Feb/Mar 2010

Making Our Mark

Two scholars scrutinize Twain's last years as an American icon

Gary Indiana


Laura Trombley's Mark Twain's Other Woman and Michael Shelden's Mark Twain: Man in White are remarkably absent any close study of the literary works of Mark Twain, concerned as they are with the last decade or so in the life of a writer whose important books had been written very previously. Twain's major project between 1900 and 1910 was the burnishing of his public image; as his every sneeze, utterance, and physical movement from one location to another was clocked for posterity by the world press, typically in banner headlines, the historically ill informed could easily conclude that the period under scrutiny constituted an astonishingly slow news decade.

Since the appearance of his last major work, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, in 1889, Twain, or Samuel Clemens (journalists used his nom de plume and given name interchangeably), had become a ceremonial figure in America and abroad, a quip-dispensing miracle of self-embalming, universally "beloved," often less for his writings than for his carefully stage-crafted incarnation of "Mark Twain," whose first, gaga appearance in a white suit, in 1906, minted the icon of Twain by which he is still recognized, effecting his transmutation from a person into a figure. The suit was later augmented by a white cape.

The books at hand describe, almost inadvertently, the nativity of what's come to be known as personal branding in an era when technologies of image and sound reproduction, mass dissemination of the printed word, and public relations were establishing themselves as vectors of "viral marketing" and propaganda. Celebrity was replacing fame as the cynosure of public interest; as the difference is no longer apparent to many, it seems almost cruel to insist that fame is something one acquires for doing something, whereas celebrity is randomly bestowed on people for being, recognizably by a great many other people, whatever it is they happen to be, whether they have actually done anything worthwhile or not. Twain was both a famous writer and a celebrity, if perhaps better honored for his literary corpus than for his chiseled manifestations as a showboating icon. Unfortunately, with their shared emphasis on his "final years," Trombley and Shelden unavoidably have focused on Twain the celebrity.

Trombley's book sets out to redress a purported historical injustice by extolling the saintlike devotion of Twain's callously discarded secretary, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon. In the process, Trombley reveals Twain as a paranoid, petulant, self-infatuated celebrity; she doesn't entirely obscure the weird pathology of the celebrity worshipper, but mostly depicts Lyon as a grievously wronged woman rather than the grotesque, willing victim she was. The masochistic nature of Lyon's attachment is everywhere evident in Trombley's snippets from Lyon's diaries: "I've just been cutting the King's hair. . . . He has just come down to say that I'd beaten the barber at his own trade. How much of happiness that means." "Oh Terrible—Terrible that his children cannot come under the spell of his glories, his subtleties, his Sweetnesses." One feels bad for Lyon's eventual maltreatment but exasperated by her dogged reverence for an employer whose interest in her was entirely her interest in him. Trombley somehow fails to appreciate how bizarre Lyon's incessant slobbering over "the King" was and why such excessive, smarmy devotion fairly begged for her banishment from Twain's ken.

Shelden, easily the smoother writer of the two, recounts, vividly, with Twainishly adolescent enthusiasm, the triumphal passage of the Great Man from one ribbon-cutting ceremony to another, one Bermudan sail-away to another, one drunken evening at Stormfield, Twain's Palladian monstrosity in Connecticut, to another. The object of Shelden's adoration copes, as only a loveable rogue such as Twain could, with one daughter who's epileptic, another who imagines herself capable of a stellar career as a coloratura, and the machinations of evil business manager Ralph Ashcroft and feckless adventuress Lyon.

As both books amply reveal, Twain found celebrity an inexhaustible source of giddy pleasure. Although he continued writing as laurels fell on him like pigeon droppings, aside from the essay "To the Person Sitting in Darkness" and an exemplary jeremiad against atrocities in the Congo ("King Leopold's Soliloquy"), his published work from this time would have more prudently been written for the drawer. ("The Incident in the Philippines" and "The War Prayer," powerful attacks on American imperialism, had to appear posthumously.) Much that he wrote and didn't publish, including his autobiography, all but the most besotted Twain fan might be wise to skip. Among his longest-withheld effusions is a score-settling screed denouncing the reptilian Ashcroft—to whom Twain had imprudently or drunkenly signed over power of attorney to all his finances—and Lyon, who had imprudently married Ashcroft.

According to Trombley, Lyon married for Twain's sake, to deflect rumors that she was his mistress; in Shelden's book, Lyon colluded with the perfidious Ashcroft from the get-go, aiming to thwart the executorial ambitions of Twain's biographer Albert Bigelow Paine and to wrest control of Twain's assets from his troubled, troublesome daughters. Trombley and Shelden, who've performed prodigies of parallel research, survey the same territory, though their interpretations of facts, and even the facts they interpret, are so wildly at variance that their books compromise each other's credibility. Shelden claims the Twain house in Redding, Connecticut, was originally named Innocence at Home and renamed Stormfield to make light of a burglary (and an ensuing shootout between the burglars and police aboard a train) that scared off the servants and drastically thinned out Twain's visitor list. In Trombley's account, the house was named Stormfield by Twain's daughter Clara and the burglary figures as a negligible event. No big deal, except that dates disagree and whole sequences of events run in different order from one book to the other.

In any case, the two books taken together summon a composite picture that neither intends. More or less, it's this: Twain was a man of the nineteenth century, and as the world entered the twentieth, he became ever more entrenched in superannuated proprieties and corny yet generally winning displays of "showmanship," enthralled by the self-glorification facilitated by new media while utterly failing to notice their darker possibilities for manipulation. Their ability to undo his own self-constructed legend was not, however, lost on him. Since mass publicity was new, Twain's native shrewdness enabled him to play it at least as well as the massive Telharmonium (an electronic organ whose signal was transmitted over wires) with which he entertained a bevy of swells on New Year's Eve, 1906, at his home on Fifth Avenue.

He lived in a bubble of wealth and zealously hobnobbed with the hardy pirates of the Gilded Age and the nouveau-riche society clustered around them. His anti-imperialism and compassion for the oppressed and impoverished sprang from emotionalism, sentimentality, and noblesse oblige—or, to put it more generously, from ordinary decency of feeling. Yet Twain combatively defended the laissez-faire capitalism that produced so much of the misery he decried, and easily sidelined his convictions to preserve his social eminence. He was perfectly capable of entertaining his friends and hangers-on with anti-Semitic japes and nigger jokes while striking noble poses on behalf of Jews and African-Americans; the same sort of contradiction isn't unusual among today's philanthropists and moneyed liberal chatterboxes.

Like many privileged and well-protected public icons, Twain took avid interest in the most restive elements of society without committing himself to any disruptive cause; he feared scandal like smallpox, wrapping his public self in the moral aporias of the Four Hundred. Even as writers like Edith Wharton revealed how vulpine and punitive America's upper-crust codes of decorum were, Twain inflexibly obeyed them, playing the eternally boyish Great Man at banquets and jubilees, an ossified court jester to a social order that would vanish after 1914. Trombley reports that Twain eagerly met with anarchists and radicals of every stripe yet "withdrew his support for Maxim Gorky . . . because Gorky was rumored to be staying in a hotel with his mistress."

Twain recognized that an elaborately contrived public image—in his case, one of harmless nonconformity, sometimes asinine self-display, and folksy acerbity—could turn to shit on a dime with the wrong kind of publicity. When such publicity loomed in the form of little innuendos and inferences that might be drawn from seemingly innocuous newspaper stories—concerning, for example, an adulterous affair between the stage-struck Clara and her accompanist—Twain deployed his formidable skills at damage control.

Trombley's and Shelden's efforts are products of the culture industry in its parasitic, academic endgame, sifting residua of Proper Names That Endured for nuggets of ostensible fact that support an inflation or deflation of Reputation: in Shelden's case the inflation of American literature's most mummified hot-air balloon, in Trombley's the deflation of the same mummy into a nasty poseur and malevolent wreckage of someone who, quite coincidentally, wrote many books that defined an era and shaped the sensibilities of millions of schoolchildren. The subject could just as easily be Paris Hilton or any other celebrity dirigible du jour or de trop. Ms. Trombley is the president of Pitzer College in Claremont, California; Mr. Shelden is a professor of English at Indiana State University.

Gary Indiana's most recent books are Utopia's Debris (Basic Books, 2008), a collection of essays, and The Shanghai Gesture (Two Dollar Radio, 2009), a novel.

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