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).
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.
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:
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:
The signed edition statement of Innocents abroad identifies it as one of only 620 copies published:
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”.
Tucked inside this volume is the envelope in which the title page was sent. It is addressed in Twain’s own hand:
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.
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.