- "The Pandemonium That Went On":An Unpublished Letter by Jean Clemens
Among the major achievements in Mark Twain studies in 2010 were two lengthy biographies, both of which appeared at nearly the same moment and covered much of the same ground, but with very different conclusions, especially regarding Twain's secretary Isabel Lyon. Both Michael Shelden's Mark Twain: The Man in White and Laura Skandera Trombley's Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years focused on Twain at the end of his life, and both responded to allegations elaborated in an earlier volume that set the stakes for the conversation: Karen Lystra's Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years (2004).
Everyone agrees on the attraction that Twain and Lyon had for each other, at least initially: Twain described her in 1902 as "slender, petite, comely, 38 years old by the almanac, and 17 in ways and carriage and dress." 1 Lyon nearly worshipped the author, referring to him as "the King." But as the years passed, and after Twain's wife Livy died in 1904, Lyon began exerting more and more power within the household. And so, while Shelden's account tends to sympathize much more with Mark Twain, making Lyon out to be a scheming trickster manipulating the sad widower and taking over the affairs of his house (and thus, more in step with Lystra's account), Trombley presents a more supportive portrait of Isabel as victim of the volcanic angers of a vitriolic and condescending celebrity.
Lystra's book was largely a revisionary account of earlier views of Twain's final years, most prominently Hamlin Hill's Mark Twain: God's Fool (1973). Among other things, these critics have given us very different understandings of the so-called Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript and of personalities, most notably [End Page 68] Lyon herself, but also Jean Clemens, Twain's youngest daughter. Afflicted by various ailments (which Lyon claimed made her physically dangerous) and sent packing to a sanitarium in 1906, Jean was separated from her father for three years. A key question is the extent to which Lyon's scheming forced the separation. Eventually, Twain fired Lyon and recalled Jean to his home—where father and daughter experienced a peaceful reconciliation, enjoying together the little time left to them. Sadly, Jean died on Christmas Eve 1909. Four months later, Twain followed her to the grave.
The Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript is a crucial piece of evidence about these matters, and its legitimacy (or perhaps more concisely, its purposes and intent) is a major bone of contention. Composed by Twain over several months in 1909, this 492-page document is largely an account of the misdeeds of Lyon and the notoriously shifty Ralph Ashcroft, whom she married in 1908. Lystra takes a very high view of the document, claiming it is the "most sustained and important writing of his final years . . . [and it may be Twain's] most maligned and misunderstood work." She also claims that it amounts to a "confession that [Twain] abandoned his own daughter." 2 Moreover, Lystra joins Twain in listing and confronting Lyon's immoral behaviors, including alterations she made to her diary years later, evidently to paint Jean as even more dangerously unstable. None of this, of course, presents Twain as an innocent saint in his dealings with the sly Lyon. But for scholars, Lystra and Shelden are basically alone in suggesting that the Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript is richer and more interesting than anyone has believed. This lengthy narrative, widely known to scholars, will eventually become more generally available when it is published in one of the later volumes of the Autobiography.
These debates provide the contexts for Trombley's and Shelden's competing accounts, specifically their readings of the conflict surrounding Jean Clemens and Isabel Lyon. For decades, there was very little scholarly conversation about these important differences, but now they have resurfaced as a central fascination of Twain's final years. The best summary of the differences between Trombley and Shelden has been spelled out by Barbara Schmidt, who contends that there are four key points where their stories differ...