Reno, Nev. — After hearing that Mark Twain earned a dollar a word for his writing, a prankster once enclosed a dollar bill with a note to him: "Please send me a word."
Twain sent a prompt reply:
It's not commonly known, but Twain scholars say the author of such literary works as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Prince and the Pauper" revealed his wit and wisdom in more than just books and short stories.
His letters short and long, funny and serious keep showing up at auction houses and galleries across the country for a simple reason: He wrote so darn many of them.
"Anybody who wrote him tended to get a reply. He easily wrote 50,000 letters," said Robert H. Hirst, head of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California in Berkeley, home of 3,000 of the letters.
"People kept his letters and they keep showing up in attics and trunks. We still find in various places a new letter a week."
"Always do right. This will gratify some people, and astonish the rest," Twain wrote in 1901 to a church youth group in Brooklyn, N.Y.
"How often I do use three words where one would answer a thing I am always trying to guard against," he said in an 1875 letter to critic, novelist and editor William Dean Howells.
Worth thousands of dollars
Rare-book dealer Kevin MacDonnell of Austin, Tex., said Twain is the most popular American author among collectors. Demand for the letters has grown steadily over the past 30 years. Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe letters fetch higher prices, but only because there are far fewer of them, he said.
"It's all about supply and demand. There's a very large demand for Twain letters but a lot of supply," said MacDonnell, who has sold about 200 of the letters. "At any given moment, probably two dozen of his letters are on the market. They're coming on the market at a rate of two or three a month."
The letters usually sell for $1,200 to $1,500 per page through dealers and auction houses, with few letters going for more than $5,000 or $6,000, he said.
Letters featuring "superb content" or Twain's humor command higher prices, as do letters written to family, friends or notables, he said.
"There's usually a waiting buyer and they sell in a day or two after coming on the market," MacDonnell said. "At the very most, they sit for only a month or two."
Dealers say it's virtually impossible to know the record price paid for a Twain letter because most sell in private, confidential deals.
But Twain memorabilia dealer Robert Slotta of Hilliard, Ohio, said he and others have sold some letters for more than $30,000.
In 1991, a touching, nine-page letter Twain wrote to daughter Susie Clemens on Christmas Day 1875 went for $33,000 at auction, he said.
Two years ago, a two-page Twain letter to sister-in-law Susan Crane in 1904 was listed for $38,500 at an East Coast gallery. The letter, written a month after his wife's death, expressed his love for her.
"For primo stuff, $30,000 and above is expected," said Slotta, who has sold hundreds of the letters. "The most exceptional letters can easily be worth many times $30,000."
Revealing the author's life
Thousands of private collectors and institutions compete for the letters by Twain, who launched his writing career in 1862 as a newspaper reporter at the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, 20 miles southeast of Reno.
In 1997, the University of Virginia library paid $11,250 for a four-page letter Twain sent to President James Garfield in 1881 urging him to retain orator and author Frederick Douglass, a former slave, in a federal post.
In June, the Berkeley-based Mark Twain Project bought eight letters the author sent to a Viennese journalist in the 1890s. Hirst would only say the price ranged from $10,000 to $15,000. Last month, an unidentified private collector paid $1,232 at a Reno auction for a postcard Twain sent to his New York lawyer in 1900.
The letters many of them sent to people who extended him invitations reveal different facets of Twain's life.
The postcard to his lawyer, for example, concerns his criticism of the "Library of Wit and Humor" for putting his name in the book's title and running a picture of him on the back without his permission. The anthology had no Twain works.
"It is the most impudent swindle I've ever seen," Twain wrote.
The letter to Garfield illuminates the debate over whether Twain was a racist. "Huckleberry Finn" has been removed from some school libraries because of its frequent use of the word "nigger." But the letter represents "a very affirmative" step by Twain on behalf of racial equality, said Stephen Railton, an English professor at the University of Virginia.
Twain usually would write two to 10 letters a day, scholars say, but sometimes he wrote as many as three dozen a day. The vast majority were hand written by Twain, but some were written by others and signed by Twain.
Now a dying art, letter writing was the main means of communication in Twain's time.
"Take away the computer, phone and TV and what else is there to do but read and write," Slotta said. "Mark Twain is probably the most prolific writer in American history."
The interest in Twain's letters nearly a century after his death in 1910 shows the "staying power of his humor," Hirst said.
"I'm always amazed that when I give public readings, his works get a hearty laugh," he said. "He had an ability to make us laugh at ourselves."