Mark Twain Papers project acquires historic letter at auction

photo of Bancroft Library
Ganesh Pimpale /Staff
Bancroft Library is home to the office of Robert Hirst, a significant contributor to the Mark Twain Papers project, which seeks to archive all of Twain’s private papers. A five-page letter, a significant addition to the project, is the earliest known letter written by Twain to somebody outside his family.

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This month, thanks to financial backing from donors, the Mark Twain Papers, or MTP, project acquired a letter at auction that bears a unique historical significance.

Nestled on the fourth floor of the Bancroft Library is the office of Robert Hirst, who has dedicated his professional career to the MTP — an initiative that seeks to publicly archive all of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’, or Mark Twain’s, private papers. Among the tall stacks of manila folders, letters and research scattered around his desk lies a five-page long letter.

The document is particularly significant to Hirst and the other members of the project because it is the earliest known letter written by Twain to somebody outside his family.

“It’s always wonderful when we can add to the collections, and this was great because the letter is exceptionally early and exceptionally interesting,” said Benjamin Griffin, an associate editor for the MTP, in an email.

Long before the fame and pen name that the world would come to recognize, Clemens was a steamboat pilot in Missouri.

Documents from after Twain became famous are relatively common, Hirst says, but this period of his early life is largely unexplored because of the rarity of letters like the 1861 missive now in the MTP’s possession.

“This particular letter gives us a window into his life at a time when almost no comparable documentation exists,” Hirst said.

Griffin echoed this sentiment, noting that the letter “illuminates what was once a dark area.”

Both Hirst and Griffin echoed a satisfaction that the artifact will be joining so many others at UC Berkeley, but also that it didn’t fall into the wrong hands.

“The most important thing is that the letter be available to be read and studied,” Griffin said in the email. “As long as a document goes to a university library, it will be; but if a private collector gets it it may be unavailable for study or for reproduction.”

Hirst, who has worked in the archive since he was an English graduate student in 1967, became the project’s director in 1980. Since then, he has assembled a team of four editors, including Griffin, to collect as much of Twain’s private writing as possible.

As researchers move forward, the MTP will continue to make all documentation publicly available.

“Since 1980 the Mark Twain Project has built this collection… So that when you do research here you have access to everything the author wrote, not just to the documents the Bancroft happens to own,” Griffin said in the email. “That makes it a one-stop shop for Mark Twain research, more than just a collection of papers, a research center.”

Contact Jack Hughes at [email protected].