Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Twain's 'Last Manuscript' readies

September 29, 2009
Posted by Noah

I am one of those who ritualistically returns to certain books at least once a year, and if not once a year then at least every other year. Riddley Walker by Russel Hoban, Orwell's 1984, Entering Fire by Rikki DuCornet, Ada by Nabokov and Suttree by McCarthy, among the few. I can usually pour through these books in about a week -except for the Nabokov.

The list grows by the year, as does the gap in between how often I can get to them . One book, however, that I do not miss and which I have never grown tired of, is Mark Twain's Huck Finn. Simply put, it is The Great American Novel. Even if it does not top your personal list - as it does not top mine - I defy anyone to deny its greatness. With this one book Twain single-handedly broke open American conventions and consciousness about literature.

All this makes it even more poignant that our upcoming Oct. 16-17 Historic Manuscripts Auction contains what is known as Mark Twain's "Last Manuscript," two pages, both autographed, that Twain write in Bermuda during the waning days of his epic life. It is a rare chance to own an amazing piece of America's foremost writer and humorist - a man whose time still has yet to come, such was his genius.

The first manuscript dated March 6, 1910 is actually a humorous device created in playful response to his Bermudian hosts:

"Bay House, March 6/10," It reads. "Received of S.L.C./Two Dollars and Forty Cents/in return for my promise to believe everything he says hereafter."

Helen Allen has signed her name in full beneath acknowledging the payment received. The payment of $2.40, as comically intended by Twain, made it a binding legal agreement. The legendary writer was now free to tell his most outlandish stories and Ms. Allen was now "legally bound" to believe him without question. A photograph accompanies the lot that shows Twain and Ms. Allen, both in swimsuits bathing in the waters at Bay House, the Allen home, taken two years earlier, shows the warm friendship that obviously existed between the two.

The second manuscript written on the adjoining page was almost certainly written between April 8 and April 11, 1910, just 10 days before Twain died, and just before he left Bermuda, under orders from his doctors, in a final effort to salvage his rapidly failing health.

It reads, in full: For Sale. The proprietor of the hereinbeforementioned Promise desires to part with it on account of ill health and obliged to go away somewheres so as to let it reciprocate, and will take any reasonable amount for it above 2 per cent of its face because experienced parties think it will not keep but a little while in this kind of weather, and is a kind of proppity that don't give a dam for cold storage nohow.

Twain cites his "ill health" as the reason for his forced departure from Bermuda. After suffering a severe heart attack, his doctors ("experienced parties") told him if he were to stay in Bermuda he would soon die there (that he "will not keep but a little while in this kind of weather"). In his final line he declares that he does not want to die, "a kind of proppity that don't give a dam for cold storage nohow."

Twain is unquestionably writing about himself and specifically about his declining health and desire to stay alive. He likely returned the handwritten "promise" to Helen as a keepsake; the added passage explaining the reasons for the return and delivering the "punch line" to what had originated as a comic device but quickly became a touching memento. He died nine days after leaving Bermuda, on April 21, 1910.

Great stuff. Wish it could be mine...

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-Noah Fleisher

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