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Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him.

Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him, by Resa Willis. New York, Atheneum Publishers/Maxwell Macmillan, 1992. 334 pp. $25.00;

It is of course the nature of literary studies relentlessly to refine and extend the scholarly work of any predecessors. Recently the biographies of Mark Twain produced by Justin Kaplan and Hamlin Hill, themselves corrective of earlier accounts (especially Albert Bigelow Paine's) have been supplemented by two detailed examinations of specific subjects Kaplan and Hill treated less fully. The effect is to clarify but not directly challenge existing impressions. Taken together, this pair of newer studies suggest that Twain's literary and cultural stature is so thoroughly established that even the people in his household circle are themselves becoming of interest to students of his writings.

The very subtitle of Resa Willis's trade-book biography -- Mark and Livy: The Love Story of Mark Twain and the Woman Who Almost Tamed Him -- fairly announces its reluctance to contradict prevailing ideas about the couple's relationship. Probably the main attribute of this book is its inclusiveness; virtually every major incident and aspect of their courtship and marriage duly gets its sentence or paragraph, and one can turn to Willis's biography for the purpose of dating any episode. There is also a commendable willingness to look closely at such previously neglected documents as Livy's commonplace book, a chronicle of her reading and thoughts between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. "All the entries attest to Livy's sheltered background, her intelligence, her feeling of her role in the world and her religious faith -- quotations that admonish her to have an inner and outer beauty" (p. 29).

What one does not find in this first-ever work devoted solely to praising and defending Mrs. Samuel L. Clemens are very many insights that complicate our suppositions about her personality, views, and actions. A rare exception is a four-page discussion of the mysterious ailment that afflicted Livy in her teens, but even here Willis remains equivocal: "Livy may have been reacting to the growing pressures of her own sexuality and ambivalence concerning her intelligence. her place in society, and the changing role of women. . . . Whatever the causes, which remain as deep and hidden as the recesses of the mind, the pain and paralysis were real enough to Livy and her family" (p. 27). Although Willis's book tacitly -- by stressing the heroic qualities of Livy's struggles against ill health -- disputes Hamlin Hill's more dismissive portrayal in Mark Twain: God's Fool (1973), Hill's name does not appear in the index and no references to his biography surface anywhere, even in the Bibliography. (The same holds true for Kaplan, for that matter, although his Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography [1966] is at least alluded to in one footnote on page 89.)

The most riveting portions of Mark and Livy are those that recreate the world of their household, such as the extended description of a typical dinner for company at 351 Farmington Avenue: "George and a maid served with gold and silver instruments. Not that Clemens noticed or enjoyed his food. He talked more than he ate, wandering about the room waving his napkin while he talked or helped George to serve" (p. 130). Both Livy and Samuel Clemens fare well in this retelling of their story, enveloped in a somewhat idealizing haze. Livy seems stronger, more resilient, and more clearheaded than in Kaplan and Hill's portraits; Clemens is no longer the manipulative, irritable mate from whom physicians tried to shield Livy in her final illnesses. What we have here, in other words, is a briskly straightforward chronicle of an "incomparable thirty-seven-year romance" (p. xi), without the complex psychologizing that more recent commentators have injected (or even any open disputations of their claims). It is written for the general reader rather than the Mark Twain specialist, but it has its uses for the Twain scholar as well. And the story, however, told, is a manifestly compelling one, thanks largely to the voluminous and expressive correspondence that its subjects left behind. Courtship, marriage, births and deaths of children, Hartford days, international travel, meteoric fame and humiliating financial failure -- every conceivable type of hardship and triumph is faced by an inseparable couple.

Yet despite Resa Willis's valiant efforts to fill in the blanks about Livy Clemens's existence, it is Mark Twain whose words ring memorably wherever he is quoted. "Paris in the spring was a cliche even in 1879, but one Livy couldn't resist," writes Willis, adding, "Clemens disliked the country and found its people rude. . . . [He] grumbled about the price of firewood: |When I first saw the bill here I thought it was for carved furniture'" (pp. 124-125). Episodes such as the writing and publishing of General Ulysses S. Grant's biography necessarily are related almost entirely from Clemens's point of view. Livy Clemens is no Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, vying with her husband for artistic expression of their shared experiences, after all; she handles the domestic arrangements for the children and the servants ("I hate the correcting of them," she said [p. 255]) and supports her husband in his chosen profession. In return, Mark Twain made their romance a signature of his life and work.

Written words were Twain's instinctual defense against sorrow and his antidote to despair; within two hours of Livy's death on June 5, 1904, he was setting down an account of her last days and his feelings of utter desolation, an essay that would end up in his Autobiography. This vital aspect of the marital union Resa Willis in effect acknowledges when tentatively pointing out his often "outlandish" characterizations of Livy in letters to their friends, yet Willis merely notes that "Mark Twain created many memorable characters. ... Livy was another of those creations" (p. xii). The truth is that although Twain only once -- in an essay for the Christian Union in 1885-explicitly recorded at length his admiration for his spouse in a public manner during her lifetime (a tribute Willis describes and quotes, yet typically does not analyze), Twain nevertheless manages to dominate Livy's biography, so powerfully resonant are his various other testimonials to his wife. One can almost predict, in fact, that Willis will conclude her book with Adam's famous remark in Mark Twain's "Eve's Diary": "Wheresoever she was there was Eden" (p. 279). That crucial sentence is slightly misquoted (it omits Mark Twain's fulcrum-like comma following the first "was"), and there are other similar slips in Mark and Livy. But this editorial nodding does not negate the value of the book as a whole. At last we have a full-scale treatment of the most important woman in Twain's life, an essentially unadorned version that sets the stage for future follow-up studies scheduled by Laura Skandera Trombley, Susan K. Harris, and others. The process of scholarly revising goes on. An especially encouraging development is the fact that someone has finally exploited the rich trove of contextual information available in Elmira, New York, and its environs. Resa Willis has usefully laid out the initial overview of these materials and of Livy's life, and credit is due for this achievement.

John Cooley's Mark Twain's Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910 likewise covers some of what Justin Kaplan and Hamlin Hill have explored, and Colley, like Willis, is willing to give Samuel Clemens more benefit of the doubt than Hill in particular was inclined to grant. But Cooley is respectfully deferential toward Hill's contributions: "Until Hill's biography appeared, it was possible to believe that Clemens remained, until his final illness, the |king' of American humor -- a devoted family man and playful public cynic, passing gracefully into retirement and old age." In fact, however, "after Olivia Clemens's death in 1904, the family virtually ceased to exist." Moreover, "Clemens's overwhelming vanity and unpredictable rage made him, at the very least, extremely difficult to live with" (p. xviii). As a consequence of Clemens's consciousness of his "destructive pessimism, of his great rage at the swindle of life," he endeavored "to construct about himself a small court of happiness, innocence, and youthfulness, which he set against the ever painful reality of his life" (p. xix). Such insightful observations make Cooley's introduction, chapter headnotes, and afterword more rewarding as reading than Mark Twain's arch missives collected here) to the dozen girls aged ten to fifteen whom Twain cajoled into correspondence, meetings, and photographs after he decided that Samuel Clemens "had gone on |permanent holiday'" (p. 8).

Cooley tends to believe Twain's innocuous explanation, inserted in an Autobiographical Dictation of 1908, that "I had reached the grandpapa stage of life; and what I lacked and what I needed, was grandchildren." As the result of his designating girls "whom I worship" as a personal aquarium of angelfish, he announced with satisfaction that "in grandchildren I am the richest man that lives today: for I select my grandchildren" (p. xx). As far as Cooley is concerned, "Clemens was probably in love with his memory of himself as a boy or young man.... His angelfish behavior was certainly unusual, even obsessive, but it was also the final expression of a lifelong love affair with his teenage years" (p. 282). Additionally, these adolescents were "reminders of the happy years when his own daughters were younger" (p. xx). His limiting the schoolgirls to the age of fifteen (a protesting Gertrude Natkin, along with others, was ejected when she turned sixteen) "suggests that he believed young women became spoiled or perhaps corrupted once they entered the age of sexual activity" (pp. xxiii-xxiv); like Joan of Arc, Twain's favorite historical heroine, they represented "perfection in a corrupt world" (p. xxiv). In Cooley's judgment, "Clemens's youthful sweethearts Laura Wright and Laura Frazer are also part of the complex background to the angelfish" (p. xxi). Clemens had a "long-standing conviction that youth is the finest and most valuable time of life," and by associating with these angelfish and "vicariously participating" in their activities, "he felt younger and more fully engaged in life himself" (p. 2).

Cooley estimates that Clemens wrote approximately 300 letters to members of his Aquarium Club, an organization he devised to impress the girls and convey a sense of sororal status, between December 1905 and April 1910. Carlotta Welles, Frances Nunnally, Dorothy Quick, Margaret Blackmer, Dorothy Sturgis -- the roster of the club of pretty girls grew steadily after 1906. "Other collectors collect rare looks, at war prices, which they don't read, and which they wouldn't value if a page were lacking," Twain quipped in 1908. "As for me, I collect pets: young girls -- girls from ten to sixteen years old; girls who are pretty and sweet and naive and innocent -- dear young creatures to whom life is a perfect joy and to whom it has brought no wounds, no bitterness, and few tears" (p. xvii).

But even a wealthy and lionized author met impediments to his purportedly platonic diversions. For one thing, his daughter Clara Clemens "was no great admirer of the angelfish"; soon after her arrival at Clemens's Stormfield estate in 1908 "the Clemens household stopped saving letters from angelfish" (pp. 177-178). And then there was the matter of Clemens's disturbing, pettish reaction in 1910 to Helen Allen's nonchalance in Bermuda, where, troubled by anginal chest pain, Clemens expressed jealousy about Helen's boyfriend Arthur and filled pages of his notebook and manuscripts with anguished reflections about her attitudes. Cooley concedes the bizarreness of Clemens's confused and conflicted feelings about Helen in his concluding, illness-plagued days, but insists that "with the possible exception of Clemens's final visit with the Allen family, restraint and discretion seem to have characterized his relationship with the angelfish. They were always carefully chaperoned" (p. 281). Indeed, "there is no evidence to suggest real impropriety or scandal in connection with any of the angelfish. Perhaps his greatest crime was stereotyping and idealizing the lives of these young women. ... He tried to fix them in the amber of an endless adolescence" (p. 283).

This somewhat reassuring assessment is a vital contribution to Twain studies, where a shadow has hovered over Twain's last decade for twenty years since the details of his old age became public knowledge. One may not concur with John Cooley's opinion that, despite "the often formulaic redundancy" of Twain's pleas "for letters and visits from his young friends," his angelfish letters "contain explosions of wit, wisdom, and humor," or that "patient readers will be amply rewarded with humorous and imaginative passages reminiscent of Mark Twain at his best" (p. ix). But it is extremely important to have these pleading, sometimes nearly pathetic letters on record. Now and then, too, as Cooley promises, one stumbles upon a remark such as Twain's wry maxim in an inscription to Dorothy Quick in 1907: "It is better to be a young june-bug than an old bird of paradise" (p. 61).
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Author:Gribben, Alan
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1993
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