Penciled on a yellowing piece of paper, safe beneath the glass enclosure of its cabinet, here is the original title page: Adventures of Huck Finn, it says. Then:
Tom Sawyer’s Comrade.
By Mark Twain. New York.
Charles L. Webster & Co.
I feel…I don’t know how I feel. A little woozy, maybe; a little like a ghost has his hand on my shoulder, just as I have my hands on the glass, peering in. This is the original title page, hand-lettered by Twain himself, writing as if he were Huck.
Irony: I have traveled 300 miles to see this when, for the first forty-odd years of my life, I lived about fifty miles away. It’s been here–well, half of it has–all that time.
I am in the Twain Room of the Buffalo, New York, Central Library with my friend Wendy. She is, fortunately, just as much a book geek as I am; we are both enthralled.
Twain lived in Buffalo for a while; he was the editor of a newspaper, and the owner of a proud mansion on swanky Delaware Avenue. The mansion was a gift from his beloved Livy’s father.
Later, Twain and his family moved to Fredonia, New York, where I grew up, and where my family, years before I was born, had also moved from Buffalo. We were people of words, too, readers and writers, although not, of course, on anywhere near the same scale as Samuel Clemens. But the Buffalo to Fredonia exodus, the love of words, and the sometimes twisted paths of lives, all made me feel a kind of kinship to the bitterly funny, tragedy-laden, irascible, Mark Twain.
My mother gave me a copy of Tom Sawyer when I was in third grade, I think; it was a cheap children’s version with a glossy cover embossed with a picture of a gawky, redheaded boy painting a fence and slyly eying a companion. I devoured the book, cringing when the boys walked into their own funeral, claustrophobic and terrified when Tom and Becky got lost in the cave. Tom seemed to come out all right, every time, but the book left me with a feeling of sadness and loss.
I watched film versions which portrayed Tom as mischievous and happy-go-lucky, and I did not like them at all. They rang false. It seemed to me the central truth of Tom’s life was loneliness; he had a sadness hole that no one could fill.
My brother Sean became a Twain scholar in college; he uncovered an unpublished story and he wrote insightful articles.
Somewhere between my high school and college years, I discovered a local writer named Jean Webster whose epistolary novel, Daddy-Long-Legs, had been a smash hit when it was published in 1912. Daddy-Long-Legs was one of the first books to be filmed–it was made into three different movies, I think, over time. And it was one of the first to evoke spin-off toys.
And Jean Webster was Mark Twain’s niece, daughter of none other than Charles Webster. Twain had once relied on Webster, and then, his fortune dissolved in bad business deals, the author reviled the younger man.
Webster seemed to spin off into mental or emotional issues. After a trip to Europe, where he had an audience with the Pope, Webster appeared on the streets of Fredonia every day in a papal knight’s outfit. He kept a natural history museum in his big house on Central Avenue. It was there, it’s said, that he hung himself, too, when Jean was 15.
She went on to attend the Fredonia Normal School–forerunner of SUNY Fredonia, where I earned my degrees–and earned a degree in china painting. Later, Jean Webster attended Smith College and got an academic degree and began a life as a writer.
I was fascinated by Jean Webster and her family and by her famous uncle. I felt a little proprietary toward them both, as if, somehow, they needed, if not my protection, then maybe my ability to explain a little part of them. I read as many of Jean Webster’s books as I could find. When I took a Twain course in graduate school, one of our texts was an article by my brother Sean. That cemented, somehow, that feeling of connection.
And then I lost the thread, life swirling into marriage and parenting, teaching, and planning, finally, for the move to Ohio and Mark’s entry, as a 40-something, into law school. We were busy, busy, busy, running in front of time as if it were Indiana’s Jones implacable boulder. Then a year or two ago, Mark and I saw an amazing show, Hal Holbrook, who was 92, I think, at the time. Holbrook spent the evening being Mark Twain, white-suited, white-haired, puffing on a long cigar, and letting the author’s words trip smoothly, authentically, from his tongue. When he read from Huckleberry Finn, he WAS that lost lad.
On the way home, I said to Mark, “When I retire, I’m driving back to Buffalo to see that manuscript.”
And so here I am, standing feet–inches–away, reading the explanations. Twain left the original manuscript of Huckleberry Finn to the Buffalo Library, but on his death, only half of the huge, handwritten mass surfaced. And that was that until 1990, when Part Two was discovered, intact, in a steamer trunk in California. There were legal twists and turns, but the whole manuscript has been united. Portions are rotated out to be put on display in the Twain Room where I stand enthralled.
There’s a telescoping kind of effect–the wrinkling of time, the nearness of genius. A daring vision plainly laid out in pencil on yellowing paper. The first step, the beginning, of what would become legend.
I look at all the rest of the exhibit–the stories of the movies made, the plays based on his work, Twain articles from newspapers all over the world, stories about the author at all stages of his life, but I am impatient with them. It’s like I have to be polite to them, so I can do what I really want to do: go back and stare at the homely pages from a handwritten manuscript, a work of passionate genius, the proof that brilliance can spring up anywhere.
Even here. Even right next to me.
Time now, to clear the reading decks, and tackle a monumental task: reading Twain’s entire autobiography.