The works reprinted in this volume, all written between 1868 and 1902, demonstrate Mark Twain’s reliance on what has come to be known as the Matter of Hannibal—the “realities, not inventions” of his early life in Missouri, which inspired much of his best-known work.
The three nonfiction pieces provide particularly direct evidence of Mark Twain’s dependence on this “compass of fact.” “Letter to William Bowen” (1870) evokes the escapades, pleasures, and occasional terrors of boyhood, recalling events that would eventually be put to use in Tom Sawyer (1876) and Huckleberry Finn (1885). “Jane Lampton Clemens” (1890) is the only one of the nonfiction pieces that Mark Twain wrote with publication in mind—although, for reasons unknown, he never did publish it. A loving biographical tribute to his mother, and a sharply focused portrait of Hannibal as a small, slave-holding community, it also affords striking insights into the mature author’s values and social attitudes. The most intriguing of the factual works, however, is “Villagers of 1840–3,” published here in its entirety for the first time. This extended series of notes about life in antebellum Hannibal contains over one hundred capsule biographies of the town’s residents, including Mark Twain’s own family. Written in 1897, forty-four years after Samuel Clemens left his boyhood home, it is a remarkable feat of memory, compelling both as a historical and a literary document. Evidently Mark Twain intended to use it as a master list of possible characters for any subsequent stories he might set in St. Petersburg or Dawson’s Landing, his imaginary re-creations of Hannibal.
Of the eight stories reprinted here, only the earliest, “Boy’s Manuscript” (1868), was ever completed. This diary of the school days, pastimes, and lovesick torments of a young boy is clearly the embryo of Tom Sawyer, which Mark Twain began writing several years later. The unfinished state of the other seven stories is in part the result of Mark Twain’s characteristic method of composition. In 1906, in his autobiography, he explained: “As long as a book would write itself I was a faithful and interested amanuensis and my industry did not flag; but the minute that the book tried to shift to my head the labor of contriving its situations, inventing its adventures and conducting its conversations, I put it away and dropped it out of my mind.” A work would then remain pigeonholed—Huckleberry Finn, for example, was twice set aside for periods of three years—until Mark Twain could approach it with renewed interest. There is no evidence, however, that he returned to any of these stories, which were no doubt among the works he called “books that refuse to be written. They stand their ground, year after year, and will not be persuaded. It isn’t because the book is not there and worth being written—it is only because the right form for the story does not present itself”. Nonetheless, four of the stories in this volume were already substantially developed when Mark Twain put them aside. “Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians” (1884)—written as a sequel to Huckleberry Finn when its author was at the height of his creative powers—is a vivid adventure incorporating many of the classic elements of the Western novel. “Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy” (1897), another attempted sequel to Huckleberry Finn, is a parody of popular detective fiction that stops just pages shy of completion. “Hellfire Hotchkiss” (1897), one of Mark Twain’s few works with a female protagonist (and an emancipated one at that), and “Schoolhouse Hill” (1898), an early version of his “Mysterious Stranger” fantasy, are rich in autobiographical allusion and have stretches of writing that compare favorably with his best efforts.
However fragmentary and unfinished, all of the works reprinted here illuminate each other as well as the more famous works to which they are akin, and they manage to entertain even as they provide fresh glimpses into the heart of Mark Twain’s imaginative universe.
Letter to William Bowen
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer among the Indians
Jane Lampton Clemens
Villagers of 1840–3
Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy
NOTE ON THE TEXT