One of Mark Twain's greatest subjects was himself, and he understood well the perils of biography and autobiography: "I never told the truth in my life that someone didn't say I was lying; I never told a lie that somebody didn't take it as a fact," he said in 1900.
Wednesday marks the 100th anniversary of Twain's death, and this year is also the 125th anniversary of the publication of his great book (and arguably the great American novel), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the 175th anniversary of the birth of Samuel Clemens, who would reinvent himself as Mark Twain. So books by and about Twain are thick on the ground, from new e-book editions of just about everything he wrote to several new looks at his life.
Two of those biographies bracket his life as a writer. Lighting Out for the Territory, by Roy Morris Jr. (author of biographies of Walt Whitman and Ambrose Bierce) is a lively narrative of how young Sam Clemens left home as a teenager and found his authorial voice and much of his subject matter in the wild West, ranging from the Nevada Territory to Hawaii, and becoming Mark Twain in the process.
In Mark Twain's Other Woman, Laura Skandera Trombley, a scholar and college president, paints Twain in the last years of his life. By then an international celebrity as well the most acclaimed of American writers, he suffered a series of terrible personal losses and came to depend upon a woman named Isabel Lyon, who was hired as a secretary to the family but became much more — even though, as Trombley points out, she has been nearly erased from the record of his life until now.
Twain spent most of his childhood in Hannibal, Mo., and later romanticized it in many books; like so many authors, he could only write about his native ground with a great deal of distance from it. But as a boy he couldn't wait to get out of the place, hightailing it when he was 17 for St. Louis, New York City and Philadelphia, where he worked as a printer. He came back in 1854 and soon undertook his brief, blissful stint as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River.
The death of his younger brother in a steamboat explosion took some of the shine off that adventure, but what really sent Clemens west was the onset of the Civil War. Opinions about slavery were painfully divided even in his own family — his older brother, Orion, was an abolitionist, but their father, John Marshall Clemens, had owned and sold slaves. Sam then cared little about politics and wished only to avoid military service.
That was not easy in Missouri, where both the Union and Confederate armies were conscripting men, sometimes forcibly. After narrowly escaping the clutches of both sides and convinced of his unsuitability for military life, in 1861 Clemens seized an opportunity to truly light out for the territories. Orion had been named secretary to the newly appointed governor of the Nevada Territory, and his brother went west with him to the territorial capital, Carson City.
There and in other boisterous mining towns, notably Virginia City, Twain became part of the nation's exuberant, entrepreneurial and often lawless push west. He dabbled in mining and real estate, but found his métier writing for the no-holds-barred newspapers of the day, where his vivid voice and penchant for elaborate hoaxes fit right in. Journalism was a blood sport, so competitive that reporters sometimes challenged each other to duels over insults in print, and big personalities sold papers. It was during this time that he adopted his nom de plume, soon to be heard around the world.
Of course, Twain wrote memorably about his Nevada adventures himself in Roughing It and other works, but Morris provides a more linear and comprehensive account. He draws on many other sources as well as Twain's versions (the author, like his creation Huck Finn, being given to the occasional "stretcher"), salted with plenty of quotes in Twain's inimitable style.
Morris follows Twain on to California, where in a mining camp he heard a friend tell the story that would become his first national sensation, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and to Hawaii. He notes Twain's encounters with writers who would influence his work, such as Artemus Ward and Bret Harte, and describes his first wildly successful speaking tour: " 'In October 1866, I broke out as a lecturer,' Twain would later say, 'and from that day to this I have always been able to gain my living without doing any work.' "
Morris' account of the young Twain contains few surprises, but Trombley's book focusing on his last decade has plenty of them. Foremost is Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, the "other woman" of the book's title. Trombley discovered references to her in the course of researching an earlier book, Mark Twain in the Company of Women, and was astonished never to have heard about her before — Twain's official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, mentioned Lyon only once in three volumes, even though he worked with her for years while writing his book.
Trombley found a treasure trove of Lyon's notebooks, diaries and letters, long neglected in the University of California, Berkeley's Twain collection, and built this fascinating book upon them. Lyon was born into a genteel family in Tarrytown, N.Y., in the Hudson River Valley, but, after her father's death when she was 19, was forced to support herself as a governess, a situation that made it difficult for her to find a husband.
At age 38, the well-educated and charming Isabel was hired by Twain's family as a secretary and assistant. Twain was then almost 67 and had recently weathered a bankruptcy and the sudden, tragic death of his favorite daughter, Susy. He quickly came to appreciate Lyon's organizational skills, not to mention her worshipful attitude toward him — her nickname for him was "the King."
In New York City, Italy and other locations (he was as restless as ever) Twain's much-beloved wife, Olivia, always arranged for Lyon to "live out" — that is, board in rooms nearby rather than live in the family's household. But after Olivia's death in 1904 Twain soon insisted that, because Lyon was so essential to his work, she must live with him, despite the proprieties of the era.
Trombley shows the extraordinary trust Twain placed in Lyon: She handled his finances and those of his daughters, served as an editor, controlled who had access to him, held his power of attorney and oversaw the design, construction and decoration of his last grand estate, Stormfield. But Lyon's diaries apparently held no smoking gun about whether she had a sexual relationship with Twain, although she certainly loved him and entertained hopes of marrying him.
Isabel is an intriguing figure, but even more gripping is Trombley's portrait of Twain as a kind of American Lear, obsessed with his legacy and beset by the troubles of his surviving daughters. Clara, who fancied herself a singer (although reviews of the concerts her father financed said otherwise), flaunted an affair with her married accompanist and spent money on a scale that shocked even the profligate Twain. Youngest daughter Jean suffered from severe epilepsy and, eventually, seizure-induced bouts of psychosis — a condition to which so much stigma was attached that Jean spent much of her adulthood institutionalized and lonely as her father basked in international acclaim.
The struggles among Clara, the biographer Paine and Lyon to influence Twain and undercut each other led to an exceedingly nasty falling out. Twain spent much of the last year of his life writing a bizarre 449-page screed called the Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript, an obsessive attack upon the woman he had been so close to. The fame and fortune Twain sought so avidly, and the family circle he so idealized, brought him to a bitter end. He might well have wished he'd never been "sivilized."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.