Friendship across the ocean: Mark Twain and Sir John MacAlister

A recent foray into one of our rare book storerooms for the purposes of cataloguing has brought to our immediate awareness a wonderful collection of books by Mark Twain, many of which feature inscriptions and quotes in the author’s own hand. These volumes were originally owned by Sir John Young Walker MacAlister (1856-1925), a close friend of Twain, and were given to the college by MacAlister’s son, Kingsman Donald MacAlister (1875-1968).

Photo of Sir John Young Walker MacAlister

Sir John Young Walker MacAlister  (1856-1925) Portrait photo courtesy of Wellcome Trust

Portrait of Mark Twain

Portrait of Mark Twain (1835-1910) from the frontispiece to Innocents abroad, London, 1899. Classmark: N.28.55

John MacAlister belonged to a profession dear to our hearts: librarianship. He was instrumental in building up the fledgling Library Association from a small London-based group into a large professional nationwide organisation, worthy of obtaining a Royal Charter in 1877. Editor of The Library Journal for many years, he wrote extensively about the principles of librarianship, developing many of the ideas which still underpin the profession today.

MacAlister had a wide circle of friends in intellectual spheres, including Mark Twain, with whom he corresponded regularly. They also socialised during periods when Twain was living in England, often getting together to chat and smoke. In June 1899, MacAlister took Twain to his gentleman’s club: The Savage. With very little prompting, the club committee duly elected Twain an honorary lifetime member. Noted caricaturist, Phil May (1864-1903) was also present and produced a cartoon to commemorate the occasion, which shows both Twain and MacAlister. The date of 1900 on the cartoon is thought to be May’s idea of a “prophecy” for the following year. It is unclear who the gentleman with the saw is supposed to be.

Cartoon of Twain and MacAlister at the Savage club

Cartoon by Phil May commemorating the Savage Club dinner on June 9th 1899. Illustration from: “The Savage Club: a medley of history, anecdote, and reminiscence”  by Aaron Watson: London, 1907

Twain was liberal in inscribing and adding pithy quotations to those volumes of his works which he presented to MacAlister. Featured below are just a  small selection of these:

Inscription by Mark Twain

“To MacAlister. “Truth is mighty and will prevail – the eternal years of God are hers” Bryant. There is nothing the matter with this, except that it Ain’t so. Truly yours Mark Twain. London, Feb. 19, 1900″ Inscription on the flyleaf of Innocents abroad, London, 1899. Classmark: N.28.55

Mark Twain quote

Inscription by Twain: “The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much; if he is an optimist after it he knows too little” On a sheet interleaved in a bound volume of chapters from Twain’s serialised autobiography. Classmark: N.28.57 

Mark Twain quote

“We often feel sad in the presence of music without words: & often more than that in the presence of music without music”. From another interleaved sheet in the volume of autobiography. Classmark: N.28.57

Several of the volumes are first or limited editions, including this copy of the first edition of the novel The man that corrupted Hadleyburg, with its colourful front cover:

Cover of "The man that corrupted Hadleyburg"

Cover of The man that corrupted Hadleyburg, by Mark Twain. London, 1900. Classmark: N.28.56

The signed edition statement of Innocents abroad identifies it as one of only 620 copies published:

Signed edition statement

Edition statement from MacAlister’s copy of “Innocents abroad” London, 1899. Classmark: N.28.55

Mark Twain was diligent in recording the story of his life whilst he lived it, but was determined that no memoirs be published in book form during his lifetime. In 1906 however, he did agree to allow some chapters of his autobiography to appear in serialised form in the North American Review. John MacAlister took it upon himself to collect these chapters and have them bound together into one volume. When informed of this, Twain, far from being cross, caused a special title-page to be printed for this unique volume, which he sent to MacAlister. The imprint states: “The only copy – MacAlister’s”.

Unique title page

Unique title page created by Mark Twain for John MacAlister. London, 1906-7. Classmark: N.28.57

Tucked inside this volume is the envelope in which the title page was sent. It is addressed in Twain’s own hand:

Envelope addressed by Mark Twain

Envelope addressed by Mark Twain, tucked inside N.28.57

The volumes of Twain’s works from MacAlister’s library clearly reflect the warm and longstanding friendship between the two men, which spanned many years and an ocean.

AC

References:

Death of a Librarian  by Lynn Macalister, accessed 24/04/2020

Mark Twain Day by Day by David Fears, accessed 24/04/2020

The Savage Club: a medley of history, anecdote, and reminiscence  by Aaron Watson, London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1907.

 

One response to “Friendship across the ocean: Mark Twain and Sir John MacAlister

  1. Thank you for this very interesting post!! Exciting to think about.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s