Sunday, May 10, 2009

Huckleberry Finn, Second Intermission


Two years ago, while doing research for a work of family history, I was astonished to discover in the main Erie County Library in Buffalo, New York, a small exhibition room (pictured in reflection here) dedicated to Twain which, along with some memorabilia and photographs, contains the existent autograph manuscript of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Understand that for the likes of me it was like finding that lamp with the genie in it at a yardsale in Houston. And, indeed, the manuscript itself had been lost and forgotten out west for over a century.

In 1869 Twain used the success of his first book, The Innocents Abroad, to court his future wife, Olivia Langdon, and purchase a controlling interest in the Buffalo Express newspaper. Before his marriage he lived in a rooming house near his office downtown in what was still a booming frontier port city, probably not unlike St. Louis. As a wedding present, Olivia's father, a New York State coal tycoon, presented the couple with a fine home in the city's best neighborhood.

Twain quickly came to hate Buffalo and left after two years. The newspaper business was dull, the city a dirty and dreary welter of slums, industry, and transient humanity. (A city map of the time shows that Twain's exclusive neighborhood was near a lead smelter and a short walk from the county home for destitute women.) The damp and cold winter, not to mention what was probably poisonous air pollution, ruined the family's health. Olivia was almost constantly bedridden during and after her pregnancy, and their infant son, born prematurely like his father, lingered close to death for weeks. (Never strong, he would die at age three.) The literary world was headquartered back east, in Boston and Hartford, Connecticut, and Twain took his rising star to the latter locale as soon as he could.

He was a good citizen of Buffalo while there, however, and supported the private association which became a few years later the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. He must also have maintained some personal contacts in the city, for after Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published almost 20 years later, the library's chief curator asked Twain if he would donate the manuscript, which he graciously did, at least that part of it--being the second half--still in his possession.

Now the story gets interesting. The curator died before he could have the manuscript bound and the loose handwritten pages remained in a small steamer trunk in his effects. Years later, his heirs moved to Los Angeles taking the trunk with them. It wasn't until the death of his, I believe, granddaughter in 1991 that anyone thought to open up the trunk, which had been sitting in an attic for most of the 20th century, to see what was inside. Kudos to the kids for realizing what they had.


The Buffalo library was able to prove ownership and the manuscript now rests in that hard-used city. It sits in a case with one page on display, the size of a leaf of stationary, being that point in Chapt. XXXI where Huck famously chooses an eternity in Hell over betraying his friend Jim.

I wish I had a better photograph of the page in question to show. However you can see how clear his handwriting was and how tidily he set it on the page. The missing first half of the autograph manuscript is supposed to have been lost by the printer. While I have not researched the subject more closely, it appears that other manuscripts exist (three versions of the book's opening lines have been documented, for example,) and I cheerfully welcome anyone with fuller knowledge of the subject to provide details in comments.

But what is known is that after wrestling with the nature of the story in its first half (note that the episode we will consider next week marks the physical center of the book) Twain knew from this point on exactly where he wanted to go with it. I suspect that this half of the manuscript was by far clearer and better organized than the half putatively lost by the printer, and probably reads like--and resembles--a long, entertaining letter to a friend.

Last Week Chapt. XXI
Next Week Chapts. XXII & XXIII

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Now in print! Divide's Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, newly edited for publication, and available online from The Cliffhanger Press.

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