restricted access Unveiling Mark Twain’s “Family Sketch”
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Unveiling Mark Twain’s “Family Sketch”

At Sotheby’s New York in June 2010, the Bancroft Library succeeded in acquiring a unique, and uniquely treasurable, Mark Twain manuscript. Titled “A Family Sketch,” it has never been published. The short manuscript (sixty-four pages) sold for nearly $250,000, making it the priciest Mark Twain manuscript ever sold. Clemens, who kept a keen eye on the market value of his words, would be pleased.

If the manuscript’s monetary value is impressive, its literary value is inestimable. It differs from Clemens’s other autobiographical writings (such as his Autobiography, in process of being published by the Mark Twain Project) in that it is a private document—as private as one of his notebooks, and even more private than a personal letter, since a letter is expected to have at least one recipient. In one passage Clemens speaks of distributing this sketch to family friends as a private memorial; he later struck out that passage, however. And so the intended audience of the “Family Sketch” is made unclear; as Clemens never did anything to publish it, perhaps it has none. Unlike the manuscripts the Mark Twain Project is going to publish with it—Susy’s biography of her father and the family anecdote anthology “Small Foolishnesses of Susy and ‘Bay’ Clemens”—this piece was not cannibalized for use in the Autobiography. It speaks all the more directly to the reader, in the relaxed and intimate tones of a special confidence.

The “Sketch” is now in the Mark Twain Papers, and the Mark Twain Project is preparing it for publication in the series “Jumping Frogs: Undiscovered, Rediscovered, and Celebrated Works by Mark Twain” (published by the University of California Press).

Clemens wrote the “Family Sketch” in 1901 or 1902, and revised it in 1906. It started out as one of a series of attempts to eulogize and celebrate his eldest daughter, Susy, who had died of spinal meningitis in 1896. The sketch’s original title, indeed, is “In Memory of Olivia Susan Clemens”; but, as Clemens wrote [End Page 109] on, his subject got away from him—let us say rather he saw that memories of Susy belonged to a larger body of memories, just as Susy had belonged to the larger life of the household. Soon Clemens found himself memorializing, in a way he did nowhere else, the whole family. Way led on to way, and soon Clemens was writing about the family servants, and indeed the extended household: the servants, horses, ducks, and at least one unusually stupid cat.

It is not quite like anything else. Clemens wrote about his family elsewhere, of course—anecdotes of their lives are found in the Autobiography, naturally. But in the Autobiography the recollection of family life is not his main concern: there, in fact, he daringly has no main concern, except to set down the fleeting contents of his mind. Consequently, the “family portrait” as given in the Autobiography is strewn piecemeal around the volumes. Then, too, it is skewed by Clemens’s awareness that parts of the text were to appear in a contemporary magazine; inhibition—and perhaps a perceived need to keep the material at least intermittently “funny”—got in the way.

By 1906, a heartbreaking number of these family and friends had died; the mood of the “Family Sketch,” however, is not funerary but exuberant. Clemens’s “people” are alive again, and his eye and ear for telling detail are at their sharpest. And it is funny; and it is a sensitive and sometimes surprising portrait of nineteenth-century domestic life.

Among other things, the “Family Sketch” is Clemens’s most substantial and extended portrait of George Griffin, the family’s African American butler. George, beloved of the whole family, was among other things noted for his gifts as a betting man; well enough for servants, perhaps, but quite contrary to the family’s official teachings:

Every day, in the Hartford racing-season, he made large winnings; and while he waited at breakfast next morning he allowed the fact and the amount to escape him casually. Mainly for Susy’s benefit, who had been made to believe that...