ; from editors, publishers, and pro­ducers who might turn his stories into plays; from autograph hunters, lionhunters, and eyery other kind of admirer. The dead-pan reactions of Jane Clemens' son are sometimes preserved. His secretary Isabel Lyon, nicknamed "the Lioness," writes on a card received when Mark Twain was seventy, "Mr. Clemens said this man probably wants to engage him as full back on the Princeton football team."

Fifth, there are handwritten stories and fragments of stories by Twain on the notepaper he used for his writings, with his deletions and inser­tions. Compared with the manuscripts of his works, published and un­published, at the University of California, this is a modest sample, but there are 405 pages in all to offer us glimpses of Mark Twain at work. The earliest, "Jul'us Caesar," carries Twain's own endorsement, "Mark Twain in school when a boy," but it deals with his days in a Philadelphia boardinghouse when he was seventeen or eighteen. The longest complete story (82 pages) is "Taming the Bicycle." There are other delicious tales about Bilgewater, the constable, about the phantom "King of Pilots" seizing the wheel on a treacherous stretch of the Mississippi, and about a comical interview with General Grant. There is a marvellous sketch of the decayed mining town of Boomerang where the bar-keeper, who is the bar's only customer, presides over a broken-down billiard table with a royal despair. In Sam Webster's opinion this was Twain's original start on the story of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, which Artemus Ward, to whom the manuscript is addressed, had asked for. There are pages from Innocents Abroad, and from A Tramp Abroad, and other choice morsels.

Sixth, there is a feast for all lovers of Huckleberry Finn: E. W. Kemble's original ink drawings for the first edition of 1885—thirty-eight in all; the original cut proofs of all these illustrations; and the original correspon­dence of Mark Twain, E. W. Kemble, and Charley Webster about these illustrations. "Dear Charley, is that artist's name Kemble? . . . Dear Charley, some of the pictures are good, but none of them are very very good. . . Dear Charley, I have reshipped the pictures to you. I knewKemble had it in him. . . Dear Charley. . . Gilder of The Century said to me 'We are profoundly indebted to you for unearthing a gem of an artist for us.'"

A first edition of Huckleberry Finn is here with Charley Webster's in­scription,

A Merry Christmas to Luther Webster from his son the publisher of this book. New York December 1884. This is one of the three cloth copies first bound, and at this date there are but ten copies of this book in the country, as the first edition of 30,000 volumes will not be issued until February 15th next.

And what about the famous suppressed plate of indecent exposure—the ­exposed penis of the Reverend Silas Phelps as he gazes down on Huck, perpetrated with an awl by some humorist in the print shop? This too is here—the original printer's proof.

Seventh, the notebooks of some of Mark Twain's relatives. Charley Webster has left notebooks and letter books which may be a part of either publishing history or human history; he retired from the firm in 1888 and died in 1891 at the age of forty. More touching are the records left by his widow, Annie Moffett Webster, who was born when Mark Twain was sixteen and had to endure not only the death of a husband at forty but the death of her daughter, Jean Webster, at the same age. She had a special fondness for little Jean, who was only a few hours old when her mother died, and left her several treasures—among them a chronicle of her recollections of the Clemens family in St. Louis called "Long, Long, Ago," and a scrapbook of clippings about both Mark Twain and Jean Webster.

This same Annie Moffett Webster tells in her son's book, Mark Twain, Business Man, how she remembers a travelling portrait painter called Brady coming to her father's house in St. Louis in 1858 or 1859 and paint­ing the whole family for fifty dollars a portrait. This included her grand­mother Jane Clemens, her father William Moffett, her mother Pamela, Uncle Sam, Uncle Henry, and herself. It was after Uncle Henry's death, and the artist copied his picture from a daguerreotype. All of these paint­ings are still in this collection except Uncle Sam's, which was given by Orion's wife Molly to the Public Library in Keokuk where Orion had his print shop. There is also a crayon drawing of Mark Twain's mother in her later years, a sketch of Mark Twain by himself with Isabel Lyon's descrip­tion attached to it, and a very striking red-hued lithograph of Mark Twain inscribed "au grand auteur Mark Twain par son ami Spiridon"—the painter who did portraits of both Mark Twain and his daughter Clara.

Finally there are all the family photographs in the various states and sizes which have come down to us from the early days of photography. St. Louis was little more than a large village when Sam Clemens made the Moffett house in St. Louis his headquarters during his years as a river­pilot (1857-61), but there was scarcely a large village in America which did not have its photographer. Keokuk, Iowa, and Quincy, Illinois, are represented as well as New York, Chicago, London, and Rome. There are the predecessors of the modern photographic print which is made from a negative—the "one-time" silhouette, daguerreotype, and tintype. There are the albums or miniature cases which were made to preserve the creations of the new art-albums of the 1860's which open with a photo­graph of Lincoln, ferrotype albums to hold the tiniest tintypes, and little hinged, wooden cases with their glass-covered, velvet-protected treasure inside.

There are over a dozen original photographs of Mark Twain, from a tintype of 1856, when he was twenty-one, and photographs from Hawaii when he was thirty, to the picture of Twain at seventy-three, dressed up in his Oxford gown for his daughter Clara's wedding; the original daguer­reotype of his brother Henry, lovingly preserved in its tiny wooden box, from which his portrait was painted after his death; the photograph of four generations, taken on Jane Clemens' seventy-ninth birthday, June 18, 1882, of Mark Twain's mother, his sister Pamela, his niece Annie Moffett Webster, and his great-niece Jean Webster; daguerreotypes of Pamela as a young woman and of Annie as a baby--each in its case; and a fascinating series of interiors of the Webster home at Fredonia in the last decade of the century…