As a rule, unsolicited letters to authors are literature’s wastepaper. Almost all are burned; almost all are, at best, barely scanned by the recipient. Mark Twain was an exception. He read, annotated and scrapbooked his letters including many thousands from unknown correspondents. R Kent Rasmussen offers us a sifting from them.
The representative examples he has selected are, one imagines, a cross-section of every famous author’s postbag. Twain, for example, had his ‘lunatic’, from whom a dozen or so letters survive. He dealt with the woman in a kindly, responsive way (she thought she was also in communication with John Wilkes Booth). Twain was equally civil to unsolicited letters from African-American correspondents. Socialists he despised.
The vast bulk of what the US mail brought him were varieties of begging letter. Many requested autographs, valuable items on the souvenir market. Some asked outright for money. Ola A Smith, for example, wrote in 1880:
You are rich. To lose $10.00 would not make you miserable.
I am poor. To gain $10.00 would not make me miserable.
Please send me $10.00 (ten dollars).
Some were more ingenious. Mrs Ann Williams wrote in 1891 with the query: ‘I write to ask if I have my life ensured [sic] for an amount of money, would you be willing to buy the polecy [sic], for one third or forth [sic] or fifth the amount.’ She added, ‘You will not have to wait long, for I am now in my sixty fourth year.’
Legions of hopeful correspondents wrote for advice about how to get into print. Some decorated their request with feeble Twainian pastiche which indicated the hopelessness of their cause. There was the occasional quibble from Bible-thumpers who felt that they knew the Book better than Mr Samuel Clemens. Twain’s appended notes were terse. The single word ‘ass’ is the commonest.
Rasmussen’s book, if it were nothing more than an anthology of asinine letters, would be merely a confirmation over two-hundred-odd pages of what one already knew – that writing to famous authors is the equivalent of a child’s postcard to Santa Claus, c/o the North Pole.
What makes Dear Mark Twain intensely interesting is its methodology. Rasmussen has managed to locate, identify and offer capsule biographies of the letter-writers. As he notes in an afterword, only a decade ago such an exercise would require more travel, more digging in dusty newspaper archives, town halls and public record offices, and more legwork and eye strain than the result warranted. But, happily, the internet is revolutionising historical research methods, and this volume is a testament to the possibilities.
Among the online resources Rasmussen used were ancestry.com, the digitised American census records, the Library of Congress’s digitised local newspaper archive, genealogybank.com, Google Books and findagrave.com. Rasmussen’s explanation of his working methods should be pondered by all scholars active in literary-historical research. A new era is dawning. New tools are in one’s hands.
For the moment this book can be enjoyed for the little biographical narratives it embroiders around the selected letters. Particularly moving are those which follow the subsequent lives of Twain’s youngest admirers. In April 1874, for example, he received the following brief letter:
Please send me your autograph and greatly oblige your young friend
Twain received such requests every day and routinely tossed them. But this one, embellished with a hand-designed capital ‘T’ on the top of the letter and on the back of the envelope, caught his fancy. Whether he obliged Master Turney is not recorded. But Rasmussen’s note reads:
Winthrop Turney (c 1864–1905) was only nine or ten when he wrote this letter. He later graduated from Yale and became part-owner of a valuable mine in Sonora, Mexico. At the age of forty-one, he was found dead in Winsted, Connecticut, where he apparently shot himself after despairing over his poor health (‘Mine Owner a Suicide’, New York Times, 7 July 1905).
The life that followed this ingenuous letter invests it with extraordinary poignancy. Rasmussen offers dozens of these biographical annotations. Another child who wrote to Twain, in the years of his greatest fame, was 11-year-old Fannie S James, whose letter opens:
I am a little girl living in Eau Claire, and admire ‘Huckleberry Finn’ and ‘Tom Sawyer’. Although I am a girl, I would like to play with them and get into such scrapes and would be delighted to find twelve thousand dollars. I didn’t like them to take the dead cat, to the graveyard [to cure their warts]; for I love kitties and wouldn’t have one killed for all the warts in Christendom.
There’s a Daisy Ashford charm about the letter which speaks for itself. But, again, the letter is hugely enriched by the biographical framing Rasmussen brings to it:
The daughter of an English immigrant, Frances (Fannie) S James (1880–1948) evidently never married, but she had a varied career. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, she became a journalist in Eau Claire, a medical librarian, and a teacher in several California schools. She eventually returned to Eau Claire and died in her original home.
Her cats mourned her, presumably.
R Kent Rasmussen has written a book that will give the reader great pleasure and scholars some very valuable tips. Personally I’m grateful on both counts.