Found in the Vault: A Presentation Inscription from Mark Twain — Or is it?

Written by: Andrew Lundeen

Primary Source: Adversaria

“And thou, homely little brown thing with worn leaves, yet more precious to me than all jewels of the earth—come, let me take thee from thy shelf and hold thee lovingly in my hands and press thee tenderly to this aged and slow-pulsing heart of mine… soon must we part forever; when I am gone say unto him who next shall have thee to his own that with his latest breath an old man blessed thee!”

– Eugene Field, Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac

Okay, okay.  Last week I know I said we’d be talking about hand-colored plates this time — and that post is coming soon, I promise!  But in the meantime I wanted to highlight an interesting item we discovered (rediscovered?) in the vault just the other day:

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MSU’s copy of Cruikshank at Home, Vol. I (XX PN6173.C75 1845)

This 1845 edition of Cruikshank at Home (Vol.  I), a collection of humorous short stories selected and illustrated by famed English caricature artist Robert Cruikshank, may seem at first glance to be rather unremarkable.

While it is beautifully half-bound in red Morocco leather, it stands at a modest six-and-a-half inches tall and tends to blend in with the books around it on the vault shelves, many of which are similarly bound and just as beautiful.

As the study of rare book provenance has shown again and again, however, often some the most interesting features of books can be found on flyleaves and endsheets — and our copy of Cruikshank at Home is no different in this regard.

Presentation inscription from Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain.

Presentation inscription from Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain.

As you can see, the book bears a terse presentation inscription with a noteworthy signature on the front flyleaf:

Y[ou]r[s] Truly,
              S. L. Clemens
                     (Mark Twain)
 

Search on the Web for Mark Twain’s (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) autograph and you’ll likely conclude that this is the real deal.  And why shouldn’t it be?

As in many institutions, our rare books contain signatures from a number of famous individuals, in the form of ownership inscriptions, presentation inscriptions, and the like.

But what else can we potentially learn about the provenance of this volume?

Close-up of the Clemens/Twain signature.

Close-up of the Clemens/Twain signature.

The book features another interesting signature on the half-title:  that of late 19th century American author and poet Eugene Field.  Based on the location and the appearance of the signature, it appears to be an ownership inscription, meaning that this book was likely in Field’s collection at some point.

Signature of Eugene Field, Sr.

Signature of Eugene Field, Sr.

It seems probable that the two signatures are related, and that the book was either given to Field by Twain, or that Field merely had Twain sign it (although since it’s not a work by Twain, the latter seems less likely).  The two authors were friends, or at least acquaintances, and it’s hardly a stretch of the imagination to picture such a presentation taking place.

Note from Eugene Field, Jr.

Note from Eugene Field, Jr.

Another piece of evidence in the book seems to corroborate this theory.  On a rear flyleaf is the following note:

This book came
from the library
of my father Eugene
Field.
          Eugene Field II
Oct 20 – 1920
 

So, everything seems to be peachy — we have a fine example of a presentation inscription from one of the most influential American authors of all time, in a book from the personal collection of another famous author, all supported by the testimony of the latter’s son.

But there’s another story to tell.  Do a little digging on Eugene Field II, and you’ll find a number of articles about him, including one from the website Crime Librarywhich is certainly enlightening:

The American poet Eugene Field passed down his unique gift of writing to his son and namesake, Eugene Field II, whom he affectionately nicknamed “Pinny.” However, unlike his father, little Eugene’s gift was less conventional. His skill was not in composing poetry but actually in reproducing the writing style of other people…

Yes, it turns out that Eugene Field, Jr. was a notorious forger, especially infamous for rather masterfully faking the signature of Abraham Lincoln, and making quite a tidy sum in the process.  In addition to selling a number of books and documents with false Lincoln signatures, “Pinny” dabbled in other forgeries.  An article from the Internet Antique Gazette explains:

[Eugene Field, Jr.] had grown up with a comfortable life in the suburbs of Chicago, and upon his father’s death, began casting about for ways to make money without doing much work. Eugene Sr. left… a sizeable library, filled with some rare editions and beautiful bindings, and Pinny began selling them off piecemeal for profit.  

As Pinny was quickly running through his father’s library, he began to dabble in forgeries, and sometime in the 1920s or early 1930s, he met up with forger Harry Dayton Sickles. The two quickly struck upon a plan to ‘increase’ Eugene Sr.’s library. They reproduced Eugene Sr.’s original bookplate, and then set about buying up books, forging signatures and inscriptions, and ‘authenticating’ them with the addition of the reproduced bookplates.

Uh oh.  Our volume may not have a bookplate, but things are certainly starting to look suspicious.  This next line — from the Crime Library article — may put the final nail in the coffin:

[Field and Sickles] were also known to have forged numerous documents and signatures of other famous figures such as, Rudyard Kipling, Theodore Roosevelt and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), as well as several others.

While it’s possible that our Twain inscription is authentic, it also seems as though we have good reason to question it.  Could it be that the young Field falsified the signature early in his forgery career, or that he or Sickles, partners in crime, faked it in the late ’20s or ’30s and simply back-dated the “authenticating” note on the rear flyleaf?

Was the book presented to Eugene Field, Sr. by his friend and colleague Mark Twain, or is the signature a forgery?  We don’t know — and we may never know.  The irony is that if this volume did not feature the note from Field’s son we likely would have never seriously questioned the autograph’s authenticity.

It just goes to show that often it’s better to have no one on your side at all than to have a liar’s endorsement — or, as William Caxton put it, “men bileve not lyghtly hym whiche is knowen for a lyer.”

What do you think?  Can anyone out there offer any insight into the validity of these signatures?

Credit for the excerpts from the Crime Library and Internet Antique Gazette articles goes to Hollie Davis and Rachael Bell, respectively.  Here are the two links again:
Crime Library:  Abraham Lincoln’s Most Notorious Forgers
Internet Antique Gazette:  Field, Eugene Sr. & Eugene Field, Jr. & Harry Dayton Sickles
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Andrew Lundeen
Andrew Lundeen, a Special Collections Librarian at MSU, is a recent master’s graduate in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (‘14). Since September 2013, Andrew has spearheaded the MSU Provenance Project, an effort to document marks of ownership and marks of use in rare books at MSU.
Andrew Lundeen

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