American Studies Professor Publishes New Look at One of America's Favorite Writers
BY VALERIE ORLEANS
From Dateline (September 2, 2004)
A widely celebrated author battling against
the ravages of age and depression. Two disloyal employees. A daughter
sent to a sanitarium and forced to stay away from her beloved father.
It has all the makings of a good detective story,
Karen Lystra, professor of American studies, thought
Her research led to the spring publication of her
book “Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s
Final Years,” in which Lystra probes some of the theories
of Twain’s later years and focuses more attention on his youngest
daughter, Jean Clemens.
“There is this image of Mark Twain, in his
later years, as depressed, cheerless and melancholy,” Lystra
says. “And while Twain was depressed by his wife’s illness
and death in 1904, I discovered that there was more to the story
than most people commonly believed. I began to see Jean Clemens
as the key to the story of Twain’s later life.”
In most biographies, Jean, who suffered from epilepsy,
is portrayed as wild, violent and out-of-control. In fact, one biographer
refers to her as “the daughter Twain wanted to forget.”
In Lystra’s research, however, the evidence shows that Jean
was not the daughter Twain ever forgot, or wanted to, and he developed
a deep kinship with her before he died.
There is no question that Jean did have epilepsy
and spent several years in virtual exile from her father –
living in a sanitarium. However, the reasons for her stay are suspect.
It was alleged by Twain’s secretary, Isabel Lyon, that Jean
attacked and attempted to kill the family housekeeper. Yet based
on her research, Lystra concluded that Jean was a gentle, kindhearted
“Jean was particularly compassionate to both
people and animals – and devoted to her father,” says
Lystra. “However, at that time, epilepsy frightened people.
It wouldn’t have been difficult to convince people that epilepsy
included violent episodes, although today we know this isn’t
the case. And in Jean’s case, there was absolutely no evidence
to suggest unmanageable anger, homicidal aggression or any form
of mental illness.”
So how did this theory of Jean’s violent behavior
Lyon, one of Twain’s most trusted confidants,
may have had an ulterior purpose in removing Jean from his life.
Many scholars have speculated that Lyon was in love with her employer,
and removing his daughters from his life may have been directly
related to securing and enhancing her own position.
In another odd twist, it has come to light that Lyon
and Ralph Ashcroft, Twain’s business manager, were no doubt
embezzling money from the noted author. Eventually, Lyon and Ashcroft
ended up marrying and later divorced, creating further speculation.
In one of Twain’s last unpublished manuscripts,
he himself alluded to the collusion of his two formerly trusted
confidantes. He charged that Lyon sought to exile Jean from his
house and confessed that as a widowed father, he had failed –
perhaps to the point of betrayal – to confront his daughter’s
condition and to live up to his parental authority. He furiously
repudiated any characterization of his daughter as “crazy.”
And what of Lyon and Ashcroft? They maintained that
Twain was delusional and losing his grip on reality as he slid into
depression. In fact, in most biographies, Twain’s accounts
are generally discounted in favor of his secretary’s.
“What is key is the state of Twain’s
mind in his 70s,” says Lystra. “Whose account do you
believe?” While conducting her research, Lystra poured over
the records of Twain’s finances. She found a much-contested
power of attorney drafted by Ashcroft. There also were letters,
private contracts, an independent audit and a memorandum written
by Ashcroft in defense of Lyon and himself.
Lystra contrasted these against Jean’s diaries
that were frank, open and guileless.
“Her diaries were important because, unlike
her father, she wasn’t writing for a reader, and unlike Lyon
and Ashcroft, she wasn’t writing to vindicate herself,”
Lystra explains. “She discusses what it is like for her to
live with epilepsy and provides a rare view of life inside a sanitarium
in the early 20th century.”
Lystra also read accounts by Twain’s other
daughter, Clara, as well as other household members – trying
to ferret out the true story of what really happened as Twain grew
“This has all the drama of the human experience
– the search for love, estrangement between parent and child,
betrayal by those you trust, coping with age and loneliness,”
says Lystra. “It certainly puts a more human face on Twain,
challenging the myth of depression, melancholy and despair that
surrounded his later years.
“Identity is a problem at any age. It’s
a struggle to know who you are and it’s never really over,”
she concludes. “I hope this book will give readers space to
find their own way in the story of Mark Twain and come to their
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