Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles

Karen Lystra, Dangerous Intimacy : The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004, $27.50, xxi+342 pages, ISBN 0-520-23323-9)—Aristie Trendel, Université Marc Bloch, Strasbourg 2

 

Karen Lystras Dangerous Intimacy : The Untold Story of Mark Twains Final Years revisits and revises the American authors life from 1885, the pinnacle of his career, to 1910, the year of his death. As the title promises, Lystrass biographical study is a novel account of Sam Clemenss final years. The material she draws from is hardly new, but her reading differs sharply from her predecessors, namely Hamlin Hills. The American professor presents herself as a detective attempting to disentangle the knot of Clemenss relationships and throwing light upon the "dangerous intimacy" woven around the famous writer by his secretary, Isabelle Lyon.

Lystra embarks on an in-depth inquiry about the identity of the man who let himself be lulled into comfort by a doting, scheming secretary and thus failed his fatherly duty towards his epileptic daughter, Jean Clemens. Jeans diaries, at the Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino, California, provided Lystra with the incentive to start the research and the first source material for "a dramatic, non fiction story" [xiv] whose main characters are daughter and father and the intruding Isabelle Lyon. Twains youngest daughter was both victimised by her disease and Isabelle. Epilepsy, quite misunderstood and greatly feared in the nineteenth century, rendered Jean Clemens and her family miserable. After her mothers death, Jean is left at the mercy of the secretary who sends and keeps the young woman to a sanatorium for three years, and controls her communication with her father as well as her scant allowance. Emotionally and materially deprived, Jean leads a hard life. Lystra accuses Isabelle Lyon of promoting "a dangerous person" image of the young woman, of engineering Jeans exile and of censoring her correspondence with her father, and capitalises on the pathos that surrounds the ostracised daughters condition. Moreover, Jean is cast as an angel, a woman full of qualities, a generous-hearted Cordelia who readily forgives her fathers neglect although she "recognised that her family—Clara and her father—were glad to have her out of the way & therefore relieved of the presence of an ill person’" [95]. Her accidental death on Christmas eve in 1909 is the last straw for an aged and guilt-plagued Mark Twain. It is recounted in his valedictory text, "Closing Words of my Autobiography," reprinted for the first time in its original form in Lystras book. The American scholar also capitalises on the pathos of Sam Clemenss failings and gives full credit to his unpublished autobiography, the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript which was dismissed as paranoiac by Hill in his 1973 study Gods Fool. Lystra is categorical about Twains testimony, "But Mark Twain did tell the black hearts-truth in the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript, and scarcely anyone has acknowledged it." [220] This 429-page piece of work, written in 1909 and brought to the public eye fifty years after the writers death, is a raw confession of parental guilt-cum-diatribe against his secretary and her husband Ralph Ashcroft, the authors financial manager. The couple was ousted from the Clemenss household in 1909, when Twains trust in them was shaken and considered himself cheated by his employees. Lystras argument is based on the assumption that when a man of Clemenss conceit submits himself to such a humiliating disclosure, he can only tell the truth.

In the books opening chapter Sam Clemens is a fulfilled writer and man, the "Youth" as his wife tenderly calls him, basking in the attention of his three daughters and his beloved Olivia. Yet what follows is a Strindberg-like drama starring first his wifes and then his favourite daughters death. With Livy and Susy gone and left with Jean who is sick and Clara who is independent-minded and aspires to a singing career, Sam Clemens, a dangling man, hands over the management of his life to Isabelle and though eternally faithful to Livy, lets her play the role of a surrogate wife. Lystra draws up, then, the portrait of "a self-indulgent and fun-loving man" [63], and investigates into the authors abdication of his life offering a good number of explanations based on gender, Sam Clemenss make-up and finally psychology. Clemenss conventional view of sexual roles and his strong sense of determinism encouraged his inertia; his vulnerability to a condition known as "the learned helplessness syndrome" made him totally dependent on his secretary and later on her husband, too. Thus Isabelle found fertile ground to cultivate her adoration of "the King" until her marriage that shattered the balance in the authors household. Lystra refers to Clemenss "jealous reaction to her engagement" [166] and acknowledges that "his denial of sexual feelings for his former secretary is a sham" [227]. Reading her account that gives access to Clemenss own discourse and thus his fury and frustration at Isabelles infidelity, the reader cannot help feeling that had Isabelle Lyon remained single, Sam Clemenss volte-face might never have occurred. His bitter awakening was triggered by his secretarys reckless marriage to a man she did not love, but wanted as an assistant in her management of Twains affairs and as a protector in the coming storm caused by Claras investigating zeal. Sam Clemenss daughter, annoyed by the restrictions in her allowance, pressed her father for an audit into the Ashcrofts management of the familys fortune.

Lystras final assessment of the manuscript is overall positive. Although she admits that it is "no great art," she finds "something grand about it," as it traces "Twains journey toward wisdom" [232] and self-identity. Her study attains a moment of supreme critical insight, when she discusses the manuscripts ending dubbed by Hill as irrelevant and irrational. In Mark Twains memorandum on the controversy over who discovered the North Pole, Lystra reads a parable where the author makes his point by "slyly" [234] drawing parallels to his own situation with Isabelle and Ralph Ashcroft. As Mark Twain was in no position to know the outcome of the Cook-Peary controversy, he compared himself to Cook by not pressing his claims against the Ashcrofts publicly in print.

It is highly ironic that Isabelle Lyons papers and diaries are housed in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley, as part of Mark Twains papers. Thus she is finally united to the man she chose to live for and vainly aspired to lead to the altar. Lystra claims that Lyon had the intention of copying her diaries in order to create a new version of her life with Twain to bequeath to history. Evidence of her purpose is provided by the Austin diary, a longhand copy that spans a six-month period from January 3 to June 22, 1906. This diary was not available to Hamlin Hill, when he readily accepted Isabelles version of a homicidal Jean attempting to kill their housekeeper, Kate Leary; Lystra maintains that Isabelle revised the diary after the incident. There is also the typescript version of the original diaries with revisions given to Samuel and Doris Webster who interviewed Isabelle Lyon and found her charming and intelligent.

If Sam Clemens is the flawed god, Jean the angel, Isabelle is certainly the devil in "the untold story of Mark Twains final years." Her psychological and moral profile is unrelieved by any sympathy. She is a hysteric, a depressive, a monomaniac, an accomplished manipulator, a liar and a thief. The reader is a bit perplexed by Karen Lystras emotional involvement in "the hidden story" [x] she uncovers. There are instances in the book where her critical distance seems jeopardised by her eagerness to vilify the secretary. To back up her point of Isabelle Lyons flattery of the author she cites the secretarys diary [52] inaccessible to Sam Clemens. Isabelle Lyon is the roundest character in Lystras story. Sam Clemenss secretary harboured a life-long passion for the famous writer that was a sort of tribute to his genius, "I miss the King so terribly, terribly, she wrote on a card that was wedged into one of her diaries. For there is no one in all my world now who can love a wonderful bit of English as he could, whose eyes grow shining over a phrase of Lafcadio Hearn or Kipling, as he did [...] There is no one to teach me  those beauties; no one with the leisure or the wit to think literature.’" [240] The American scholar has thoroughly investigated the destructive side of Isabelle Lyons passion for Mark Twain but refused to acknowledge that that was "something grand" in it. Her monolithic description of Isabelle Lyon somewhat simplifies the complexity of the story her biographical flair has dug up.

After the entanglement of emotions Karen Lystra presents the imbroglio of finance. She chronicles the long dispute between Mark Twain and his former employees over legal documents and questionable funds. Although Lystra has no doubt that the couple was a pair of "sharpers" who attempted to keep away the authors daughters and friends, in particular his biographer Bigelow Paine, in order to wield full power over Twain, she does make a distinction between Isabelle Lyons misdemeanour and her husbands. Being in charge of Twains cheque book, Isabelle led a comfortable life on her bosss money. Her worship of the great man and her role as a surrogate wife blinded her to the fact that his money did not belong to her. Likewise, she might have been persuaded by her husband to encompass a fraudulent document, the general power of attorney possessed by the Ashcrofts, in order to protect her employers property. This powerful document, which gave the couple the freedom to "do as they pleased" [187] with Twains fortune, is in the centre of the dispute. Lystra gives full credit to the authors denial of having signed it and leaves no room for an oversight. But Sam Clemens had already delegated the whole management of his affairs-cum-his life to the Ashcrofts, so signing such a document and then forgetting about it seems quite plausible. Moreover, such a denial might not have been unrelated to his furious response to his secretarys marriage.

Lystra also relates Ralph Ashcrofts manipulation of the New York Times in the aftermath of the couples fall from the "Kings" grace. She declares phony the legal documents produced by Ashrcroft, such as the promissory note from him to Twain for $982.47 on behalf of Lyon as well as Twains acquittal of his secretary, without securing scientific evidence for her claims. Therefore, the reader finds hard to endorse her allegations of fraud and forgery in spite of her well-reasoned discourse.

However, by placing her faith and trust on Mark Twains unpublished autobiography she has thrown a new light upon the authors inner truth and has rehabilitated his image, somewhat tarnished by previous scholars who rejected the A-L manuscript. It is Lystra who finally fulfils Twains hope that this writings " large value would be recognized" [238]. Her ardent defence of Mark Twain and her virulent offensive against the Ashcrofts, of value both to the general reader and to the scholar, constitute Karen Lystras version of truth in the Rashomon tale. Lystra knows how elusive and mirage-like truth is, as she finishes her study with Twains short fable whose moral makes clear that "You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination. You may not see your ears, but they will be there." [274] Twains poignant question of what "the straight truth" [274] is remains.

Cercles2006
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.