8 Literary Relics From the World's Largest Private Collection of Mark Twain Memorabilia
Kevin Mac Donnell, a rare bookseller in Austin, Texas, safeguards over 8000 Twain-related items in a climate-controlled home archive.
There are Mark Twain fans, and then there’s Kevin Mac Donnell. The rare bookseller and independent scholar lives in Austin, Texas, where he maintains one of the world’s largest (if not the largest) private collections of Twain artifacts. Over the past few decades, Mac Donnell has amassed over 8000 items—including first editions, personal letters, manuscripts, and objects owned by Twain himself—along with 1500 historic ads, souvenirs, and promotional material related to the author’s career.
Why build a scholarly shrine to Twain instead of, say, Ernest Hemingway or Charles Dickens? “I was always attracted to his works,” says Mac Donnell, who purchased his first Twain item in his early teens. “People view Twain as just as a humorist, but he’s much more than that," he tells Mental Floss. "He comments on politics, human nature, religion, race relations … He had opinions on everything going on during his time.”
Topics like these are still socially charged, Mac Donnell says, making Twain’s writing just as relevant today as it was during the 19th century. Plus, he adds, Twain was equal parts marquee personality and sideline critic, a duality that makes him unique among authors.
"He wasn’t just a literary artist—he was also a social icon," Mac Donnell says. "He had a certain amount of celebrity. People knew the name. They knew what he looked like [and] they thought they knew who he was and what he thought about things, even if they had never read anything that he had ever written.”
Mac Donnell safeguards his Twain collection in a climate-controlled home archive, which he opens up to the occasional researcher or bookseller. Here, the collector provides literature lovers with a virtual peek inside his holdings.
1. A PICTURE OF MARK TWAIN’S POTENTIAL TEENAGE SWEETHEART
1. A PICTURE OF MARK TWAIN’S POTENTIAL TEENAGE SWEETHEART
One of Mac Donnell’s most intriguing finds surfaced at an antiques market in Washington state. The 1855 daguerreotype depicts a teen girl named Iowa Burns, who had once lived in Keokuk, Iowa. Scrawled phrases along the daguerreotype’s corners read “sweet sixteen," "Iowa Burns," "Keokuk Iowa," and "taken 1855 Mark Twain's sweetheart.” Pinned to the hinged panel opposite the portrait was a thin piece of paper, which said “Minnie Albert's sister Iowa Burns—sweetheart of Mark Twain." Also tucked inside the daguerreotype's case was a note, which said: "In 1855 Iowa Burns at 'sweet sixteen' a sweetheart of Mark Twain who lived across the street from her parents at Keokuk Iowa. Taken in 1855, a sister of my aunt Minnie Burns Albert, wife of T. G. Albert, Salem."
“The name Iowa Burns jumped out at me because I knew Twain had known a girl in Keokuk, Iowa, with the same name,” Mac Donnell says. “He’d written a poem and used her name to make a pun, so he clearly knew this girl and spent a lot of time with her.”
Additional research revealed that Twain’s brother, Orion Clemens, had conducted business with Iowa’s father, which explained how Twain and Iowa might have initially become acquainted. After pouring through Twain’s notebooks and comparing his descriptions of Iowa to the daguerreotype, Mac Donnell concluded that the girl in the picture was indeed “a lost sweetheart. She was [Twain’s] first adult girlfriend.”
2. A LETTER MARK TWAIN WROTE TO A 12-YEAR-OLD FAN
In 1902, 12-year-old Gertrude Swain from Greeley, Nebraska, “wrote Twain a fan letter saying that she had read Huck Finn [about 50 times], and she had read in the newspapers about some ministers who were denouncing the book, saying it wasn’t a good book for children and evil and all that,” Mac Donnell says. “She wrote Twain a letter saying, ‘I think they don’t understand your work' … It was an unabashed fan letter, and rather perceptive. Twain wrote her back.”
Twain's letter reads:
My dear Child:
I would rather have your judgment of the moral quality of the Huck Finn book, after your fifty readings of it, than that of fifty clergymen after reading it once apiece. I should have confidence in your moral visions, but not so much in theirs, because it is limited in the matter of distance, & is pretty often out of focus. [But these are secrets, & musn’t go any further; I only know them because I used to study for the ministry myself.]
3. A CEREMONIAL SILVER KEY (WITH A PIECE OF TWAIN'S HAIR STUCK IN ITS RIBBON)
In September 1900, Twain participated in an opening ceremony at the brand-new Kensal Rise Library in London. On this occasion, officials “gave him a special engraved key,” Mac Donnell says. “The case is lined in velvet and silk. One of Twain’s white hairs is [still] tangled in the red ribbon.”
“When they hung the key around his neck I assume the hair got on the ribbon and then later he took the key off and put it back in the case,” Mac Donnell adds. “That’s probably where it stayed all those years. I kept trying to keep that white hair there, and I finally actually threaded it and slipped it into the ribbon—looped it through the ribbon a couple times just to make sure it stayed there.”
4. A BOOK INSCRIBED TO TWAIN'S DAUGHTER, CLARA, BY HER BELOVED CAT BAMBINO
5. A MAGAZINE ARTICLE THAT MIGHT HAVE INSPIRED THE ‘MARK TWAIN’ PSEUDONYM
Many scholars believe that Twain—who was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens—adopted his pseudonym from riverboat lingo, with “Mark Twain” signifying the minimum water depth needed for a boat to cruise safely. As a young man, Clemens knew a captain named Isaiah Sellers who reportedly went by this moniker. Later in life, the author claimed to have adopted the nostalgic name for himself after Sellers's death in 1863.
Mac Donnell, however, says this explanation is bunk. While reading a popular 19th century humor journal called Vanity Fair (unrelated to today's magazine of the same name), he noticed that the name Mark Twain had been used by a humorist named Artemus Ward in an 1861 sketch called “The North Star.” This piece was published just two years before Clemens adopted the name for himself.
Twain read Vanity Fair and often “copied [Ward] in his own humor,” Mac Donnell says. For this reason, he believes that Twain borrowed his nom de plume from the magazine instead of simply stealing it from a riverboat captain. Supporting Mac Donnell's theory is the fact that Sellers died after Twain adopted the name, not before. Twain probably invented the riverboat captain story to obscure the true origins of his pseudonym, Mac Donnell guesses.
6. A BOOK TWAIN GAVE TO ONE OF HIS REAL-LIFE LITERARY INFLUENCES
“One of the best things in my collection is The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant , which Twain published and edited,” Mac Donnell says. “It’s inscribed by Twain to a guy named John T. Lewis, who was a black man who lived in Elmira, New York. He's widely considered to be one of three black men in Twain’s life who served as a model for the character Jim in Huckleberry Finn.”
According to Mac Donnell, “Twain admired Lewis tremendously because he was a pretty smart guy." Plus, the author was personally beholden to Lewis, as he’d once rescued members of Twain’s extended family from a deadly runaway carriage.
The above image shows the book Twain inscribed to Lewis (left), next to a second cloth-bound copy (right).
7. TWAIN'S NOTE-FILLED SHORT STORY BOOK
Sketches New and Old is a collection of Twain’s short stories, published in 1875. This first-edition printing was Twain’s own personal copy, which he read from while on lecture tours. The book's lines and margins are filled with Twain’s own handwriting. “He crosses out words, substitutes words, crosses out some passages, underlines things,” Mac Donnell says. "At the beginning of one story, he wrote down ‘20 minutes’ to remind himself how long it would take him to read that particular story when he was out on the lecture circuit.”
Twain also made the occasional correction, Mac Donnell points out. In one sketch, “there’s an editor of a newspaper that Twain descried as a braying insect," he says. "Now if you think about that, it makes no sense. Insects don’t bray. What brays? A donkey. Except Twain wouldn’t have said donkey. He meant ‘jackass.’”
Twain’s publishers likely never would have allowed the word jackass to appear in print, so the author changed it to a less offensive word. But when Twain prepared to read the sketch out loud on tour, he crossed out insect and replaced it with his initial insult. “He’s not changing the text, he’s restoring his original text,” Mac Donnell says.
8. THE TOP OF TWAIN’S CARD TABLE
Twain owned a card table at his last home, Stormfield in Redding, Connecticut, where he lived until his death in 1910. During this period of his life, the author had just one surviving child, Clara, since his oldest daughter, Susie, had died from spinal meningitis in 1896. The lonely widower also had no grandchildren, so he adopted a group of surrogate granddaughters he nicknamed “angel-fish.” He often engaged these children in spirited group card games, according to Mac Donnell.