The First Typewritten Book

atkins-bookshelf-literatureThere is a mistaken belief that Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was the first author to submit a typewritten manuscript to a publisher in 1876; the novel cited is The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, his most popular novel based on his recollections of growing up in Hannibal, Mississippi in the 1840s. Twain was by his own accounts an early adopter of technology (“on the bleeding age,” as they say in Silicon Valley). In his autobiography [a portion was published in 1905] he claims: “I was the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in the house for practical purposes; I will now claim– until dispossess–that I was the first person in the world to apply the type-machine to literature. That book must have been The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I wrote the first half of it in [18]72, the rest of it in [18]74. My machinist type-copied a book for me in [18]74, so I concluded it was that one.” Unfortunately claims to type that book were greatly exaggerated. Let’s separate the fact from the fiction.

In his autobiography Twain describes how he and a friend were impressed by “type-girl” who was able to type 57 words a minute on an early-model typewriter, the Remington No. 2. Twain bought the typewriter for $125 in 1873 [$2,604 in today’s dollars]. Like an user of first-generation technology, Twain was frustrated with the typewriter’s many flaws: “The machine did not do both capitals and lower case… but only capitals. Gothic capitals they were, and sufficiently ugly… That early machine was full of caprices, full of defects–devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today [a 1904 model] has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character…” Twain even wrote a letter to Remington explaining he was no longer using the “Type-Writer.” As hard as he tried, Twain tried to get rid of the devilish machine, but like a boomerang it kept coming back: “[I gave the typewriter] to Howells [William Dean Howells was an author, editor of the Atlantic Monthly, and a close friend]. He was reluctant, for he was suspicious of novelties and unfriendly toward them, and he remains so to this day. But I persuaded him. He had great confidence in me, and I got him to believe things about the machine that I did not believe myself. He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered. He kept it six months, and then returned it to me. I gave it away twice after that, but it wouldn’t stay; it came back.”

Memory can be a real trickster. But even if your memory is spot on, facts are malleable, as the internet readily attests. Ironically, Twain famously remarked: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” According to typewriter historian Darryl Rehr, Twain did purchase a Remington No. 2, but the year was 1874, when the model was first introduced. Twain did submit the first typewritten book to a publisher; however Twain did not actually typewrite it — instead he dictated it to a “type-girl’ he had hired and the book was a memoir, titled Life on the Mississippi. The book was published simultaneously in 1883 by James Osgood & Co. in America and Chatto & Windus in England. According to literary historians, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, published in 1876 by the American Publishing Company (Hartford, CN), was printed directly from a handwritten manuscript (known as a holograph). The original handwritten manuscript — remarkable for its legible handwriting, consistent spelling, and  little or no revisions — is bound in red moroccan leather in two volumes; they are held at the Georgetown University Library in Washington D.C. (the books were donated by a benefactor in 1934). In 1982, the library and the University Publications of America published a two volume limited edition photographic facsimile of the manuscript. Incidentally, a first edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer will set you back about $100,000.

So in the end, Twain was half right — or should we say half write?

Read related posts: The Inspiration for Dickens’s A Christmas Carol
Why Did James Joyce Burn His Manuscript?
You Only Have Your Emotions to Sell
Sleeping Habits of Famous Writers

For further reading: Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (Volume 1 and 2) by Mark Twain, Univ. of California Press (2010, 2013)


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