Who knew Mark Twain was such an ass? According to Lynn Cullen’s Twain’s End he was a nasty, bitter old man, and now my perfect little Twain bubble has been burst. I love Mark Twain – Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, The Innocents Abroad, Life on the Mississippi – all classics that I’ve read, and sometimes re-read. No one disputes his status as one of this country’s literary greats. He was even pretty hot as a younger man (think Tom Selleck in his Magnum, P.I. days). Not that I’ve got a thing for dead guys, but still. Mark Twain has always been on a pedestal, unassailable in my mind, and now I might have to rethink this relationship! But seriously, I do get it that just because the man was an American icon doesn’t mean he was a good person to boot.
Twain’s End chronicles the relationship between Mark Twain and his personal secretary of many years, Isabel Lyon, and while reading, I had to constantly remind myself that this was a fictionalized account, not necessarily a true telling. Although written in the third person, the story is told mainly from Lyon’s point of view and Cullen is definitely sympathetic to her. I’m not sure I was though, but neither was I rooting for Twain. The relationship between Samuel Clemens and Isabel Lyon was almost certainly more than that of employer/employee, with the two becoming especially close after the death of Clemens’s wife. Lyon occupied a bedroom adjacent to Clemens’s in his home in Redding, Connecticut even though he had provided her with a residence (oddly referred to as The Lobster Pot) located on his property, and she referred to him incessantly as “the King” or “my King” (with a capital K no less – creeeeepppppyyyyy!) WTF? I detect an unhealthy case of hero worship (to put it mildly) here.
Clemens is drawn as a deeply troubled, boorish, egotistical man without much concern or care for the feelings of others, including his own family. He spends most of his time parading around as Mark Twain (partly to satisfy his fawning public and partly, I suspect, to feed his own massive ego), the bigger-than-life caricature that his fans, and a surprising number of his “friends”, expected to encounter. Unfortunately, Mark Twain tended to steal the show from Sam Clemens, and as a result, his family and others suffered for it.
Twain sacked Lyon not long after her marriage to Ralph Ashcroft, Twain’s business manager (he fired Ashcroft as well). Although the marriage was initially blessed by Twain, he ultimately accused Isabel of trying to steal from him and of being a “filthy-minded and salacious slut.” To back his play and to keep her from speaking out against him, Twain penned a 400-plus page diatribe outlining all of her supposed transgressions. Tell us what you really think, Mark (or Sam, or whatever you think we should call you).
All of this ugliness really occurred and it’s no spoiler to clue you in on these facts here: Lynn Cullen reveals the dust-up at the beginning of her book. Cullen did her research and most of the book is built around and recalls actual events (trips, meetings with celebrities, etc.) that happened among Clemens, Lyon, his wife, his daughters (Clara Clemens in particular, and also seemingly not a very nice person), and others. Cullen admits she relied heavily on Isabel Lyon’s own diary for her facts so you can’t help but wonder if this might have slung the book too far in Lyon’s favor. That said, and even though I have yet to read Twain’s own autobiography (Volume One of which was published for the first time in 2010, 100 years after Twain’s death per his wishes), I understand from various reviews that the autobiography tends to back up the fictional account portrayed here.
I enjoyed this book for the most part, being a fan of historical fiction and all, but I have to emphasize again that it reads like a non-fiction report of Twain’s later years, or like Lyon’s memoir (albeit in the third-person) had she actually written it. You may find yourself taking it as the gospel.
Full Disclosure: A review copy of this book was provided to me by Gallery Books via NetGalley. I would like to thank the publisher for providing me this opportunity. All opinions expressed herein are my own.