Mark Twain fairytale from campus archives to be published in fall

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Robert Hirst/Courtesy

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An unfinished manuscript by Mark Twain from the Mark Twain Papers archive in Bancroft Library will be released Sept. 26 as a children’s book.

John Bird, a Mark Twain scholar and English professor at Winthrop University in South Carolina, said he found the manuscript in 2011 while he was searching for food-related items in the campus archive listings for his Mark Twain cookbook.

“I got chills as I sat there in the reading room, realizing what it was,” Bird said. “I knew that I found something that other people looked at, but I was the first person to recognize it for what it was: an actual bedtime story (Twain) told his daughters.”

Bird said the 16-page typescript, titled “Oleomargarine,” was filled with extensive notes on the plot and characters of a fairytale but left no ending.

According to Bird, he received permission from Robert Hirst, curator of the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley, to write his own ending for the fairytale and read his version aloud at several different venues, including the library inside the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut — the very library where Twain told his daughters bedtime stories.

“The University of California should be very proud of the Mark Twain Papers,” Bird said. “It’s one of the great jewels of the Bancroft Library* *… Just from what I was able to find, there’s still treasures in there that people could discover there tomorrow.”

Bird eventually brought the fairytale to the Mark Twain House and Museum, which then sold it to Doubleday Books for Young Readers. According to Hirst, he tried to help Bird publish the manuscript with UC Press before approaching the Mark Twain House and Museum, but UC Press was not interested in publishing Bird’s version of the manuscript.

The manuscript has now been reimagined as a 152-page children’s book retitled “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine,” written by Philip Stead and illustrated by Erin Stead. The fairytale follows Johnny, who eats a magical flower and subsequently gains the ability to speak with animals. Shortly thereafter, he embarks on a quest to save a missing prince.

“I have so much respect for Philip and Erin Stead,” said Pamela Mayer, UC Berkeley alumna and children’s book author. “I’m a little wary sometimes when someone wants to build off someone else’s work … (but) the fact that (Philip and Erin) is the team that they decided to use — I’ve read how hard they’ve worked on it — I think it’s really, really exciting.”

Philip Stead said he tried to stay very close to the original plot outlined by Twain in his manuscript, balancing his personal writing style with Twain’s. To bridge this gap, Stead said he made himself and Twain characters in the fairytale, acting as competing narrators in the story.

“Even though the origins of the text are nearly 140 years old, I think the finished piece is very modern,” Stead said. “The structure is unusual in part because the notes I was given were so piecemeal that it necessitated an unusual finished piece if I were going to stay true to what I was given.”

Twain’s venture into children’s literature, however, is not seen as out of the ordinary by some members of the literary community.

Hirst said the library was aware of the fairytale’s existence, since it was catalogued and published on microfilm in 2001.

“It’s not a big piece of news for people who are working on Mark Twain,” Hirst said. “It’s well known that he told endless tales to his kids.”

Contact Fionce Siow at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @fioncesiow.