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The following review appeared 10 April 2020 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Few readers expect a page-turner when they open a volume of collected letters, or tremble with anticipation at the thought of being drawn into an irresistible epistolary novel, even if the volume includes Mark Twain letters. Some previous collections of Twain's letters--his correspondence with Howells and Twichell, for example--are certainly compelling and rewarding reading, but they don't quite rise to the level of the drama of a novel, or inspire sustained page-turning. But thanks to the able editing of Miki Pfeffer, Grace King's correspondence with various members of the Clemens family does indeed have the feel of an epistolary novel, and there are moments when page-turning is compulsory. This is true even though just a handful of the letters are to or from Twain himself. These letters shed new light on the daily lives of the Clemens family and their Hartford neighbors, and even those Twainians familiar with Mark Twain's Hartford social circle through previous books like Kenneth Andrews's Nook Farm (1950), Steve Courtney's biography of Joe Twichell (2008), or Mark Twain's own account in A Family Sketch (2014) will gain new insights and find themselves at times eagerly turning pages.
Grace King (1852-1932) had not yet established herself as a writer when she first met the Clemenses during a visit to Hartford in 1887. King's family lost their fortune during the Civil War, and like many such families struggled to maintain their social standing despite their loss of wealth. King's way of coping was to earn her way in the world by becoming a writer, and Twain's Nook Farm neighbor and coauthor, Charles Dudley Warner, took her under his wing, prompting that 1887 visit. King and the Clemenses liked each other immediately, and King's own experiences made her sympathetic to the Clemenses a few years later when their economic status suddenly changed. King had family dramas of her own to deal with, including an alcoholic brother who eventually committed suicide and a supposedly "sickly" sister who would outlive everyone else in the family. King was shrewd, an astute observer, and was well-versed in the social graces and soon enjoyed the hospitality and trust of the Warners, Clemenses, and others. She stayed for a month with the Clemenses in 1888, spent a few weeks with them in Florence in 1892, and corresponded with Olivia Clemens and her three daughters. She less often corresponded with Twain himself, but spent hours in conversation with him and observed him first-hand as a father and story-teller. All three Clemens daughters took her into their confidences, treating her like a big sister. Olivia Clemens wrote her intimate letters, prompting King to offer advice based upon her own similar experiences. King also wrote to her family about her interactions with the Clemenses and their Hartford friends, and her letters routinely include her unguarded comments on dinner parties, fashion, shopping, manners, literature, games, jokes, religion, politics, and juicy gossip.
The story told in King's letters provides the page-turning moments, but King's own turns-of-phrase, descriptive skills, and wry wit carry the story along in between. Her letters are further enhanced by being lightly and clearly edited. The texts of the letters between King and Twain are printed in full, but extraneous matter is appropriately deleted from some of the letters between King and her own family, preserving the narrative flow, and keeping the focus on "Mark Twain's court." A few small errors creep in among the footnotes. The birth and death dates for Lillian Gillette Foote (1874-1948) seem to be in error (51.n.10), and should probably read (1860-1932). One footnote (241.n.33) identifies Susan and Theodore Crane as the aunt and uncle who cared for Susy Clemens in 1896, but Susan's husband had died in 1889. The presence of these trivial errors are more a testament to the overall excellent editing than flaws.
King's acerbic wit emerges most often when she describes Hartford society. The young King was awed by Hartford's wealth and social life, but that did not blind her from a clear-eyed view of what lay before her. During her 1887 visit she notes that people there "seem to know all about literary people and the names of books" but apparently do not read books (45-46). Oscar Wilde would not publish his famous quip about a cynic knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing for another five years. She also comments that Hartfordians "have the contented expression of face and speech of souls assured of salvation in the next life and prosperity in this" (47), echoing Twain's famous comment on the "serene confidence which a Christian feels in four aces." It can be no wonder that Twain liked Grace King; she was irritated by the "uncritical" attitude of Hartford society and noticed that those who had been to Europe were still "provincial in every respect" (77). Apparently, travel was not always fatal to prejudice, as Twain claimed. When in Paris herself, King (who was fluent in French) recorded with amusement that she understood French in Paris better than she understood English in London. Twain's own observations on the awful German language and French translations of his own works come to mind. But her sharpest comments are for the "dried up uninteresting" girls at Smith College "with not the slightest eruption of chest development." King concludes that "if ever I had daughters to educate they should be educated not to make a living, but to make a man make a living for them" (57). She found Smith girls to be "all ugly uninteresting girls" who were being "trained into science and homeliness" and reported that one girl had drowned herself in the river the previous week, saying "I am not surprised--only I would have loved to drown some of the others too, if I had been she" (143).
Of course, Twainians will be most interested in King's reports on Twain's behavior and conversation, and she does not disappoint. In her journal King gives a good idea of what it was like to talk with Twain, saying he was an attentive listener and quick to catch your idea, that he did not impose his own ideas, that he was "delightfully unpremeditated" in the way he worked his stories into a conversation, that he was frank and autobiographical, and that he treated a woman in conversation the same as he treated a man, and in this way put you at ease (xii). She describes Twain's mocking impersonation of George W. Cable (223), describes Twain's story-telling as "the greatest circus I was ever at" (42), witnesses Twain's readings of Browning (42), and captures some amusing episodes, including one when she and the Clemenses and Warners were traveling together and entered a very hot train car. The women immediately opened the windows to cool off and this disturbed Twain who had curled up in a corner to read. She reports Twain grumbling "If a lot of women were sent to hell the first thing they would want to do would be to open the windows" (38). King was not only a recorder of Twain's words and deeds, but she may have served as a model for some of his writings. When King was preparing to visit with the Clemenses in 1888, at a time when Twain was avoiding visitors while working on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Olivia wrote to King encouraging her visit, quoting her husband who said that he did not consider King "a mar to my work but an inspiration" (100).
As mentioned before, some page-turning moments come when Olivia Clemens shares with King her innermost thoughts after the death of Susy (144). Twentieth century readers must be cautious when reading nineteenth century letters, which are often composed with expressions and endearments that sound more intimate than intended. But Olivia was deep in grief and put her anguish plainly on the page for King to read. King's letters to Olivia were loving and therapeutic. When Olivia agonized over whether to sell their beloved Hartford home or return to it where memories of Susy and their previous life in Hartford would be ever-present, King again wrote supportive letters with candid advice (248-249; 251-252). We learn that Jean wanted to return to Hartford, but Clara did not, but that Clara soon changed her mind (256). The letters these two women exchanged offer a wide open window into that sad episode, unlike any other source. But there are happier times reflected in their letters: King often goes into vivid detail describing the dresses worn by Olivia and her friends (38), the furnishings in homes she visited in Hartford, and she and Olivia frequently exchanged news on the latest books they were reading (263).
Grace King's letters to and from the Clemens daughters are brimming with family news. The girls report on their reading habits (165), and Clara reports on her piano lessons taught by a student of Franz Liszt (179) in 1890. That same year Susy was accomplished enough on the piano to play a Schubert Impromptu (165) and gave up her voice lessons, preferring to "drum" on the piano instead (169). But the next year Susy reports that she has resumed her voice lessons (184) and then gives up her piano lessons (189). In the meantime, young Jean practices violin with "true mathematical zeal" to the annoyance of her sisters (169). Their letters are filled with affection, pleadings for King to visit again, reports on family activities, concerts, music recitals, school, plays, skating, dancing lessons, visitors, snakes, toads, tennis, picnics in the woods, horseback rides, butterflies, and baseball games. All three Clemens daughters were talented and busy, and King heard about all of it.
Grace King's relationship with Charles Dudley Warner is what led her to the Clemenses, and her relationship with the Warners is also well-documented. Warner was warm and personable toward King, encouraging her writing, introducing her to editors who could further her career, and was even flirtatious (7). He offered her candid advice improving her stories, explained how to correct a proof, and shared gossip with her. We learn that he detested Isabella Hooker, and that Mrs. Day's unhappy marriage was apparently a topic of conversation in the Warner household as well (64). Warner's wife Susan was, by turns, gracious and distant toward King. Mrs. Warner had to endure gossip about the relationship between her husband and Isa Cabell, a woman who moved into their household, traveled with them, and was rumored to be Warner's mistress (262). King's relationship with the Warner's hit a rough spot when she commented on Cabell and word got back to Mrs. Warner. Warner had a habit of frequenting biracial saloons, staying in hotels in less "respectable" parts of town when traveling, and he died in the household of a mixed race woman in a Hartford neighborhood far from Nook Farm (261). King was well aware of Warner's inter-racial infidelities, but she knew from growing up in New Orleans that he was not unique in that respect, and appreciated his generosity and mentoring.
Others make briefer appearances in this novel-like narrative.
Howells and Twain act like schoolboys when they are together, and we are told
that Howells spoke exactly as he wrote (141). Joe Twichell is, as we already
knew, lovable, frank, strong, and handsome (49). Harriet Beecher Stowe, William
Gillette, Susan Crane, and the Hookers play smaller roles. As the story nears
its conclusion, the main characters pass away one by one, and Grace King becomes
more independent and assertive, more world-wise. But King's connection with
the Clemens family endures long after. In November 1930 Clara Clemens began
a letter to Grace "Do you ever think of me and the old days?" King's
response to Clara does not survive, and she passed away in January 1932 with
no further known contact with Clara. Readers of this book will have no doubt
that Grace King must have thought often of those old days and held them dear.