TWAIN-L Archives

Mark Twain Forum


Options: Use Forum View

Use Monospaced Font
Show Text Part by Default
Show All Mail Headers

Message: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Topic: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]
Author: [<< First] [< Prev] [Next >] [Last >>]

Print Reply
Peter Salwen <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 10 Apr 2020 10:26:03 -0400
text/plain (205 lines)
As always, hearty thanks to Kevin for a useful, informative & entertaining
review. Can't wait to get my hands on this book!  -- Pete Salwen

On Fri, Apr 10, 2020, 7:54 AM Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]> wrote:

> The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac
> Donnell.
> ~~~~~
> _A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain's Court: Letters from Grace King's New
> England Sojourns_. Edited by Miki Pfeffer. Foreword by Steve Courtney.
> Louisiana State University Press, 2019. Pp. 304. Hardcover $55.00. ISBN
> 978-0-8071-6973-5 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-0-8071-7281-0 (pdf). ISBN
> 978-0-8071-7282-7 (ebook).
> Many books reviewed on the Mark Twain Forum are available at discounted
> prices from the Twain Web Bookstore. Purchases from this site generate
> commissions that benefit the Mark Twain Project. Please visit <
> Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac Donnell.
> Copyright (c) 2020 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
> redistributed in any medium without permission.
> 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.