Mark Twain’s ‘Last Manuscript’ comes to Heritage Auctions

DALLAS—An archive of Mark Twain and Twain-related letters, autographs, postcards and art – by turns humorous, touching and personal – gives anchor to Heritage Auctions’ Signature® Historical Manuscripts Auction, Oct. 16-17. Among the offerings are two single page manuscripts on adjoining sheets, one of which is the "Last Manuscript" written by Twain for the daughter of his host family in Bermuda, where he spent the last months of his life. It is estimated at $12,000-$15,000.

"Twain’s last compositions capture the full spectrum of meaning that we have come to expect from one of the most important American writers," said Sandra Palomino, Director of Historic Manuscripts at Heritage Auctions. "They have all the humor, pathos, and humanity that mark the very best of his writing."

The first manuscript dated March 6, 1910, is actually a humorous device created in playful response to his Bermudian hosts:

"Bay House, March 6/10," It reads. "Received of S.L.C. / Two Dollars and Forty Cents / in return for my promise to believe everything he says hereafter."

Helen Allen has signed her name in full beneath acknowledging the payment received. The payment of $2.40, as comically intended by Twain, made it a binding legal agreement. The legendary writer was now free to tell his most outlandish stories and Ms. Allen was now "legally bound" to believe him without question. Heritage Auctions is including an accompanying photograph with the lot that shows Twain and Ms. Allen, both in swimsuits bathing in the waters at Bay House, the Allen home, taken two years earlier, shows the warm friendship that obviously existed between the two.

"The second manuscript written on the adjoining page was almost certainly written between April 8 and April 11, 1910," said Palomino, "just 10 days before Twain died, and just before he left Bermuda, under orders from his doctors, in a final effort to salvage his rapidly failing health."

It reads, in full: "For Sale. The proprietor of the hereinbeforementioned Promise desires to part with it on account of ill health and obliged to go away somewheres so as to let it reciprocate, and will take any reasonable amount for it above 2 per cent of its face because experienced parties think it will not keep but a little while in this kind of weather, and is a kind of proppity that don’t give a dam for cold storage nohow."

Twain cites his "ill health" as the reason for his forced departure from Bermuda. After suffering a severe heart attack, his doctors ("experienced parties") told him if he were to stay in Bermuda he would soon die there (that he "will not keep but a little while in this kind of weather"). In his final line he declares that he does not want to die, "a kind of proppity that don’t give a dam for cold storage nohow." Twain is unquestionably writing about himself and specifically about his declining health and desire to stay alive.

Twain likely returned the handwritten "promise" to Helen as a keepsake; the added passage explaining the reasons for the return and delivering the "punch line" to what had originated as a comic device but quickly became a touching memorial. He died nine days after leaving Bermuda, on April 21, 1910.

Two related lots in the Twain grouping offer further glimpses into the private side of such a public personae: An autographed postcard to his daughter Jean, signed "Lovingly, Father" (estimated at $4,000-$6,000) and a family archive of seven letters (estimated at $4,000-$6,000), including a humorous autograph note signed by Clemens and two autograph letters signed by Twain’s sister-in-law Susan Crane.

The postcard to his youngest daughter is written on the back of a color photochromed image of "Mark Twain" that includes a visual illusion of a child whispering into his ear created by the pillow upon which his head is resting. This Raphael Tuck and Sons postal card has a printed poem titled "Mark Twain’s Muse" about the illusional child by L. J. Bridgman on the verso:

"Jean dear," Twain writes, "do you remember this picture with the accidental child in it? This is made in Germany, and is good work. I am so glad, so very glad, to hear that you are cheerful and happy, and are going to fight it out on Dr. Peterson’s lines and help him in every way you can to push your improvement along to a cure. Lovingly / Father"

Further highlights include a letter from Twain to his publisher Elisha Bliss Jr. on his personalized stationery, conveying the news that Twain had gained control of his first book from his unethical first publisher, Charles Webb. Twain writes that he has paid $800 cash and forgiven all missed royalties in order to buy outright the publishing rights to his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County & Other Sketches; the letter is estimated at $8,000-$12,000. There is also Twain’s personal reading copy of The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, by His Nephew George Otto Trevelyan, which is well-worn, obviously well-read and replete with more than 70 pencil annotations by Twain on 44 different pages. It is estimated at $8,000-$12,000.

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Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries.