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Mark Twain's vendetta volume

Biographer Laura Skandera Trombley gives the author's 450-page rant against a former personal assistant the historical context and credibility that had been long missing.

March 14, 2010|By Scott Martelle
  • Mark Twain and Isabel Van Kleek Lyon.
Mark Twain and Isabel Van Kleek Lyon. (From Robert Slotta )

There are a lot of reasons why Laura Skandera Trombley spent 16 years working on a book about a woman whom generations of Mark Twain biographers dismissed as inconsequential to his life. But the biggest catalyst was the 450-page elephant in the room -- a manuscript Twain wrote in his final years savaging the reputation of his former personal assistant, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon.

That manuscript, never published but well known to Twain scholars, had little in common with "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and the other books that made Twain one of the nation's first celebrities. At its heart, Trombley believes, the manuscript was a blackmail tool, a libelous screed against Lyon, whose life Twain was fully prepared to ruin to protect family secrets and his place in American history.

Early biographers believed the manuscript's details, including Twain's charge that Lyon tried to seduce him, to be true and that Lyon's role in Twain's life was too minute to bother with. But Trombley saw the work as an elaborate lie and wondered why Twain would bother. Her speculation turned into obsession, and eventually into "Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years" (Alfred A. Knopf: 332 pp., $27.95), her third book dealing with Twain's life and legacy.

In the new book, Trombley dissects the long-dismissed relationship between Twain and Lyon, whose ambitions brought her to the upper levels of American letters before Twain cast her off, publicly vilifying her to reporters as a conniver and thief.

In the end, Trombley says, Lyon became the victim of Twain's jealous daughter, Clara, and the fears of "an old man being overwhelmed and just at that point really emotionally reacting to converging forces. And one of those was the loss of his wife."

"Nobody had ever really spent much time writing about it," says Trombley, a Twain scholar whose day job is president of Claremont's Pitzer College. "When you think about it, here's Twain in the last years of his life, 450 pages he devotes to this. Why wouldn't you make this a major big deal?"

Trombley has proved to be adept at peeling back Samuel L. Clemens' carefully constructed persona and forcing scholars to reconsider some basic assumptions, says Bruce Michelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois, and president of the Mark Twain Circle of America.

Breaking the 'boys club'

Michelson, in fact, credits Trombley and fellow Twain scholar Susan Harris of the University of Kansas for challenging the conclusions of what he described as "pretty much a boys' club." Their research has forced Twain experts to recognize that women were the "majority party" in his adult life and made up the majority of his book-reading audience in his lifetime, Michelson said. Their research showed that "scholars had to come down from the tree-house and take down the 'Men Only' sign."

Michelson says he hasn't read Trombley's new work yet but lauded her decision to take on the subject of Twain's last years, which form a "special sort of mystery and [are] a mess to deal with. . . . He was bereaved; he had lost most of his money; his health was compromised; his celebrity had slipped away from his grip and taken on a life of its own; his friends and family and opportunists were fighting over what was left of him and his legacy."

Twain's fame began with journalistic accounts of his travels, which led to the books "The Innocents Abroad" and "Roughing It." He was just building his reputation when he married Olivia Langdon in 1870 in Elmira, N.Y.

Olivia became, in many ways, the steadying rudder in his life. One of Trombley's earlier books, "Mark Twain in the Company of Women," was her first major assault on conventional beliefs about Twain, arguing convincingly that Twain's best work, including "Huckleberry Finn," came when he was living in Hartford and surrounded by women: his wife and their three daughters (a son had died at 19 months), Susy, Clara and Jean. All but Clara would die before Twain.

Trombley believes the influence of women on Twain, including his wife's introducing him to leading social issues of the day, has been wrongly dismissed by chroniclers, beginning with Twain's hand-picked biographer and first literary executor, Albert Bigelow Paine.

But Trombley thinks there's more at play behind the marginalization of Lyon than blinders on the biographers' eyes. She believes Twain and Clara exerted control over those early scholars. Why? Trombley believes it was because of Twain's outspoken positions on adultery, and his fear for his legacy and Clara's financial well-being. The points of friction in the story of Twain and Lyons mirror a Victorian drama.

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