Mark Twain
Mark Twain; drawing by David Levine


“My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine. Everybody drinks water,” Mark Twain observed, in a note. Was he bragging or complaining? Did he realize that two of his books, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Life on the Mississippi, were among the richest word-wines ever vinted in America? Long before the nineteenth century ended Mark Twain was a world figure—in the field of letters our only world figure. His white suit and white hair were recognized everywhere. He traveled widely and even had an honorary degree from Oxford, not to mention Yale and the University of Missouri. His cranky, abstemious admirer George Bernard Shaw went so far as to say that it was Mark Twain who taught him that “telling the truth was the funniest joke in the world.” But did Twain’s enormous success have much to do with truth-telling, or did he, like Shaw, treat truth like a bicycle that could be abruptly kicked aside when the author couldn’t make it go as fast or far as he wanted it to go?

A huge herd of scholars, critics, and biographers have long been attempting to answer these and all other questions pertaining to Samuel Clemens/ Mark Twain. A walk past the Twain shelves in my bookshop or virtually any large bookshop is an experience likely to give even stout readers a sudden case of the languors: here’s W.D. Howells, Albert Bigelow Paine, Van Wyck Brooks, Bernard DeVoto, Dixon Wecter, Henry Nash Smith, Maxwell Geismar—all these from the rapidly dimming past—plus a new wave cresting, I guess, with Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1968, Pulitzer) and surging on through many short studies, the Clemens family memoirs, Twain’s Letters (at last), monographs and critiques galore; and now the present bounty, which, besides Fred Kaplan’s big biography and Karen Lystra’s look at Twain’s last years, include a very welcome reprint of Twain’s Letters from the Earth,* an assemblage of diverse and sharply satirical odds and ends put together by Bernard DeVoto in the Thirties but withheld because of the objections of Clemens’s surviving daughter, Clara. It finally saw light in the Sixties. Miscellaneous gleanings from the great archive at Berkeley will no doubt still be appearing decades hence.

There is much of value, both in critical insight and biographical discovery, in these many books, but they raise in the mind of at least this reader an awkward conviction, which is that Mark Twain is one of those authors who is, invariably, more interesting to read than to read about, which is far from being the case with every writer.

Frankly, it’s day-to-day and touch-and-go whether I’d rather read Henry James or read about him. Ditto Joseph Conrad and, I fear, many other important writers—the drear fact is that many writers’ lives are more interesting than their work, but this is not the case with Mark Twain, whose most casual journalism remains somehow crackly fresh. Others whose journalism has that imperishable, impeccably flippant quality would include Shaw, Stendhal, Vidal, and Waugh.

Since Fred Kaplan—author of biographies of Henry James, Charles Dickens, Gore Vidal, and Thomas Carlyle—has favored us with 726 pages about Mark Twain I wish he could some-how have persuaded Doubleday to splurge and allow him maybe ten more for a decent bibliography—and I would make the same complaint about Karen Lystra’s much shorter book. Mark Twain has provoked a vast secondary literature: What’s wrong with a comprehensive, straightforward bibliography? It is just possible to discover in Karen Lystra’s sources that Kate Leary, the Clemenses’ well-spoken, sen- sible housekeeper, collaborated with Mary Lawton on a memoir called A Lifetime with Mark Twain, which Harcourt Brace published in 1925. My review copy of Lystra’s book being unindexed, it took a lot of flipping through to discover Kate’s occasional snatches of commentary, which are always livelier than anyone else’s, except for the Boss’s himself. Here, for example, is Kate on the “country,” to which the Clemens family often repaired in the usually disappointed hope of peace and quiet:

The country was pretty enough, but you can’t live on country!… If there’d only been a dance hall or something lively like that—or maybe a little bit of moonshine to stir them up…but, oh!… It was dull, I tell you, dull!

Fred Kaplan’s weighty book is not dull—it moves us at a fair pace through Twain’s checkered life, but when he’s writing about experiences that Twain has also written about, such as his days in the western mining camps (Roughing It) or his apprenticeship as a riverboat pilot (Life on the Mississippi), it’s tempting to shift from Kaplan back to Twain.


Fortunately for the biographer there are plenty of parts of his life that Twain didn’t write about: his almost suicidally inept business ventures, for example. Here the biographer can shine without the shadow of the author falling over him.

The most famous of these debacles was his disastrous investment in the infamous Paige typesetter, an invention as complicated as any envisioned by Rube Goldberg. It never worked and was soon outdistanced in the marketplace by Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine. As James Paige, the inventor, fiddled and diddled, Twain’s feeling for the man suffered a sharp deterioration:

Paige and I always met on elusively affectionate terms, & yet he knows perfectly well that if I had him in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor & watch that trap until he died…

Kaplan follows Twain or Twain and family through their frequent and ambitious travels: when traveling with his family Twain had a kind of instinct for choosing the least comfortable housing, or countries such as India where the cuisine could be counted on to produce the most devastating eruptions or distempers.

Twain and race is a slippery subject. When the Irish reformer Roger Casement and others succeeded in bringing to light the atrocities that were occurring daily on King Leopold’s (of the Belgians) rubber plantations in the Congo, Twain responded with a blistering satire called King Leopold’s Soliloquy, in which the King of the Belgians is made to say things of this sort:

(Contemplating, with an unfriendly eye, a stately pile of pamphlets) Blister the meddlesome missionaries! They write tons of these things. They seem to be always around, always spying, always eye-witnessing the happenings; and everything they see they commit to paper. They are always prowling from place to place; the natives consider them their only friends; they go to them with their sorrows; they show them their scars and their wounds, inflicted by my soldier police; they hold up the stumps of their arms and lament because their hands have been chopped off, as punishment for not bringing in enough rubber, as a proof to be laid before my officers that the required punishment was well and truly carried out. One of these missionaries saw eighty-one of these hands drying over a fire for transmission to my officials—and of course they must go and set it down and print it… nothing is too trivial for them to print….

On the other hand he was persuaded to withhold an equally blistering anti-lynching polemic because it would have such a bad effect on his sales in the South. Kaplan defends him vigorously, arguing that he was progressive, even radical, when it comes to race. What seems clear is that Twain never lost sight of the huge tragedy of slavery, nor did he ever discount the trauma it impressed on the nation’s conscience. Not for nothing did William Dean Howells call him “the Lincoln of our literature.”


In the great mass of the Twain Papers in the Bancroft Library there is an unpublished 429-page autobiographical manuscript known to scholars as the Ashcroft-Lyon document. Twain wrote it in fits and starts near the end of his life; it has been available to researchers since the early 1970s. The Ashcroft-Lyon document, plus a memoir by Clara Clemens (Twain’s middle daughter, and the only one of his four children to survive him), plus Kate Leary’s account of her years in the Clemens household, are the principal sources that Karen Lystra has mined for Dangerous Intimacy, a study of Twain’s later years, with particular emphasis on his relations with his secretary, Isabel Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft.

Death, the pale rider, was also very much a presence amid this gifted, volatile company. Twain’s oldest daughter, Susy, died of spinal meningitis in 1896. Twain’s beloved—deeply beloved—wife Livy died in 1904. Livy Clemens, though she had gone on to bear three daughters and, with tact, humor, and practicality, hold the Clemens household together through many difficult times, probably never really got over the death of her first-born, Langdon Clemens, who died in 1872 at the age of two. Mark Twain himself lived until 1910 but it seems doubtful to me that he ever got over the loss of his wife. These deaths, and the grief that followed them, seem to be a necessary context for the messy but in no way surprising family melodrama that played out among Isabel Lyon, Ralph Ashcroft, Jean and Clara Clemens, and their father Mark Twain.

The mess was not Twain material, but either Henry James or Theodore Dreiser could have made hay with it—each in his own way. Isabel Lyon, the attractive and ambitious secretary, set her cap for Mark Twain. Was she the first secretary to attempt to marry a widowed boss? No. Were the Twain daughters, Jean (who was epileptic) and Clara, the first daughters to violently resent the hussy who was attempting to assume their mother’s place? No. Did Isabel Lyon make her availability clear to her boss? Yes. Was Twain aware that she was determined to marry him? Let him speak for himself:


Was I unaware before the mid-dle of 1906 that she had made up her mind to marry me? No—I was aware of it. I am uncommonly lacking in insight, uncommonly unobservant, but I was able to see that…. But I didn’t bite….

Did Twain enjoy Isabel’s flirting, her obvious eagerness to seduce him? Probably he did, up to a point, but not, in my opinion, to a very advanced point. One reason for his disinterest was that he was still mourning Livy:

In all my (nearly) seventy-four years I have seen only one person whom I would marry, & I have lost her.

Isabel Lyon was an attractive woman; she thought she could make Twain forget Livy—that was one error. And she probably thought that she would have a clearer shot if she could get rid of the pesky daughters. Clara Clemens was out and about anyway. But for Jean, the epileptic, this meant being shipped off to a sanitarium in Katonah, New York, and being kept there much longer than was necessary. Did Isabel scheme to keep Jean hospitalized longer than she needed to be? Sure. Jean was an epileptic; she would never be free of seizures and would in fact drown in her bath while in the grip of a grand mal seizure. But it didn’t mean that she couldn’t have enjoyed many happy times with her father had she been allowed to come home.

That Twain loved Jean and that her eventual return home greatly cheered him is certainly true; and once he decided that Isabel Lyon had been chiefly responsible for denying him Jean’s company, he turned sharply against Isabel, and against his business manager Ralph Ashcroft as well.

Twain’s fecklessness with finances was next to unbelievable. I doubt that he was ever much deceived about his secretary’s intentions, but, nonetheless, he gave Isabel Lyon and Ralph Ashcroft his power of attorney, and, for Isabel, threw in a nice cottage from which his daughters, with difficulty, eventually managed to evict her.

In the midst of all this plotting and flirting Isabel Lyon married Ralph Ashcroft, a union that at first blush produced no blush at all. Twain, observing them in the early days of their marriage, remarked that they were as cool as if they had been sitting on blocks of ice. When informed by Ashcroft that nothing “animal” was in the offing between himself and his bride, Twain was flabbergasted, concluding that, though they may or may not have been crooks, they were obviously fools.

Eventually Twain moved against the couple, recovered his power of attorney, and then the cottage, but combat continued for the few years Twain had left. Twain refused to fight them in the press, but Ashcroft used it skillfully, particularly The New York Times. In private Twain said worse and worse things about the couple, seconded by his angry daughters. As late as 1968, when Justin Kaplan suggested, in Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, that Twain might have been swindled, Ashcroft’s Canadian relatives responded with a legal threat.

It is only fair to mention, as Karen Lystra does, that another scholar, Hamlin Hill, working with the Ashcroft- Lyon document, drew conclusions from it that are opposite to her own. In God’s Fool (1973) he argues that Twain was a tyrant and Ashcroft and Lyon innocent victims. Karen Lystra’s indictment of the secretary and the business manager involves rather complex accounting irregularities, false promissory notes, and the evidence that Hamlin Hill, by Lystra’s report, interprets differently.

I doubt that the two were complete innocents, but it is still possible to feel some sympathy for Isabel Lyon. In moments when his anger was in remission even Twain felt a rueful sympathy for her. She got a little money but she lost both the confidence and the company of the man she really loved. She also lost the society that Twain’s celebrity ensured. Her marriage ended and Mark Twain, the man she really wanted, would have nothing to do with her.

As I’ve suggested earlier, this is a commonplace story—the only singular element in it is that it involved a world-famous writer. Karen Lystra’s book is fascinating but I cannot shake off a certain nervousness about her title, which seems to me too Gothic. Dangerous Intimacy? The person in the most danger was Jean Clemens, who was sent from home and kept from home. This of course was as much Twain’s fault as Isabel’s. He could have investigated more thoroughly, and he didn’t, though he was the parent in charge.

And intimacy? Shouldn’t it be reciprocal? Twain was a man still numbed by the death of Livy, his life’s companion. Probably Twain enjoyed mildly risqué banter with Isabel—he probably wouldn’t have risked that kind of talk with the redoubtable Kate Leary, with whom, by her account, he had many “tough fights.”

What’s lacking from the many quotes Karen Lystra provides is the feel of intimacy. Twain once referred to Isabel as “an old virgin, no juice… not the way I like them.” This, of course, was later, when he had turned against her—but there’s just not much evidence that Isabel got close enough to Mark Twain, emotionally or physically, to be credited with dangerous intimacy. Throughout his life financial folly, not sexual folly, imperiled Mark Twain. Emotionally, he mostly rested content with his Livy, and was wise to do so. What happened after her death was one of those messes that Dorothy Parker once said were worse than tragedies (though she might not have stood by that remark on the day her husband died).

Mark Twain undoubtedly disliked the mess his own parental inatten-tion got him in, but he wouldn’t have considered it worse than the deaths of Langdon, Susy, Livy, and, finally, Jean. On the day that he was informed that his daughter Jean was dead—Christmas Eve morning, 1909—he told a sympathizer that now he knew what a soldier felt when he received a bullet in the heart. But the heart-shot soldier presumably didn’t have to get up and go on living the next day, and Mark Twain did.

This Issue

April 8, 2004