Classic Literature | 13 June 2016Twain in a Barrel Share article facebook twitter google pinterest For book collectors, authenticating a find and be a tedious, and sometimes disappointing task. The world is rife with forgeries and false alarms, so any claim of a rare find has to be thoroughly researched and investigated. But sometimes, you know right off the bat when you’ve struck gold. Such was the case for collector Kurt Zimmerman, who was invited to inspect a stash of books annotated by the legendary Mark Twain. The books were discovered in the most unlikely (and perhaps ironic) of places: the bottom of an old barrel. But sure enough, the biting witticisms and commentaries penned in the margins were unmistakably those of the great author himself. Taken from Rare Books Uncovered, read all about Zimmerman’s baffled excitement, and a unique peek into Twain’s musings. That one might find a trove of Twain in the bottom of a barrel sounds like the punch line to a book collector’s joke. Mark Twain was the pen name of Samuel Clemens, author of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and largely regarded as the father of American literature. The barrel story is appropriate, as Twain was not an abstemious man. Scotch was a favorite, and two of his oft-repeated quotes go like this: “Never refuse to take a drink—under any circumstances,” and “Sometimes too much to drink is barely enough.” It also sounds ludicrous, because who stores books—especially rare books—in a barrel? Kurt Zimmerman, a serious book collector and a residential realtor based near Houston, Texas, recalled his favorite story from the several years he spent as director of the book department at Butterfield & Butterfield auction house (now Bonhams) in San Francisco. It was 1997. A random call came in from a prospective seller and was forwarded to Zimmerman. A San Diego man and his wife were cleaning out the garage of his parents’ house and had come across a bunch of books stored in wooden barrels. The man’s father had been a doctor and an enthusiastic bibliophile, but the family was unaware of anything so spectacular as what appeared to be sealed in these containers: books signed and annotated by Mark Twain. Zimmerman felt cautiously optimistic. On one hand, Twain is a highly collectible author; his first editions, manuscripts, and letters are highly sought after by both institutional and private collectors. On the other hand, he conceded, “In an auction house, you get calls all the time from folks who think they have a signed Mark Twain.” As he later wrote about the experience, “many reprints of Twain’s works have facsimile quotes and signatures by him often mistaken by the uninitiated for genuine inscriptions.” He was headed down to Los Angeles in just a few days for one of his employer’s free appraisal clinics, in which locals are encouraged to bring in antiques for expert opinions. Zimmerman invited the man to stop by with a few examples. About an hour into the event, a middle-aged man stepped forward and announced, by way of introduction, “These books are from Mark Twain’s library.” After a brief chat, Zimmerman extracted one volume from the crate the man had placed on the table in front of him. It was Charles Darwin’s Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited during the Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle Round the World (London, 1890). But it wasn’t just any copy of the famous naturalist’s book—it was Twain’s copy, signed with marginal annotations in manuscript totaling sixty-three words over twenty pages. Twain had met Darwin in London in 1879, and the two men were fond of each other. Among Twain’s comments in his acquaintance’s book: “Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?” “All I could do was nod and try not to hyperventilate,” Zimmerman wrote of that moment. Composing himself, he inspected the other Twainsigned tomes. Another stunner was a heavily corrected copy of the author’s own book, More Tramps Abroad (London, 1898). From Zimmerman’s cursory assessment, it appeared as if the volume—a fourth edition—had been marked up in preparation for a speech or lecture. Twain’s pencil-wielding hand added witticisms throughout, such as: “Can spell words of one syllable very well, when not excited” (p. 128); “Disposition variable. Temper, at times, 96 in the shade” (p. 148); “He talks well upon any subject, whether he knew anything about it or not” (p. 166). The books were the real deal, and Zimmerman’s next question would be one of provenance. How did books from Twain’s home in Connecticut end up in California? The owner of the books told Zimmerman that after their phone call, he delved into his father’s papers in an attempt to discern where these books had come from. His father, it turned out, had bought them at a Hollywood estate sale held by Twain’s daughter, Clara, on April 10, 1951, bidding against a number of local dealers. Why he had stored them in barrels is anyone’s guess, although according to Zimmerman, the storage conditions had preserved them perfectly. The mild, semi-arid climate in San Diego is agreeable to books “In addition to these books, we’ve got about two hundred more back home that I pulled out of the barrels,” the man told Zimmerman. “I didn’t want to haul them all in unless you were interested.” Needing no more enticement than that, Zimmerman and a colleague drove down and picked them up the very next day—the owner was ready and willing to consign the collection. Once back in the office, Zimmerman spent a month researching, studying, and cataloging, a process he called “one of the top experiences of my book career.” Twain was an avid reader. His frequently recited quotes about books are “Books are the liberated spirits of men” and “If books are not good company, where will I find it?” He therefore amassed many books. Late in life, after the death of his beloved wife, when sickness and old age were catching up with him, he relocated from New York City to Redding, Connecticut. He moved into the brand-new Italianate villa, Stormfield, in June 1908. Finding that he had many more books than he could shelve, he set up a satellite library in an unused chapel nearby and made it available to neighbors. Determined to erect a real town library, Twain staged fundraisers and exacted pledges from affluent friends. In 1909, after the tragic death of his daughter Jean, Twain donated $6,000 in her honor. The Mark Twain Library, the public library of Redding, was well underway when Twain died the following year, and he never saw it finished. Though expanded, the library still exists in the same location today, and the Mark Twain Room houses a collection by and about Twain, including many of those volumes weeded from his personal library more than one hundred years ago. The bulk of Twain’s library was auctioned at Anderson Galleries in New York beginning on February 7, 1911. According to Zimmerman, these volumes usually bear a bookplate noting the provenance, signed by Twain’s literary executor and biographer Albert Bigelow Paine. Many of these have ended up in institutional collections, namely the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, host of the Mark Twain Papers & Project. The books from the San Diego consignor, however, derived from a third source: Twain’s only surviving child, Clara Clemens (1874–1962). After Clara’s first husband died in 1936, she moved to California, where she remarried and remained for the rest of her life. Her much younger second husband, Russian composer Jacques Samossoud, was a gambler and a bit of a scoundrel. Though Clara had been a wealthy woman as her father’s only heir, Samossoud chipped away at her assets, and by 1951 required her to auction off what she had left of her father’s books, papers, and artifacts. Reportedly the only thing she kept was a twenty-four-volume edition of The Collected Works of Mark Twain, each book signed by her father. The books she sold—many of which ended up stowed in barrels in a garage by an intrepid collector and then ultimately back on the auction block under Zimmerman’s supervision—included books owned and annotated by Twain, gifts from fellow writers, and cherished family volumes. Clara had kept them because of the special meaning to her. Twain documented his displeasure with John Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men, noting on the title page of volume 2 that the work is translated from the Greek “into rotten English . . . by an ass.” Twain shared his love for the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley by giving a two-volume set of his Works to his wife, Olivia “Livy” L. Clemens, who signed and dated both. And he imparted holiday wishes to his daughter with an 1883 edition of The Chronicle of the Cid, with this inscription: “Merry Christmas/to/Clara Clemens/1884./From Papa.” The “sentimental family association,” said Zimmerman, was what set these books apart from other institutional or private collections of Twain’s books. One late addition to the catalog, mailed in to Zimmerman’s office after the consignor finished cleaning out his parents’ home, was, in that sense, enormously special. It was a Bible, published in London in 1869, bound in full morocco, and inscribed on the title page by Livy Clemens “The Clemens’s/S. L. & O. L./Feby. 2d, 1870.” This was the Bible used during Mark Twain’s wedding ceremony, on February 2, 1870, in the parlor of his bride’s family’s home. Two passages within were marked for the minister’s use. The Bible had been sold once before, at the Anderson Galleries auction after Twain’s death. But Clara, perhaps regretting its initial dispersal, retrieved it sometime later. persal, retrieved it sometime later. Zimmerman cataloged the collection in forty-nine lots (some with multiple volumes in one lot). He, however, hoped that the entire collection of 271 books would sell en bloc and stay together. The auction was held July 16, 1997, and a reserve of $100,000 placed on the books as a group. According to the New York Times report, two collectors and one rare-book dealer bid strongly for the whole batch, until the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, where the Clemenses lived from 1874 to 1891, triumphed at $200,500. Most would agree that Twain’s books are now back where they belong, safe and sound and accessible to researchers looking to read his clever annotations and charming inscriptions. What would Twain have thought about 271 of his books having spent several decades stashed in barrels? Somehow it seems like he would have appreciated the humor. Buy from an Online Retailer US: UK: Feed your inner bibliophile with this volume on unearthed rare and antiquarian books. Few collectors are as passionate or as dogged in the pursuit of their quarry as collectors of rare books. In Rare Books Uncovered, expert on rare and antiquarian books Rebecca Rego Barry recounts the stories of remarkable discoveries from the world of book collecting. Read about the family whose discovery in their attic of a copy of Action Comics No. 1–the first appearance of Superman-saved their home from foreclosure. Or the Salt Lake City bookseller who volunteered for a local fundraiser–and came across a 500-year-old copy of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Or the collector who, while browsing his local thrift shop, found a collectible copy of Calvary in China–inscribed by the author to the collector’s grandfather. These tales and many others will entertain and inspire casual collectors and hardcore bibliomaniacs alike. 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