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The Final Chapter on Twain Novella

Pitched as a publicity stunt in 1876, tale is printed this month by Atlantic Monthly.

July 01, 2001|DEBORAH ZABARENKO | REUTERS

WASHINGTON — Just over 125 years after Mark Twain wrote it, a novella titled "A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage" appears much as he originally intended in the current Atlantic Monthly magazine.

And just as the author of "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" had hoped, the novella's publication was part of a literary competition that urged would-be collaborators to write their own endings to the story, Atlantic editor Michael Kelly said.

A two-chapter, online glimpse of the tale bore a characteristic Twain tang: there are feuding brothers, a pair of young lovers and a mysterious polyglot stranger who seems to have dropped from the sky into the snows of the American prairie. The setting is Deer Lick, Mo.

"It was a straggling, drowsy hamlet of six or seven hundred inhabitants," the novella says of Deer Lick. "These people knew, in a dim way, that out in the great world there were things called railways, steamboats, telegraphs and newspapers, but they had no personal acquaintance with them, and took no more interest in them than they did in the concerns of the moon. Their hearts were in hogs and corn."

Twain never saw the story in print during his life, but he had pitched it to the Atlantic in March 1876 as part of a literary publicity stunt, Kelly said last week.

After the success of his novels "Innocents Abroad" and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer," Twain was bogged down writing "Huckleberry Finn" when he offered to craft a "skeleton" plot of a novella and then have some of the Atlantic's best writers write their own fleshed-out versions, Kelly said. This was called a "blindfold novelette" because none of the authors would know what another had written until they were all published, along with Twain's version.

Twain dashed off his version in two days in April 1876, and he crowed about it in a letter to the Atlantic's editor, William Dean Howells: "Mrs. Clemens [Twain's wife] says my version of the blindfold novelette

But no one in the Atlantic's literary stable at the time--which included Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Bret Harte--would take the bait, Kelly said. Twain believed he knew the problem, as he wrote to Howells: "None of the other fellows ... want to trot along in procession behind me."

Kelly gave the story a mixed review for literary content, saying that it was clearly written as a crowd pleaser but that the mystery component was stronger than the love story. However, Kelly said the novella's importance lies in its place in the development of Twain as a great novelist.

Foreshadowing 'Finn'

"Huckleberry Finn" marked a change in Twain's work from the sun-drenched, optimistic vision of America portrayed in "Tom Sawyer" to a more critical examination, Kelly said.

"Much that's in 'Huckleberry Finn,' including the types of characters, are foreshadowed in this story," Kelly said. "You see Twain wrestling with the dark side. The people in Deer Lick, Missouri, especially the central character, are ignorant, small-minded, suspicious, bigoted people.

"This [novella] is the first time we see Twain doing this. This can be seen as bridging the gap between 'Tom Sawyer' and 'Huckleberry Finn."'

Even though Twain offered the novella to the Atlantic, the magazine may never have purchased it while he was alive, Kelly said. After Twain's death in 1910, the typed manuscript was not among his papers, and it surfaced again in only 1930 in the estate of a London bookseller.

From there it passed eventually to Frederick Dannay and Manfred Lee, who wrote mysteries together under the pen name Ellery Queen. It came to rest at the University of Texas in Austin, home of the Ellery Queen collection.

It came to the Atlantic's attention last year, when an attorney for the Buffalo and Erie County Library in New York state, which has an important collection of Twain material, sought to have the novella published and revived the idea of a literary contest.

Kelly declined to say what the magazine paid, except that it was "a lot more than we would have paid in 1876." Even in that era, Kelly guessed Twain could have commanded $1,000.

"This was a golden age for writing," Kelly said. "Writers like Twain made enough money to be rich."

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