The Story Behind the Storyteller
History has cast Mark Twain (1835-1910) as the quintessential American humorist.
But to those who knew him best, Twain was an uncompromising narcissist who cared more about preserving his meticulously crafted image than the individuals closest to him.
Laura Skandera Trombley PhD ’89 discussed the dark side of the author at a Friends of the USC Libraries Literary Luncheon on May 19.
In her new book, Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years (Knopf, 2010), Trombley — the fifth president of Pitzer College and a noted expert on the work and life of Twain — probes his complicated relationship with his confidante and secretary Isabel Van Kleek Lyon during the final decade of his life.
During her discussion, Trombley delved into how Lyon —who was often branded a sycophant or social climber — was ostracized after falling out of favor with Twain and his daughters Clara and Jean Clemens.
“Twain was determined that he would be remembered for three things: first, for being America’s greatest author, forever; and he would be known as a brilliant business person; and that he would be revered as a family man,” said Trombley in describing the lengths Twain would go to secure his legacy. “Twain always had a mean streak. In order to become Mark Twain and not die a cipher of the 19th century as Samuel Clemens, he had to have a sense of will and determination that few people possessed because he had everything going against him.”
Trombley said that she believes Twain was so obsessed with creating his own mythos that he had to sacrifice personal relationships to achieve his goal. Trombley feels that, instead of being a condemnation of the author, her book returns to Twain — who she characterized as “the first global celebrity” — some of the humanity he lost in becoming a storytelling deity.
“People struggle. People have children who are difficult children. We don’t make the right choices all the time,” Trombley explained. “I think [my book] brings, perhaps, a new dimension to who Twain was and it renders him much more in the realm of the human.”
A portion of the luncheon was underwritten by Friends member Rafael de Marchena-Huyke who, in 2007, donated a collection of rare books by French writers such as Baudelaire, Moli�re, Racine, Rousseau and Voltaire to the USC Libraries, as well as an early edition of Oliver Goldsmith’s 1766 novel The Vicar of Wakefield. Several of the collection’s books were on display during the luncheon.
Trombley’s visit concluded the Friends of the USC Libraries’ Literary Luncheon series for the 2009-10 academic year.
Preparations are under way for the 2010-11 series. USC professor Robin D.G. Kelley is slated to discuss his book Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (Free Press, 2009) in September.
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