MORGANTON Forty years after the Watergate hearings, the Sen. Sam J. Ervin Jr. Library and Museum continues to attract visitors to this Burke County town where he grew up.
Next to the Ervin museum in the library of Western Piedmont Community College is a collection of writings of another famous Sam – Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
The Mark Twain Collection features more than 350 books, magazines, art work and memorabilia collected through five decades by Jean Conyers Ervin, sister of Senator Sam.
Jean Ervin, who died at age 97 in 2006, wrote the dissertation for her Ph.D. in speech pathology about the speeches of Mark Twain.
Twain entertained millions with his speeches made during 50 years, Jean Ervin wrote in her 1950 dissertation. That study, included in the college collection, analyzed how the humorist connected with his audiences. She studied his word choices, sentence structure, delivery, themes, punchlines, timing and his famous drawl.
Ervin never heard Twain speak. He died in 1910, when she was 1 years old, and there are no surviving recordings of his voice.
Instead, she tried to get the flavor of his speeches from hundreds of newspaper reviews of his talks, most of them written in the 1860s-1890s, as Twain toured the country.
He had a magnetic personality, colorful delivery and conversational style, her dissertation says.
Modern readers know Mark Twain for his Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn characters, but 19th century audiences loved him for what today we call monologues in his trademark white suits.
A century ago, popular writers like Twain did not earn much money from their books, said Daniel Smith, who directs the community college Learning Resources Center.
“He traveled all over the U.S. and Europe making speeches. That is really how he made his money,” Smith said.
Twain gave more than 70 speeches in the first half of 1898 in a tour of India and South Africa.
Poor investments led to bankruptcies and more time on the lecture circuit, said Smith, who also has studied Twain.
“He was born in the year of Halley’s comet and said he would die when it came back again,” Smith said. Twain was true to his word, dying April 21, 1910, the day following the comet’s return.
Jean Ervin, the youngest of 10 children, grew up in Morganton, where the N.C. School for the Deaf is located. She trained in speech therapy and earned her doctorate at the University of Missouri, a two-hour drive from Twain’s boyhood home in Hannibal.
Ervin chose Twain as her topic because of his importance in the state of Missouri and the lack of research into his speeches.
She wrote in her 1997 autobiography that she hunted down all the books by and about Twain that she could find in used-bookstores in Chicago and New York. She also studied old newspaper reviews of his speeches in the Library of Congress.
Ervin was not interested in Twain the author, rather Twain the speechmaker. Other locales, such as the University of Missouri and his adopted home of Connecticut, have more extensive Mark Twain collections that are used by scholars and researchers. The Morganton collection does not contain original letters, manuscripts or items once owned by Twain. It includes his novels, published letters, speeches, biographies, comic books, posters, photographs, drawings, including plates and figurines by Norman Rockwell.
The collection includes an autographed copy of a program from a performance by Hal Holbrook, an actor who got his start impersonating Mark Twain.
Jean Conyers Ervin made the first of her donations to the college library in 1989. Her family donated the remainder of her collection after her death in 2006.