Huck Finn's Yarn Gets a New Twist

A little housecleaning rarely changes the character of an American literary classic. But that is precisely what occurred in 1990 when a woman decided to rifle through some old steamer trunks languishing in the attic of her Hollywood, Calif., home.

In one, stuffed to the brim with century-old family letters, she found a bundled manuscript. When she looked a little closer, she realized she'd stumbled on literary gold.

Inside was the long-missing first half of Mark Twain's original manuscript of the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" - complete with four previously unknown passages.

Now, six years after that attic discovery, Random House has published the new material in a volume that it calls "the only comprehensive" edition of Huckleberry Finn.

Its edition and the accompanying publicity have drawn criticism for second-guessing what Twain - or Samuel Clemens, his real name - wanted published. But scholars unanimously agree that the passages will only enrich the perennial debate about the true meaning of a novel that some say defines American literature.

"This is very valuable," says John Cooley, an English professor at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. "It feeds life into an extraordinary novel that's part of our literary heritage."

The handwritten manuscript's journey to Random House began in 1885.

James Fraser Gluck, a Buffalo, N.Y., lawyer and civic benefactor, asked Mr. Twain if he would be willing to donate the original manuscript of Huck Finn, published that year, to the local library's document collection. Twain agreed and mailed what he could find - the second half, which was bound and placed in the collection.

Two years later, Twain found and sent the first half. For some reason, however, Mr. Gluck didn't take it to the library. After he died suddenly two years later, the first half was considered lost until his granddaughters finally explored the old trunks.

"It was a holy mackerel kind of thing," says Gluck granddaughter Pamela Windholm. She inherited the steamer trunks with her sister, who made the discovery but is ducking the limelight. "We both just fell over backwards when we realized."

Gluck's granddaughters contacted Sotheby's, which collected the manuscript in California and chauffeured it across the country in a Brinks truck for appraisal in their New York offices. Once the Mark Twain Foundation, a charitable trust created by Twain's daughter Clara, and the Buffalo and Erie County public library learned of the discovery, the three parties negotiated a settlement: The library would get physical rights and the publishing rights to the new material would be shared by all three.

After Random House won the 1995 bidding war that ensued among publishers, editor Daniel Menaker set to work with Victor Doyno, a Twain scholar and professor of English and American literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "We talked about how to present the text for hours," says Mr. Menaker, who estimates annual sales of the novel at 400,000 in the US and at 1 million worldwide. "We thought it would be fun to have them where Twain had placed them originally, before deleting them."

In the edition, which includes the original illustrations, photos of 29 manuscript pages and a foreword and notes by Professor Doyno, the new passages are clearly marked at their beginning and end by gray double lines.

The intended effect, Menaker says, is to give readers a look at Twain's creative process.

But some Twain scholars say the Random House approach is misleading and even disrespectful.

"They say it's like looking at a writers' workshop," says Robert Hirst, general editor of the Twain Project and the new edition's most vocal critic. "But I think most people won't understand that these were drafts made in the process of extensive change. And while the passages are of great interest, putting them in the text is not what Twain intended."

Because the Berkeley-based Twain Project has close ties to the Mark Twain Foundation, it was given co-publishing rights to the new material, but only after Random House has enjoyed exclusive rights for two years. When that grace period ends, the Twain Project will publish the same material in a way it feels is more fitting.

Doyno, who notes that Twain would have loved the fuss, feels the controversy is incidental to the value of the discovery.

"This gives a time dimension to the growth of Huck Finn the boy and Huck Finn the novel," he says. "The changes enable you to learn more about the book, the boy, and ultimately the country."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Huck Finn's Yarn Gets a New Twist
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today