Is “fool” or “numskull” the best way to describe a poor card player? After learning a lesson, he never “tasted a drop” or “drank a drop”?
Anyone who has tried to write accurately and thoughtfully understands the painstaking search for just the right words. It was this way with Mark Twain, too, and anybody can see it by examining page 27 of his handwritten essay for an 1870 issue of The Galaxy magazine.
A new museum in Rock Island, Ill., opens this month with the words and art (as in sketch of Otto Bismarck during the Franco-Prussian War) of Samuel Clemens, better known by his Mark Twain pen name.
How did he describe the difference between Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer? The boys’ sharp differences are a matter of “unconscious depth and long-headedness and sobriety, as contrasted with Tom’s rattle-brained vivacities.”
I suppose that’s one way to put it. The author shares the opinion in a 1902 letter about an ensuing theatrical interpretation of his best-known book characters.
The newest Karpeles Manuscript Library Museum is less than one mile from the Mississippi River, from which Clemens gained much of his inspiration as a writer. Rock Island is the 12th Karpeles museum location, and all are devoted to the written word.
That’s “written” as in handwriting to clay tablets, but not keystrokes. What is on display in two dozen glass cubes represents a miniscule part of the Karpeles collection. At least one million items are a part of this, the world’s largest private collection of original and important manuscripts, covering arts to science.
Holdings include an original draft of the Bill of Rights, as it began with 20 amendments, and the first printing of the Ten Commandments, from a Gutenberg Bible.
The Karpeles also owns a copy of Handel’s “Messiah,” as written out by Beethoven to better understand it, and Einstein’s 1929 “Theory of Relativity,” as the scientist explained it to average people.
More recent purchases include the rough draft of a “Harry Potter” book by J.K. Rowling. In Rock Island, besides Clemens artifacts, is part of the operatic score from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.”
The only non-manuscript artifacts here are models of the ships U.S.S. Constitution and H.M.S. Victory, to provide a respite when eyes tire of reading.
The first Karpeles museum opened in 1983, when David and Marsha Karpeles of California decided to share their collection with the public. The Rock Island museum is the third to open in a former First Church of Christ, Scientist, but that is not an indication of the benefactors’ religious beliefs.
“He enjoys the architecture of these buildings – the stone pillars, the domed ceiling,” says John Snow, museum director, of David Karpeles, who has degrees in biblical history, mathematics and engineering.
The grand Rock Island church was closed, dormant and neglected about 20 years. Plaster has fallen on of walls, the roof leaked and other damage was the result of vandals and wildlife.
Still under repair is the upstairs sanctuary, which will turn into a lecture and recital hall by late 2013. “It was regal in its time,” John says, of the 1914 structure, whose 12-foot-tall, stained-glass dome was found 90 percent intact. From floor to dome base is an additional 40 feet of height.
Karpeles’ goal is to restore in children a sense of purpose, pride and hope.
“I believe that we learned those feelings by our exposure to the accomplishments of our predecessors,” he writes. “We studied history; we studied literature; we studied government, science, philosophy, art and music. Our children have not.
“It is to cure this lack and thereby fulfill my own desire to renew the sense of purpose for our children and ourselves that the Karpeles Manuscript Library has been created.”
For more: karpeles.org, 309-788-0806. Admission is free. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday.
Other Midwest cities with Karpeles museums are in Duluth, Minn., and Fort Wayne, Ind. In January 2013, a detective fiction exhibit replaces the Mark Twain works in Rock Island. The detective show, now in Charleston, S.C., includes Sherlock Holmes and James Bond works and notations by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming, respectively.
Karpeles exhibits change quarterly and move from one museum to another.
Why open a rare manuscript museum in a city of 39,700 that is best known for its weapons production and collections? Rock Island Arsenal, a National Historic Landmark since 1989, is the nation’s largest government-operated manufacturer of munitions. The 946-acre U.S. Army facility also is home to a museum and other historical sites that are open to the public.
But this part of the Midwest also shows strong support for the written word. Within the Quad Cities of Rock Island and Moline/East Moline, Ill., and Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, is a population of 400,000 that still supports three daily and one biweekly alternative newspaper.
“The community rallied to ask Books-A-Million and Book World to take over the empty stores left by Borders and Waldenbooks – and they did,” adds Joe Taylor, Quad Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau president.
For three decades, the Midwest Writing Center in downtown Davenport has organized writing retreats, workshops, book signings, writing contests and other events that support established and emerging authors. Poetry jams and open mic nights for reading new and original works are frequent. For more: midwestwritingcenter.org, 563-324-1410.
Head 15 miles northeast of Rock Island to LeClaire, Iowa, for vastly different collections. The tidy town is home to Antique Archaeology, home base for the popular “American Pickers” TV show, but the revamped fabrication shop seems more about gawking than shopping.
Inventory at the small, indoor flea market includes items featured on the History Channel show, which fans treat with museum-like reverence. Some items are only for display. Most likely to be sold are T-shirts, license plates, coffee mugs and other souvenirs with the shop logo.
A store clerk verifies that Danielle Colby-Cushman, a burlesque dancer and co-star of the TV show, still comes to work. “But usually when we’re closed,” she explains. “Otherwise she wouldn’t get anything done” because of chatter and photos with fans.
For more: antiquearchaeology.com, 563-265-3939. Buffalo Bill was born in LeClaire, population 3,800. The town also is known for its array of shopping, especially antiques.
For more about Quad Cities tourism: visitquadcities.com, 800-747-7800.