Twain ‘tough love’ letter up for sale
Canadian sought advice from writer
In 1881, a 21-year-old aspiring Canadian writer mailed a letter to American novelist Samuel Clemens — a.k.a. Mark Twain — seeking advice from the celebrated author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer about how to make one’s way in the literary world.
Clemens’ response — a five-page, handwritten letter warning the young Canadian about the pitfalls of pouring his thoughts into a book before gaining more life experience — has been described as one of the most important and candid pronouncements on writing by a man many consider the greatest figure in 19th-century American literature.
Clemens’ heartfelt (but predictably funny) toughlove letter to the young Toronto-area writer — Bruce Weston Munro, who did go on to publish a few largely forgotten works of humour in the late 1880s — is expected to sell for up to $40,000 at an auction of historic manuscripts next month in New York.
The artifact represents a remarkable moment in the life of Clemens, who pointedly paused from his own book project at the time — presumably his enduring masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn — and “sacrificed my day” in a bid to steer the inquiring Canadian away from publishing a book in his 20s.
“ The advice Clemens gives him is indeed quite frank, and is based on a backward glance at his own personal experience,” said Sotheby’s manuscripts specialist Elizabeth Muller, noting how Clemens was 30 when he published his first lengthy piece of writing.
“You make a conclusive argument against your book: first, when you mention your age; second, when you state what your life has been,” Clemens, pulling no punches, wrote to Munro from his home in Hartford, Conn., on Oct. 21, 1881.
“Experience of life (not of books), is the only capital usable in such a book as you have attempted,” he added.
“I do not see how any but a colossal genius can write a readable prose book before he is 30 years old.”
But key to achieving enough skill to “produce a readable book at 30 or 40” is a “good, honest, diligent, painstaking apprenticeship of 15 or 20 years with the pen,” Clemens insisted. “You will have to produce & burn as much manuscript as the rest of us have done before your mill will yield something that is really worth printing.”