The following review appeared 28 February 1995 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © Mark Twain Forum, 1995. This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Dennis W. Eddings <email@example.com>
Western Oregon State College
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Laura E. Skandera-Trombley's Mark Twain in the Company of Women
has the stated intention of viewing Twain biography "through the
women in Clemens's
life" in order to "reveal Twain as he really was, an author so
dependent upon female
interaction and influence that without it the sublimity of his novels would
been lost" (xvi). Accomplishing that intention requires
Skandera-Trombley to convince
the reader that past biographical and critical versions of Twain as
and "almost . . . a caricature of the `man's man'" are
"fallacious" (xvi). Her resulting
revision of Twain's world revolves less upon new discoveries in Twain
upon a new angle from which to view him and his world. For the most part,
her view well worth the encountering, at times downright enlightening. The
where I have reservations occur when she tends to her thesis too
sight of her own cogent comment that too many studies of Twain "have
the ambiguity of human nature the complex interactions that make up a life
Mark Twain in the Company of Women begins by challenging the Brooks/DeVoto dichotomy so prevalent in Twain biography, arguing that the women in Twain's life were neither socially prissy monsters who inhibited his creative genius nor non-entities. Skandera-Trombley points out, as have others, that throughout his life Twain was influenced by and sought for feminine approval, beginning with his strong-willed, story-spinning mother and ending with his almost pathetic involvement with Isabel Lyon and the Angelfish. She does not, however, view this propensity in the negative light some commentators have cast upon it. Rather she asserts that "Clemens's capacity to produce extended fictions had almost as much to do with the environment shaped by his wife and his daughters as with his abilities as a writer" (4). Such a statement is, of course, interpretive and speculative. Twain wrote fiction both before his marriage and after Olivia's death, but Skandera-Trombley's linking Twain's married life with his finest work is chronologically indisputable. I am not quite convinced, however, of a necessary cause/effect relationship. Her statement that "what cannot be refuted, is that it was only while Olivia was alive that Clemens wrote his greatest works, and only while paired with Olivia that Samuel Clemens achieved the fictional mastery of Mark Twain" (xxi-xxii) appears to echo Twain's own suspect logic that his abandoning the Confederate cause to follow Orion to Nevada was the reason the South fell. Yet part of the success of Mark Twain in the Company of Women lies in its bringing the feminine elements in Twain's environment so vividly to life that what sounds at first to be a most dubious assertion gains credibility. Other factors undoubtedly affected Twain's writing, but Skandera-Trombley succeeds in establishing how vitally important his family was in providing a receptive environment that encouraged his creative process as well as the subject matter and attitudes that were reflected in the results of that process.
Chapter 2 of Mark Twain in the Company of Women, "The Charmed Circle," traces the interactive roles of Twain, Olivia, and their daughters, as well as other feminine influences such as Susan Langdon Crane, owner of Quarry Farm, in maintaining the "stability and security" that left Twain "free to create" (24). Skandera-Trombley suggests that Twain's habit of reading his daily work to the family not only provided "instant feedback" on his writing by means of which he could assess its effectiveness, but also provided forms of play, such as Twain's insertion of "deliberately inflammatory passages" (26), that led to even closer family ties. The feminine influence of the "charmed circle" went beyond familial bonding, though. Skandera-Trombley, in suggesting its significance, traces its influence on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. One such influence, she contends, was Twain's using the oral history of Mary Ann Cord, an ex-slave, as a basis of "A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It." Linking this piece to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on the basis that both use the word "trash" and concern a slave's search for freedom strikes me as a bit tenuous.
Far more intriguing is Skandera-Trombley's argument regarding the influence of "female- authored fiction" on Twain's most famous work. Beginning with Nina Baym's and Glenn Hendler's comments on prototypical elements in sentimental women's fiction, Skandera-Trombley traces the affinity between such works and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, including such staples as the orphan who leaves home "in search of greater autonomy" and adult authority figures who abuse their power. She also finds Leland Krauth's observations about Huck's discomfort in a masculine world and his ease in a feminine one as further evidence of Clemens's ability to adapt forms familiar to his female audience into his own work, thus enlarging that work's potential audience. Twain's widely recognized interest in the marketability of his books, wisely brought forth by Skandera-Trombley, helps make her contentions regarding the influence of his immediate female audience on his creative process convincing.
Central to Mark Twain in the Company of Women is Skandera-Trombley's extensive investigation into the relationship between Twain and Olivia, beginning with chapter 3, "`Youth' and `Gravity.'" She challenges many of the myths that have been enshrined in Twain biography regarding their courtship and married life, demonstrating that Olivia was an active participant in both. In the process Skandera-Trombley takes to task those who try to make a one- dimensional figure of Olivia either as a helpless victim of Twain's masculinity or a Victorian hypochondriac. Her remarks extend to women commentators. She suggests, for instance, that Resa Willis's recent biography of Olivia, Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him (New York: Atheneum, 1992), incorrectly views Olivia as "a conventional, idolized, hypochondriac who believed her husband needed and wanted to be `tamed'" (60). Skandera-Trombley would also have us see Olivia's "editing" not as inhibiting Twain's creativity, but rather facilitating it by providing a different perspective that enabled him to "create characters that transcended the traditional fictional female and male stereotypes" (61). Her contention here is again speculative, as all such readings must be, but I am finally convinced of its legitimacy by the three central chapters that explore not only Olivia's biography, but the influence of reform-minded Elmira upon her and, subsequently, Twain.
Skandera-Trombley's extensive research and straightforward presentation of facts brings Olivia and her world to life. Biographical information, such as Olivia's suffering from Pott's disease, is joined to the world of Elmira, as in her (and Twain's) involvement in the water-cure movement, the Langdon's activism in abolition, the influence of the temperance movement complete with a brief history of the WCTU and its relationship to women's suffrage, and the drive for educational reform, especially in relation to the founding of Elmira College. There is also a chapter devoted to the women's rights activists who were an integral part of Olivia's and Elmira's, and consequently Twain's, world. Skandera-Trombley again challenges conventional wisdom about Olivia. She argues, for instance, that Olivia's poor health was not a means of manipulation, as suggested by Hamlin Hill (Mark Twain: God's Fool [New York: Harper and Row, 1973], 34-5). She also challenges Twain's own account of Olivia's having suffered a two-year period of invalidism as a result of a fall and her subsequent cure by a faith healer. Skandera-Trombley goes to primary source materials to present what appear to be the true facts in the case that Olivia suffered from a nervous disorder from her fourteenth year and that she was treated at various times for menstrual difficulties and Pott's disease.
I found these central chapters highly interesting, in part because they take up areas I was rather blissfully ignorant of, in part because of my own fascination with cultural history. They are also important in establishing Skandera-Trombley's case for the pervasive influence on Twain and his work of Olivia and the Elmira world she introduced Twain into. The temperance movement, to take one instance, has its place in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn both in "reforming Pap" and the Dauphin's account of his own efforts along that line. I am not so sure, though, that we can push this presence as far as Skandera-Trombley would wish in her assertion that Twain's satiric treatment of temperance "reformers" reveals that he "had grave doubts regarding the intentions of those men who, in the act of placing themselves as the movement's social or moral leaders, marginalized the efforts made by women" (113). Far more convincing, for it is grounded in his own words, is her demonstration that Twain, far from being anti-female, was an active supporter of women's rights and women's suffrage, and that this support was a direct result of Olivia's and Elmira's influence. Most significant in these chapters is their establishing the close relationship between Olivia, Elmira, and Twain. While this relationship does not necessarily prove all that Skandera-Trombley would make of it, her exploration provides a sufficient context to make them, for the most part, plausible and, for me, convincing.
The final portion of Mark Twain in the Company of Women takes up the last years of Twain's career. Skandera-Trombley examines Susy's role as Twain's audience and her influence on Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, deftly linking the family's desire that Twain be known as more than just a humorist to that book and helping explain Twain's fondness for it. She also poignantly brings out Twain's sense of loss at the dissolution of the "charmed circle" as a result of Susy's and Olivia's deaths and his growing alienation from his two surviving girls, Jean and Clara. Skandera-Trombley then examines Twain's attempts to recreate his charmed circle of women, first through Isabel Lyon, then through the Angelfish. Her treatment of Twain's relationship with Isabel Lyon is fuller than Hamlin Hill's in Mark Twain: God's Fool, especially in discussing Clara's role in Lyon's quite scandalous dismissal, as brought out in the "Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript." That document, she argues, was an attempt to "reconcile with his daughters. By ousting Lyon, Clemens tried to prove to Clara and Jean that he still loved them" (181). Skandera-Trombley would also exonerate Twain from Hill's contention that Twain's involvement with the Angelfish was "an exercise in `latent sexuality'" (181). Her view, consistent with her thesis, is that "Clemens's meetings and correspondence with his bevy of Angelfish were an attempt to form another chorus of substitute daughters for whom he could spin tales" (182). In this instance I am inclined to take on faith Skandera-Trombley's view. That inclination is strengthened by her having made convincing in her earlier chapters Twain's need for a female audience.
Mark Twain in the Company of Women is a thoroughly researched book, as its twelve pages of bibliography attest. Skandera-Trombley builds her case not only on rather standard bibliographic fare, but also on some hitherto pretty obscure primary material. The result is a mostly convincing book, with some stretchers, as I said before. Skandera-Trombley has given us a well-written (save some bothersome typos) and significant study of Twain's world and career, one that shines light on areas previously obscure. We are the better for the illumination.