Correction to This Article
The review of four books on Mark Twain incorrectly described Ralph Ashcroft, who married Twain secretary Isabel Lyon and allegedly conspired with her to fleece the writer, as a lawyer. Ashcroft, along with Lyon, had power of attorney over Twain's affairs for a time, but he was not a lawyer; he was a businessman.
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Dennis Drabelle reviews four biographies of Mark Twain


The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens

By Jerome Loving

Univ. of California 491 pp. $34.95

It's face-off time. Two new books about Mark Twain (out of four under review, with more to come as we mark the 100th anniversary of his death) give conflicting answers to a pair of related questions: How sunny was the writer's old age, and how loyal was the aide who was supposed to ease him through it?

During the period covered in Michael Shelden's "Mark Twain: Man in White" and Laura Trombley's "Mark Twain's Other Woman" -- roughly the first decade of the 20th century -- the former Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) was a triple-threat grandee: beloved humorist and lecturer; lionized author of such masterpieces as "Life on the Mississippi," "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"; and exemplar of that brand-new category, the mass-marketed international celebrity. Twain was still writing essays and fables (though much of his output was too bleak to win favor or even get into print) and dictating his autobiography, some of it to his secretary, Isabel Lyon.

In his book, Shelden takes issue with the conventional wisdom that "the pen warmed up in hell" wielded by Twain in his later years was guided by constant personal misery. Yes, Shelden admits, Twain experienced profound sorrow during this period, notably the deaths of his wife and one of his daughters. But otherwise he had a high old time, smoking cigars, playing billiards, swanning around in his trademark white suit and collecting adulation and accolades, notably an honorary degree from Oxford University. It pained him to hear that Lyon had conspired to fleece him with a scoundrel of a lawyer. But the incident also gave Twain a certain twisted pleasure, rousing him to attack the miscreants with gusto in a long, unpublished screed. Summing up this last chapter of Twain's life, Shelden says that "in many ways [he] was never more alive."

Trombley adheres to the more widely accepted view of Twain as a glum old man, and her take on Lyon differs sharply from Shelden's. To Trombley, Lyon was more sinned against than sinning: In her capacity as devoted assistant to the man she called "King," she may have diverted some household funds to her own use, but she was poorly paid, and the expenses were legitimate. In any event, Trombley believes, Twain turned against Lyon unfairly and ferociously, branding her, in his overkilling words, "a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded & salacious slut pining for seduction." Both views can't very well be right, but the evidence to be sorted through is complex, and each writer makes a strong case.

However valid Shelden's portrait of the elderly Twain may be, the reader will enjoy spending time with his version of the septuagenarian, still quipping in top form. In these years, Twain and his best friend, Standard Oil magnate Henry Rogers, made numerous excursions to Bermuda on Rogers's yacht. During one such trip, the boat pitched and tossed in a stormy sea. Coming upon Twain clinging to the rail, a steward asked if he could get the passenger anything. "Yes," Twain replied. "Get me a little island."

There was nothing funny, however, about Twain's gullibility (in Shelden's eyes) toward Lyon and that lawyer, Ralph Ashcroft, who soon became husband and wife. The writer had given the pair power of attorney over his affairs, and Twain's daughter Clara became convinced that they were abusing that trust. Prodded by Clara, Twain fired Lyon, revoked the power of attorney and vilified the couple ever afterward.

Trombley puts the blame on Clara, depicting her as a spoiled heiress who resented Lyon's influence over her father. For a while Twain defended Isabel against Clara's attacks, but finally he gave in. "What Isabel failed to fully appreciate," Trombley writes, "was that Twain would always be primarily concerned with protecting his daughter's social reputation as well as his own, and that she herself was utterly expendable."

After all that end-game skirmishing, I looked forward to revisiting Twain's relatively carefree youth in Roy Morris Jr.'s "Lighting Out for the Territory." The book follows the Missouri-born Sam Clemens in the early 1860s when, after stints as a printer and riverboat pilot, he went west, joining the Comstock Lode silver rush in Nevada, becoming a journalist and adopting his soon-to-be-famous pseudonym.

"Lighting Out" has its moments: Morris is good, for example, on what makes Twain's breakthrough story, "Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog," so amusing: the deadpan narration. But the book is based on inadequate research, especially in its coverage of young Clemens's adventures in Nevada mining country: Among other things, Morris misunderstands the primitive form of trading ownership in Comstock mines.

In the wake of two excellent Twain biographies published in the aughts -- Ron Powers's "Mark Twain: A Life" and Fred Kaplan's "The Singular Mark Twain" -- Jerome Loving had a lot of nerve to undertake yet another. But Loving's "Mark Twain" not only holds its own with those predecessors; in some ways, it surpasses them.

Concision is one such way. Whereas both Powers and Kaplan take over 600 pages to bag their man, Loving gets the job done in under 500. Never losing sight of the main reason we want to read about Twain -- his literary genius -- Loving brings some unjustly neglected works to the reader's attention. One is "Aurelia's Unfortunate Young Man," a wickedly satirical early sketch about a chap who keeps having accidents that cost him body parts, leaving the fair Aurelia "deeply grieved to see her lover passing from her piecemeal."

In the matter of Isabel Lyon, Loving concludes there is "little or no evidence that either [Lyon] or Ashcroft acted against Twain's best interests while in control of his finances," but then Loving didn't have Shelden's book to draw upon when he wrote. Rather than try to play judge, however, let me make a suggestion: Instead of going their separate ways on their book tours, Shelden and Trombley should team up and debate each other in a public forum.

Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World and author of "Mile-High Fever," a history of the Comstock Lode.

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