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The following review appeared 19 July 2017 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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The author sent Triumphs and Torments to the Forum in 1996, but the original reviewer never delivered, and the author died in 2008 apparently without ever having posted to the Forum herself. Some unusual coincidences have recently happened to make me think that Valentine-Fonorow's ghost has been prodding me to realize that I had another copy of book (which has become rare) in storage for many years and that I had better complete what is herewith the most hideously overdue review that has appeared on the Forum.
The first edition of "Was It Heaven Or Hell?": The Triumphs and Torments of Mark Twain was published in 1995, but the copyright page states "1990, 1994." To properly review the book, we must stand in the time the author wrote it, which was probably before the appearance of reference works such as The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993), Mark Twain A to Z (1995), and before the Internet had (m)any authoritative sites. Judged from this perspective, Valentine-Fonorow's biography is a substantial accomplishment that cannot supplant today's biographies, but that provides a complementary point of view (of women) that was needed then and probably still needed.
The preface of Triumphs and Torments states that it is not intended to be a chronological account of Mark Twain's life, but rather an examination of "the elysian highs and stygian lows" that provoked him to write the story, "Was It Heaven? Or Hell?" first published in Harper's Monthly in 1902. Valentine-Fonorow's biography is, in fact, a mostly chronological biography that has very little to do with that story which is not mentioned again until page 166, and then never discussed. This gives the impression that the book was mistitled and that Valentine-Fonorow did not articulate well a larger objective for her biography.
Triumphs and Torments is a concise overview of the major events of the life of Samuel Clemens. Valentine-Fonorow understands well the timeless appeal of Mark Twain, which she ascribes in part to his humour and his ability to look forward, noting that Mark Twain intentionally left many writings to be released only many years after his death. While Mark Twain's best-known works are set in the period of his boyhood, Valentine-Fonorow observes astutely that "he never viewed the past sentimentally. When he looked to past eras in his works it was to portray the barbarism of those earlier times and to show that only outward appearances change over the years. . . His works remain new because . . . essentially, people haven't changed" (11).
Valentine-Fonorow sees beyond many of the common misconceptions about Mark Twain. She explains that despite any impression that Mark Twain himself may have conveyed, Samuel Clemens was an industrious writer and a voracious reader, had a scientific mind, and loved technological innovation. Valentine-Fonorow is careful to explain the satiric intention of many of Mark Twain's works to show that he was the opposite of a racist, and that he was forward-looking concerning the equality of humans. "Humanitarianism was the force behind Mark Twain's works," Valentine-Fonorow writes positively. "However, if his craftsmanship and humor had not been great they may have fallen on deaf ears" (55). Although Mark Twain is the best satiric successor of Jonathan Swift, Valentine-Fonorow reports that Clemens disliked Swift for his attitude toward women (61).
Triumphs and Torments has twelve chapters focusing on various themes including lecturing, humanism, tragedy, spirituality, bankruptcy. The sources for most of the facts are the biographies and editions of letters and notebooks by Albert Bigelow Paine and his successors. Most sources predate 1950, and the author does not discuss some later biographies that one might have expected, such as those written by Justin Kaplan or Hamlin Hill. Caveat lector: Valentine-Fonorow is not always as critical enough of her sources as she should be, and although no single biography of Mark Twain can be trusted entirely, too often Triumphs and Torments reads like a copy of a copy of an account of Mark Twain's life; the general outline is correct, but the details may not always be.
Chapter 3 ("Family Life") provides a good consolidation of information from post-Paine sources, such as Mary Lawton's collection of memories of maid Katy Leary in A Lifetime with Mark Twain, Clara Clemens's My Father, Mark Twain, and Caroline Harnsberger's Mark Twain, Family Man. Some sources are very old now, but obviously were less so when Triumphs and Torments was written, and there is no harm in (re)discovering previous insights from such distant articles as Andrew Lang's "Art of Mark Twain" (1891), Benjamin De Casseres's "When Huck Finn Went Highbrow" (1934) or John Olin Eidson's "Innocents Abroad, Then and Now" (1948). Valentine-Fonorow also mentions many curiosities that are not now front of mind when thinking about Mark Twain. For example, Clemens seldom touched others (except for shaking hands) and did not like others to touch him (19), and the family's maid Katy Leary remembered Clemens blushing when his daughters came across him holding hands with Livy (33). Also, although Mark Twain had never been afraid to lecture, we are reminded of his recurring dreams in which "his fear was that no one would come to hear him" (26). It is heartening to learn that during construction of his house in Hartford, Clemens stopped a worker from chopping down a tree that was in the way of the construction, and instead moved the location of his house to accommodate the tree (3435).
The longest and most unique part of Triumphs and Torments is Chapter 8 ("Mark Twain and Women," pp. 101-153), which presciently addresses its subject at around the same time Laura E. Skandera-Trombley's Mark Twain in the Company of Women (1994) was released. Skandera-Trombley's well-known thesis that Mark Twain's best work was "dependent on female interaction and influence" seems obvious now, but was less so more than twenty years ago. Valentine-Fonorow echoes this theme with similar thoughts: "Mark Twain had an affinity for women that, in some cases, amounted to an emotional dependence, and which lasted all his life. He did not like masculine authority but he did not mind taking orders from girls and women, and in Livy's case 'he gloried in it'" (101). This chapter touches on Elinor Glyn, Laura Hawkins, Isabella Beecher Hooker, Mary Mason Fairbanks, Elizabeth Wallace, and many others, including female characters in his own works, and of course Clemens's wife and daughters, and frequently offers more nuanced interpretations of the contributions that women made to Mark Twain's writing. For example, we are reminded that Clemens's knowledge of the evil of slavery was imparted early by his mother. And while Mark Twain may have publicly supported women's suffrage at the dawn of the Edwardian era, Valentine-Fonorow observes that "his daughters may not have agreed with his interpretation of women's rights . . . as Susy, Clara and Jean matured, he changed from the playful father to the typical Victorian autocrat, keeping a watchful eye on them" (125).
Startlingly, this chapter even answers a question that Hal Bush posed to the Forum in June 2014 (which was never answered well) about a specific source for the oft-repeated claim that Susy was Clemens's favourite child. While Mark Twain never stated it outright, Valentine-Fonorow identifies perhaps the best early source as Clara Clemens's My Father, Mark Twain (1931): "One remarkable characteristic of both Mother and Father was that they never showed partiality to any child. I realized, after I was grown, that they must always have loved and admired my elder sister, Susy, by far the most, which made it all the more wonderful that they could so completely disguise the fact" (138, quoting MFMT, 64).
Skandera-Trombley observed that while Clemens always acknowledged in the most positive terms that Livy had been his editor, his mostly male biographers have interpreted Livy's influence on Mark Twain as either negative or neutral. Though never articulating overtly that she is doing so (as does Skandera-Trombley), Valentine-Fonorow offers a more refreshing and correct perspective on Livy's role: "From her own point of view, Livy had found a solution to the problem of an intelligent woman with a limited choice of life-styles. In an era when women did little that was not centered on home and family, her work as editor was vital and probably fulfilling" (147). Some male biographers may have acquiesced to the sharp gender divide that existed in careers in Victorian times while absurdly reserving the prerogative to blame women like Livy for not having become successful in their own careers.
Valentine-Fonorow considers the Clemens daughters in an unexpected order (Clara, Jean, then finally Susy), as if to give greater attention to the daughters who have had it least. Daughter Clara also fares better than usual under Valentine-Fonorow's respectful interpretation. For example, she quotes Major Pond's reminiscence of Clara as a "great pianist" when she entertained the guests at the Spokane Hotel during the 1895 tour (126127). While some biographers have implied that Clara's career as a singer was not fabulous, Triumphs and Torments instead quotes several reviews in which Clara's performances are praised. Again, Valentine-Fonorow offers other perspectives that should not be dismissed outright.
While daughter Jean has usually been regarded as little more than a pawn between several players after her mother's death, here "Jean was the beauty of the family, with classical features, but this 'gift' meant little to her when she compared her talents with that of her sisters" (129). We hear in Livy's words, writing to her husband from Paris, about how Jean had been concerned about the poor treatment of cab horses there. We are also offered thirteen-year-old Susy's journal entry announcing Jean's fifth birthday on 26 July 1885, when 'Papa' himself was away.
Valentine-Fonorow here as elsewhere lets women tell their own stories by cleverly drawing upon their letters and journals, which have usually taken second place to the letters of men in many biographies--a method that is unstated and deployed well throughout the book (for example, Livy's mother writing to Mrs. Fairbanks about Clemens, and Katy Leary remembering Livy). Many comments about daughter Susy by women are also included, though necessarily many derive from Mark Twain himself having included many of them in his Autobiography. Valentine-Fonorow speculates also whether Susy "may have harboured some guilty feelings for living in luxury and not being 'useful'" (140).
What is remarkable is that Valentine-Fonorow offered this female-centered perspective without much hand-waving so long ago, and yet its lessons continue to be learned. For example, it was only as recently as 2014 that Clara's daughter Nina finally received a sympathetic biography in The Twain Shall Meet by Susan Madeline Bailey and Deborah Lynn Gosselin. In this context, Valentine-Fonorow also drops a possibly related bombshell about Clara that makes us wish Valentine-Fonorow were still alive to tell us her source: "There is a report that another daughter [than Nina] had been born to Clara, and that she lived to the age of ten in an institution" (128). Children in institutions received poor treatment then as now, and not all had the dignity of having had their vital information recorded. Possibly Valentine-Fonorow's information was confused with similar unsubstantiated reports of a daughter born to Nina.
Given the positive treatment that so many women receive in this chapter, it is surprising that Valentine-Fonorow accepts without much discussion the claims of wrongdoing against Isabel Lyon. The noticeably brief treatment of Lyon is probably modeled too closely on the similarly brief treatment by Paine.
Despite Valentine-Fonorow's emphasis on the strong positive impact of women on Mark Twain, she concludes that "Twain changed Livy more than, as has been claimed, the reverse" (173), especially regarding religion. Valentine-Fonorow also interprets Clemens's later years sympathetically, stating that although he was not religious, he was spiritual and moral, possessing intuition and even clairvoyance, for example anticipating that Dan DeQuille would soon write the book that would become The Big Bonanza (1876). She suggests that Clemens's guilt over the deaths of his family members led him to fatalism--a conviction that many events are beyond human control, and comprise more chance than meaning--a theme that Valentine-Fonorow does not perceive in Mark Twain's early writings or during his Hartford years. Contra Skandera-Trombley, however, Valentine-Fonorow believes that some of Mark Twain's best work such as "The War Prayer" was written after Susy and Livy had died.
Triumphs and Torments was self-published and is pervaded by errors in references, dates, names, spelling and punctuation that are too numerous to list. There is no index. There are other minor annoyances, such as William Dean Howells being oddly referred to several times as "Dean Howells." No one should trust information from this biography without first checking it against more authoritative sources--but then, the same proviso must be given about any biography that does not cite primary sources. Thus, Valentine-Fonorow need not be more strongly faulted than other authors in this regard, and it is unlikely that anyone will mistake this biography for the more careful scholarship that most Mark Twain enthusiasts admire.
Readers are always reminded not to judge a book by its cover, and the proviso applies particularly strongly to Triumphs and Torments, with its first edition monochromatic smudged pink (was the colour meant to be 'feminine'?) drawing of Mark Twain hovering above a steamboat, and spine title printed bottom to top. Viewed more gently as a good first draft, had Triumphs and Torments received a couple rounds of editing and a professional cover, imaginably it could have taken a more respected place among the other specialized biographies that appear almost every year. Reframed as a female perspective on Samuel Clemens, Valentine-Fonorow's incipient accomplishment would have ranked nearly alongside the other female-centered biographies that were beginning to appear at that time.
Had Samuel Clemens been born a decade earlier or later, he probably would not have become Mark Twain; as Valentine-Fonorow states in Chapter 1, Clemens was born "in the right place and at the right time." Had Valentine-Fonorow been born a decade later, it is likely that she would have had more opportunity to realize the strong potential of Triumphs and Torments.