As this week sees the much awaited publication of a brand new, previously undiscovered Mark Twain children's story, one scholar at UC Berkeley is talking about the day he found evidence linking it to the legendary, prolific writer.
Robert Hirst, professor at UC Berkeley and General Editor and archivist of the Mark Twain Project, described to ABC 7 the discovery of a small note in the margin of an unfinished Twain manuscript. The note read, "Karoo hostess ain't she -- Susie." Given that Susie is the name of one of Twain's daughters, Hirst believes this to be proof that the funny handwritten manuscript, titled "Oleomargarine," can be directly linked to the author. Further, Hirst believes that "Oleomargarine" was one of Twain's many unwritten bedtime stories demanded constantly by his two daughters.
The unfinished manuscript was originally unearthed in the UC Berkeley archive by scholar John Bird in 2011, as he explained to the New York Times earlier this year. It was just 16 pages long, and it was only that tiny note that provided a connection to the bedtime stories Twain talked about making up in his autobiography, but never actually wrote down.
Hirst believes it was chance that he happened upon the note. He said, "A lot of people look through this and didn't tumble to that. And I've transcribed it and I didn't tumble to that."
The manuscript might have remained unfinished if not for the efforts of author Philip Stead, who worked to complete the story. Along with his illustrator wife Erin Stead, he was able to create The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine, which hit bookstores earlier this week. In a chat with NPR, Philip Stead said, "It was never entirely clear to us if there was never an ending, or if Twain just never got around to writing it down. That said, we had to make a book, so we had to provide an ending to the story."
The book tells the story of a young boy named Johnny who eats some magical seeds and discovers he's then able to talk to animals. In addition to a few changes to the animal characters, Stead also made Johnny, the main character, a young black boy. NPR asked him about that particular decision, to which Stead replied, "Three years ago, when we began the project, it wasn't a political decision. The character of Johnny was based in part on a real boy that we know. That said, I think it's very unfortunate that if we had chosen a white character as the main character, I'm not sure that we'd be answering these questions."
Of course, Twain may take issue with the book for another reason completely, as Hirst pointed out to ABC 7. Hirst said, "We have plenty of evidence that he did not like people tinkering with his stuff."