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Her New Take on Twain

Pitzer College chief Laura Skandera Trombley argues that the women in the author's life had a deep impact on his writing.

November 17, 2005|Rebecca Trounson | Times Staff Writer

The possibility at first seemed far-fetched: A Los Angeles collector, who had paid a dollar apiece for the stamps on 100 old envelopes in a downtown hobby shop, wondered if the letters inside might have been written by Mark Twain.

The man approached USC English professor Jay Martin, who in turn asked a graduate student, Laura Skandera, to look into it. Sure, she replied, but the letters were probably phony.

They weren't.

Written mainly to Twain's three daughters around the turn of the 20th century, the letters were funny, sharply observant and occasionally cantankerous, like the author himself. And for a young scholar who then knew little of Twain, they were irresistible.

The serendipitous role Skandera played in investigating and identifying one of the largest caches of Twain correspondence ever found would have a dramatic effect on the young woman and on the study of a towering literary figure.

It launched Skandera, then 26, on a scholarly journey far different from the one she had envisioned. She switched her focus from Wordsworth and other English Romantic poets to Twain, a writer whose style and subjects were profoundly American. Nearly two decades later, Laura Skandera Trombley, as she is known these days, is a noted Twain scholar and the president of Pitzer College in Claremont.

Feminist, provocative and often controversial, her scholarship has challenged established views of Twain as a strong, almost iconic male archetype of American literature -- the adventurous riverboat pilot who became the nation's irascible sage.

She argues that the author actually was deeply influenced by the women in his life and was largely dependent on their ideas and support to produce his best work.

The author of such tales of independent boyhood -- and manhood -- as the "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and "Roughing It", Trombley asserts, was less than independent himself.

Much of her early research and writing centered on the roles of Twain's wife, Olivia, and other family members. More recently, Trombley has looked primarily at the influence of his longtime secretary, Isabel Lyon.

Many in the field consider the work groundbreaking.

"Her research has been absolutely enlightening," said Ann Ryan, associate professor of English at New York's Le Moyne College and president of the Mark Twain Circle of America, a national organization of academics specializing in the author. "She invites this larger rethinking of Twain that shifts it from the conventional reading ... to a much more complicated, more nuanced view.

"She's one of the most important scholars on Twain in recent years."

But Trombley's work, especially her first book, "Mark Twain in the Company of Women," also raised hackles in Twain circles. "Feminist fantasy," one reviewer wrote of the 1994 volume.

In a recent interview, Trombley shrugged off the criticism. "You're dealing with Twain," she said simply. "People tend to be pretty invested in their views of him."

Now 45, she juggles leadership of the small liberal arts college with forays to Twain forums and research centers, and hours devoted to finishing up her third book on Twain.

Trombley also was among a handful of academics to serve as advisors and on-camera experts for Ken Burns' 2002 PBS documentary on the writer, who died in 1910.

"Her book was particularly interesting to us, showing that this guy we tend to think of as a rapscallion was really influenced by the women in his life," said Dayton Duncan, who co-wrote the film and collaborated with Burns in producing it. "Once his wife was dead, it really signaled an end to his major work."

In addition, Duncan said, Trombley, an engaging storyteller herself, was "just a lot of fun to work with."

Trombley says she is still fascinated and amused by Twain, a man so gifted at marketing himself that nearly a century after his death, his name still evokes his white-haired likeness.

"That's the image we have of him because that's the image he wanted people to have," she said, chuckling, during an interview in her Pitzer office. "And it's been so co-opted, it sells everything from pizza to banks to luggage. You know, Twain and Elvis, two symbols of American cultural life that are just indelible."

Her latest paper, on Twain's youngest daughter, Jean, and the effects of Jean's health problems on the author and his household, was presented in August to a gathering of Twain experts at Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y., a town where Twain spent his summers, did much of his writing and is buried.

Every four years, the college's Center for Mark Twain Studies plays host to an international conference that draws academics, memorabilia dealers and even impersonators.

Trombley's paper looked at Jean's worsening form of epilepsy, including two episodes of violent, apparently psychotic behavior.

Trombley argued that Jean's illness and death at 29, following the deaths of Twain's wife and oldest daughter Susy, deepened his bitter state of mind in his final years.

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