Winthrop professor John Bird immersed himself in the study of Mark Twain and authored his own book about the 19th century writer, but Bird never expected to be actively involved in the famous writer’s work.
However, he did.
Flipping through Mark Twain’s archives one day, Bird found an unpublished story written nearly 140 years earlier by Twain.
“I have to say I got chills when I sat there in the reading room when I realized what I had found,” Bird said. “I kept it to myself.”
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Bird had been doing research in 2011 at The Mark Twain Papers, the largest collection of Twain’s letters, manuscripts and archives, in Berkley, Calif. Bird said he found a typed script made from a manuscript in Twain’s handwriting.
“Somebody, an editor probably, had written in pencil on the top ‘a burlesque fairy tale of no use,’” Bird said. “And when I started reading it, I realized that it wasn’t a burlesque fairy tale, it was an actual fairy tale.”
The story was unfinished.
Bird is a nationally known Twain scholar who wrote the book titled “Mark Twain and Mataphor” and recently finished a stint as president of the Mark Twain Circle of America.
Mark Twain is famous for his “Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” along with more than two dozen books, short stories, letters and sketches.
The Charlotte resident said he wanted to write a cookbook with a couple of colleagues based on Twain’s descriptions of food and found a document with the word “oleomargarine.”
“I almost didn’t take a look at it because I figured well, that’s not really food but I said ‘ok, what the heck,” Bird said.
The 16-page fairy tale is the story of an old widow who is dying and gives her son Johnny some flower seeds. Johnny eats the flower and discovers he can communicate with animals. The story follows the adventures of Johnny and the animals, until they find a handbill stating that Prince Oleomargarine has been captured by giants. The king is offering a reward, so Johnny and the animals set out to rescue the prince.
That’s where the story stopped, Bird said.
Thirsty to learn more about the story and any background he could find, Bird took what he knew about Twain and put the puzzle together. The notes included an interruption in the writing, the name “Susie,” which Bird recognized as one of Twain’s daughters.
Bird said Twain kept detailed notes about his children and read them bedtime stories every night. The children insisted the stories change each time.
“I realized that this was very likely an actual fairy tale bedtime story that Mark Twain told his daughters,” Bird said. “In their house, there were all these pictures and sculptures and knickknacks, and he had to make up a story every time based on what was in the room.”
Twain’s notes detailed a family trip to Paris in 1879, where his daughters asked their father to make up a story one night based on a picture of a boy in a magazine, Bird said.
“He says ‘I took this boy Johnny and ran him through many adventures,’” Bird said about Twain’s notes. “Well, Johnny was the name of the boy in the story, so I was almost quite sure that what I had found was an actual bedtime story fairy tale that he had told his daughters in 1879.”
Bird showed the story to another Twain scholar.
“He said ‘you’re right, that’s exactly what it is,’” Bird said. “He was astonished. He said nobody has recognized this to be what it is. They’ve seen it, but they didn’t know what it was.”
Bird wanted to finish the story himself.
“I sat down one day and took the notes, the part that Mark Twain had, and fleshed that out, and then thought of an ending based on what he did,” Bird said. “I just tried to imagine, based on what he had written, what might be an ending for the story.”
The director of the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Conn., took Bird’s expanded story to a publisher, he said, and an illustrator was hired. The original story was sold to Double Day Random House, which hired different wiriters. Bird’s version was never published.
Authors Erin and Philip Stead expanded the story into a 152-page book called “The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine.” The book will be released in September.
“(The writers) went in a very different direction from what I did and in a pretty different way from what Mark Twain had done,” Bird said.
Bird said he hopes one day he can have his version published and plans to hold a public reading this spring at Winthrop.
However, Bird has had an opportunity that any Twain scholar would envy. At the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Bird read his version to high school teachers in the room where Twain told his daughters bedtime stories.
“That was really exciting to tell this recreated story in the place where he told his stories, too,” Bird said.
Tracy Kimball: 803-329-4072, firstname.lastname@example.org