Laura Skandera Trombley

 

On her book Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years

Cover Interview of March 15, 2010

The wide angle

Mark Twain biography remains rooted in an outworn tradition that too often rewards pedantry and tortured prose.  In the beginning, Twain biography featured politically savvy scholars who avoided controversial topics to insulate themselves from criticism—both from the public who wanted to believe in their literary heroes as well as surviving family members all too ready to sue. Nowadays danger emanates from the opposite end of the academic continuum: biographies with the subtlety of smash-and-grab vandalism.

Nearly forty years ago, Twain biographer Hamlin Hill railed that it was time to challenge and change the entrenched trademark “Mark Twain” while wondering if it was not already too late.  After all, people who mess with a folk savior who wrote “both a best-seller and an accepted masterpiece” and is still revered as “a hero, a prophet, a legend, a demigod,” present a tempting target.  Right now, and for too many people, Mark Twain is either an animatronic statue at Disneyworld or the practiced Hal Holbrook.

A large part of the problem for interested readers is that Mark Twain is a major scholarly and commercial industry.  Even during his life “Mark Twain” was recognized as a brand name as well as a pseudonym.  Books about Mark Twain sell, much like books about the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, fly-fishing, and vintage wines.  My challenge as a biographer was to find a way to present new material about Twain without pandering to devotees or exploiting his commercial appeal.

Twain has been variously portrayed by past biographers as the damaged son of a castrating mother, a split personality, a womanizer, a gay man, an impotent man, a child-molester, a hypochondriac, a gold-digger, an abusive spouse, a neglectful father, a misogynist, and an alcoholic.  With such a rich dysfunctional pedigree, if Twain had sung professionally, he’d be a ripe subject for one of VH1’s “Behind the Music” episodes.

With extensive archival research and many hundreds and notes, this biography will hopefully prove the exception.  Yet, my goal has been to write for the public at large.  Particularly for those individuals in the secular population who think that Twain is removed from their lives, or made of white marble, or (worse) boring.  After thinking about Twain for over twenty years, my view is that he was a genius, the most gifted American writer of his or any era, and a man who led an enormous life full of unthinkable success and unbearable failure.  In the end, he was ruthlessly human.

Writing biography is a challenge in that the talented biographer follows where the life leads her, not where she would like it to go.  The evidence I uncovered about Twain’s final years took me places I could not have imagined.  After all, the difference between fiction and fact is that fiction has to make sense.

Twain would not have wanted this story told and would have been litigiously furious if he were alive.  After all, Twain understood that to last meant remaining an enigma and he wanted to influence (even from the grave) outcomes in all efforts to see him more clearly. Twain commented about those who would tell too much in a 1879 speech: “I don’t mind what [they] say of me so long as they don’t tell the truth about me. But when they descend to telling the truth about me I consider that this is taking an unfair advantage.”

Writing this biography took me a very long time, sixteen years.  The reason: that is how long it took me to figure out the truth behind the fictionalized story Twain left about his life.  After all he was our best fiction writer and it was hard to unravel his tale.  What really happened the last decade of his life was a story he was determined no one would ever figure out.  But I did.