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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Fri, 10 Apr 2020 06:54:26 -0500
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The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Kevin Mac


_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 This review may not be published or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.