If ever a treasure could be described as long-lost, the 665 pages of handwritten papers that Barbara Testa discovered inside a trunk in the attic of her California home in 1990 was one. “The minute I found it,” the Los Angeles Times quoted her as saying. “I just had a feeling.”
She had stumbled upon the first half of the manuscript of Mark Twain’s 1884 novel “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” the story of a runaway boy, Huck, and a runaway slave, Jim, whose trip together down the Mississippi River became one of the most enduring narratives in American literature.
The manuscript’s journey to Testa’s attic — and its ultimate deposit in a New York library where, to the relief and thrill of Twain scholars and aficionados, it was reunited with its other half — made her a protagonist in a modern-day literary drama.
Testa died Dec. 16 at her home in Boulder Creek, California. She was 91 and had congestive heart failure, said her daughter Laura Testa-Reyes.
A librarian whose father had been a mystery writer, Testa spent her life ensconced in books. Her family’s literary inclinations could be traced at least to her paternal grandfather, James Fraser Gluck, a lawyer who in the latter 1800s began soliciting original manuscripts from authors of the era to build the collections of the institution that today is the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
In the course of that work, Gluck entered into correspondence with Twain — the pen name of Samuel Clemens — who agreed to donate the manuscript of “Huck Finn,” or at least what he then believed remained of it, to the library. In 1885, he sent the second half of the manuscript, comprising 695 pages, explaining that the first half had been lost.
Seventeen months later, according to extant correspondence, Twain found and sent the other half of the manuscript to the library. But for reasons that remain unknown, that portion — the opening half of the novel — was never entered into the collection. Gluck died in 1897, and the manuscript’s whereabouts remained unknown until Testa began rifling through her attic a century later.
The unearthing of the “Huck Finn” manuscript was “the most exciting discovery of Mark Twain material in my entire career — and probably in several careers if I had them,” Robert Hirst, head of the Mark Twain Papers archive at the University of California at Berkeley, said in an interview.
“It is something that scholars didn’t expect to happen,” he said. “We’re talking about Mark Twain’s masterpiece, his absolute best work, far and away above anything else that he wrote.”
In the famous final lines of the novel, Huck declares that “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory,” lest his Aunt Sally try to “sivilize” him. When news of the discovered manuscript became public, William Loos, curator of the rare-book room at the Buffalo library, remarked to The New York Times on the irony of the manuscript’s arrival in California.
“Huck went to Hollywood,” he said. “It’s bizarre, but Huck’s wish . . . to ‘light out for the Territory,’ to go West, came true.”
The manuscript continued on its journey — transported by armored car and jet — to the Sotheby’s auction house in New York, where its authenticity was confirmed. At the time, its estimated value was $1.5 million.
A legal dispute ensued, pitting Testa and her sister against the Buffalo library. USA Today described the battle as “the biggest tug of war over a document’s ownership since Richard Nixon claimed presidential papers as his personal property.”
Through a private sale of the manuscripts, the sisters could have sold single pages to individual collectors, a course that would have maximized their profits, according to experts.
But the sisters said in a statement at the time that they were “sympathetic to the possibility of reuniting the manuscript” and ultimately reached an undisclosed settlement in which, in 1992, their half of the manuscript was given to the library.