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Mark Twain letter has close geographical tie to University of Texas

By Edgar Walters

When Samuel Clemens—better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain—penned a letter in London in 1900 to the widow of his childhood best friend in Austin, he had no idea that it would be preserved more than a century later in the Harry Ransom Center’s archives just four blocks south. Today the letter resides in a collection of Twain-related materials that features correspondence with longtime friends and others, including one from Clemens to P. T. Barnum.

This letter’s addressee, Mrs. Dora Goff Bowen, lived at 2506 Whitis Ave. in a neighborhood just north of the burgeoning University of Texas campus. The address, now home to The University of Texas at Austin’s hulking Jesse H. Jones Communications Center, has an interesting past. A few years after Clemens wrote the letter, 2506 Whitis became the site of one of the University’s first sorority houses, that of the newly organized Pi Beta Phi chapter. Two lots down the street lay George Littlefield’s still-new Victorian mansion, built in 1893, which maintains a grandiose presence on campus to this day.

Dora’s husband, Will Bowen, had grown up with Clemens in Hannibal, Missouri. Their friendship and escapades along the Missouri River became the basis of Twain’s books The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Bowen and Clemens engaged in countless hijinks, including, as another letter reveals, stealing dinner from the town drunkard to feed “the hogs in order to keep them still till we could mount them & have a ride.”

Clemens’s letter to Mrs. Bowen begins abruptly: “Yes, I really wanted to catch the measles. I succeeded.” The statement refers to another episode of Will Bowen and Clemens’s childhood mischief. When a young Bowen came down with the measles, Clemens decided to join his friend in bed to catch the virus and “settle this matter one way or the other and be done with it,” as he revealed in a posthumously published autobiography.

But fans will notice in the letter a conspicuous absence of Twain’s characteristic humor and lightheartedness. The turn of the twentieth century was a difficult time in Clemens’s life. Will Bowen, with whom Clemens had been in correspondence for more than 30 years, had recently passed away. Shortly thereafter, in 1896, Clemens’s daughter Suzy died of meningitis. Around the same time, Clemens was forced to declare bankruptcy after investing $300,000—worth approximately $8,000,000 today—in the Paige typesetting machine, a dysfunctional technology that quickly became obsolete.

Those hardships are reflected in the melancholy tone of Clemens’s letter: “[T]he romance of life is the only part of it that is overwhelmingly valuable, & romance dies with youth. After that, life is a drudge, & indeed a sham. A sham, & likewise a failure.” He fantasizes an alternate timeline, in which he would rather “call back Will Bowen & John Garth & the others, & live the life, & be as we were, & make holiday until 15, then all drown together.”

Despite his apparently bleak outlook, Clemens insists in the letter that he does not “say this uncheerfully—for I have seldom been uncheerful.” Indeed, in a post-script, he indulges in some characteristic playfulness in his response to Mrs. Bowen’s previous letter: “P.S. What we did to Brown? Oh, no, I will never reveal that!”

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Before and After: Mark Twain's Bible

By Io Montecillo

This copy of the Bible belonged to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who carried the book with him during a trip to Constantinople in 1867 while he was writing "Innocents Abroad."
This copy of the Bible belonged to Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who carried the book with him during a trip to Constantinople in 1867 while he was writing "Innocents Abroad."

While writing Innocents Abroad, Samuel Clemens (known more familiarly as Mark Twain) carried a Bible during a trip to Constantinople in 1867. The book is now part of the Ransom Center’s collections and can be seen in the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, which runs through July 29.

The Bible recently underwent some work in the Ransom Center’s conservation lab. Learn about the steps taken to conserve and house this historical book.

Ransom Center receives collection of miniature books

By Ryan Hildebrand

The Ransom Center recently received a gift of more than 60 miniature books from printer, collector, and aficionado Duane Scott, proprietor of the Scott Free Press. The gift includes books Scott printed under his Scott Free Press imprint, as well as examples published by others such as Achille J. St. Onge, The Press of the Indiana Kid, Arm and Hammer Press, Black Cat Press, The Hillside Press, and Tabula Rasa Press. Scott’s gift is a substantial addition to the Ransom Center’s collection of miniature books.

In But, Why Tabula Rasa? John Lathourakis ponders “What makes a somewhat normal person get into an activity as insane as miniature books? Some say it is a form of self-punishment for transgressions too base to describe; others merely look at miniature book people as simple souls who are normal in every respect except that they were born brainless. I have a less clinical approach. Simply stated, printers and publishers of miniature books are possessed people whose every waking moment is spent trying to solve unsolvable problems.”

Latourakis’s diagnosis may be somewhat correct for Scott, as he was drawn to miniature books in part because they are difficult to execute well. On his visit to the Ransom Center he talked about the seemingly impossible tasks of aligning a page’s front and back during printing, setting miniscule pieces of type by hand, and the general difficulties of working on a very small scale. In bookwork, a diminutive format amplifies difficulty because one’s tools stay the same size, while the object to which they are applied is no bigger than 3 inches, and often much smaller. A well-done miniature book showcases the craftsperson’s ability; a poorly executed book highlights his or her failings. Scott’s miniature books belong in the former category.

Scott had another reason for becoming a printer of miniature books. Years ago, while already a letterpress printer, he met another printer specializing in the genre. Scott admired the printer’s work, but the printer refused to sell his books; he would only trade for another miniature book. So, Scott printed his first miniature book, Mark Twain’s How I Edited an Agricultural Paper, in order to have an item for trade.

Scott’s books are all completely handmade, from the setting of the tiny six-point type, to the binding, and of course, the printing. In some cases, he also made his own paper. His 1984 publication, Henrik Ibsen’s Nora Awakened: A Portion of a Doll’s House was published in an edition of 250 copies, with 100 of them printed on 100-percent rag paper made from old cotton shirts, handkerchiefs, sheets, and pillow cases. Another of Scott’s books, Oriental Sayings, used paper made from denim. His daughter Caroline recalls, “He put out the word to the family to save our old cotton, and when we went to visit, we would haul along any worn-out clothes and linens.” Scott processed the pulp in an Umpherston beater and formed the sheets himself.

The topical matter of Scott’s collection is broad. The writings of Mark Twain are oft repeated, as are excerpts from other well-known authors such as Robert Frost and Henrik Ibsen. As expected, many of the books are concerned with printing, the book arts, and book collecting, including two books on miniature bookplates and type and paper specimen books. A book on Gutenberg contains a miniature facsimile leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, and a work on Ottmar Merganthaler (inventor of the Linotype machine) contains a Linotype circulating matrix. Perhaps the frustrations associated with printing miniature books incline their makers toward humor, as many of the books are quite funny, or at least take a very light-hearted tone. I can’t close this post without mentioning two of the more humorous works in Scott’s collection: What Men Know About Women by A. Mann, which is entirely blank inside, and the humorous and racy Shaggy Dog Story, a story about a dog named Sex.

 

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