UB Philosopher Bests 520 Entrants in International Mark Twain Writing Competition

Korsmeyer "completes" 125-year-old unpublished tale

Release Date: October 15, 2001 This content is archived.


BUFFALO, N.Y. -- They came from as near as the next block and as far away as Iran - more than 700 "Twainies" anxious for a shot at finishing a unpublished story by Mark Twain and winning the first prize of $5,000 offered by the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.

Some contestants were editors, some were 14 years old, and some were Japanese. Only one, however, achieved characters so superbly drawn as to suggest what the judges called "an understanding of human nature reminiscent of Twain" and a "fluid and insightful (conclusion) displaying some fascinating plot turns and vivid descriptions."

That contestant was Carolyn Korsmeyer, University at Buffalo professor of philosophy, who grabbed the gold ring when she beat out 520 entrants in the international category of the library's Mark Twain Writing Competition.

"I generally pursue writing on an academic level," Korsmeyer says. "Fiction writing is rather unusual and a challenge for me. I entered the competition for pure fun and then became absorbed with it."

Korsmeyer, who has focused most of her scholarly work on aesthetics and the philosophy of art, is the author of "Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy" (Cornell University Press, 1999). Her book considers the philosophical merit of the literal "taste" and investigates its objects -- food and drink -- and the activity of their consumption, as well as their representation in art and literature.

The library's competition challenged writers to come up with their own, original conclusions to the first two chapters of "A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage," an unpublished short story written by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), a story to which the library owns the rights.

The tale turns on the question of how a mysterious stranger got to the middle of a snowy field in the town of Deer Lick without making any tracks. Both Twain and Korsmeyer ended up using the same plot twist at the end -- a fall from a hot air balloon. Whether or not she was channeling ol' Crusty, Korsmeyer is thrilled with the outcome.

Twain wrote the story 125 years ago when he moved his family from Buffalo, where he worked as the co-owner and editor of The Buffalo Express, to Hartford, Conn. He sent the story to William Dean Howells, editor of The Atlantic Monthly, with the idea that several leading authors of the day would develop the plot described in his first two chapters into their own story, each of which would be published in the magazine.

For unknown reasons the plan never materialized. The library eventually acquired the rights to the story, and this year, in the spirit of Twain, asked writers to collaborate with him on the story, which remained unpublished until the submission deadline had passed.

Since then, an illustrated gift edition of "A Murder, a Mystery and a Marriage" was published by W.W. Norton and Company and is now on best seller lists. It also appeared in the July/August issue of Atlantic Monthly.

Contest entries were received from all seven continents, 43 states and every Canadian province.

"I was intrigued when I heard about it on the radio," says Korsmeyer. "I played the story for awhile, tried various plots that didn't go anywhere, including one that turned on a point of law. In the end, I came up with something more domestic and psychological."

The winners were selected by a panel of celebrity judge that included Garrison Keillor; novelist Joyce Carol Oates, a Western New York native; humorist and Twain aficionado Roy Blount, documentary filmmaker Dayton Duncan, who wrote and co-produced "Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery." Also scholars Robert Hirst of the Mark Twain Project and honorary panelist Leslie Fiedler, SUNY Distinguished Professor and Samuel Langhorne Clemens Professor of English at UB.

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