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The Lost Legacy of Mark Twain : How a Boxful of Letters Worth Half a Million Dollars Ended Up in a Los Angeles Hobby Shop

May 10, 1987|DIANE SWANBROW | Diane Swanbrow is a Los Angeles writer.

'I could be as frank and free and unembarrassed as a love letter if I knew that what I was

writing would be exposed to no eye until I was dead, and unaware and indifferent.'

--FROM THE PREFACE TO'THEAUTOBIOGRAPHY OFMARKTWAIN'

LAST SPRING,a retiree whose hobby is stamp collecting paid $100 for a boxful of stamped envelopes at a Los Angeles hobby shop. Many of the letters inside the envelopes were signed by someone he'd never heard of--Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Monday about half of these letters will be sold by Christie's at an auction in New York City. The boxful has been appraised at nearly $500,000.

In the unpredictable market for autograph letters, appraisals can be as meaningless as they are in the world of fine art; Van Gogh's "Sunflowers," evaluated at $16 million, just sold for $39.5 million. Recent sales of Mark Twain's correspondence provide a more accurate touchstone of what these letters may be worth. According to Louis Weinstein of the Heritage Book Shop, one of the nation's most active Twain dealers, his post cards sell for as little as $300, while one- or two-page letters retail for $750 to $2,000, even if they have nothing to recommend them but the signature. For a letter of unusual interest--one illuminating his work or providing new biographical insights--you could be talking $20,000.

One thing is certain: The price of Twain letters is not determined by the law of supply and demand. Letters by Poe may bring the highest price of any American author's simply because they are so rare. But while their rarity drives up the price, it also depresses demand by discouraging potential collectors, according to Charles Sachs, owner of a Beverly Hills manuscript gallery called the Scriptorium. Sachs cultivates a long list of Twain collectors, on the other hand, including a novelist, a songwriter, a minister, a Montana rancher and Bill Cosby. "One of the major reasons Twain has so many collectors," says Sachs, "is that there's so much Twain to collect."

How much is there? According to Robert Hirst, editor of the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley, Twain may have written as many as 30,000 letters. Roughly 10,000 have been catalogued; the rest are part of a so-called ghost list--scholars know they must have existed, by virtue of having a reply. They don't know what these ghosts say, or if they have survived. Still, even if all of them were perfunctory notes, the wonder of it is that Twain found the time to write anything but letters.

Whatever these newly discovered letters fetch, the retiree who found them is assured of turning a tidy profit since he paid just a dollar each for them. No doubt Twain, who worried about money all his life, would savor the absurdity of such a windfall. But a major part of this find's value lies in what it may contribute to the fund of knowledge about a well-loved writer whose masterpiece, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," Ernest Hemingway said marks the start of all modern American literature. Although partial transcriptions of most of the letters already exist at one Twain archive or another, transcriptions are notoriously unreliable. And the text of seven of these letters is completely new, magnifying their value to scholars.

"Probably the most important letter (in this collection) is the one he wrote to his sister-in-law Susan Crane in July, 1904, not long after his wife's death," says Laura Skandera, a doctoral candidate in English literature at USC and the only scholar so far who has examined the new letters. "In all the previously discovered letters on this subject, the way Twain expressed his grief has been criticized as distressingly contrived, stilted, formal, platitudinous--not what one would expect of him."

Now we have this:

"Yes, she did love me; & nothing that I did, no hurt that I inflicted upon her, no tears that I caused those dear eyes to shed, could ever chill it. It always rose again, it always burned, as warm & bright as ever. Nothing could wreck it, nothing could extinguish it. Never a day passed that she did not say, with emphasis & enthusiasm, 'I love you so. I just worship you.' They were always undeserved, they were always a rebuke, but (she) stopped my mouth whenever I said it, though she knew I said it honestly.

"I know one thing & I get some small comfort out of it: that what little good was in me, I gave to the utmost--the full measure & last ounce & poor as it was it was my very best & far beyond anything I could have given to any other person that ever lived. It was poverty, but it was all I had; & so it stood for wealth, & she so accounted it.

"I try not to think of the hurts I gave her but, oh, there are so many, so many!" *

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