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A woman’s touch in Twain

L.A. Times-Washington Post News Service

The possibility at first seemed far-fetched: A Los Angeles collector, who had paid a dollar apiece for the stamps on 100 old envelopes in a downtown hobby shop, wondered if the letters inside might have been written by Mark Twain.The man approached University of Southern California English professor Jay Martin, who in turn asked a graduate student, Laura Skandera, to look into it. Sure, she replied, but the letters were probably phony.They weren’t.Written mainly to Twain’s three daughters around the turn of the 20th century, the letters were funny, sharply observant and occasionally cantankerous, like the author himself. And for a young scholar who then knew little of Twain, they were irresistible.The serendipitous role Skandera played in investigating and identifying one of the largest caches of Twain correspondence ever found would have a dramatic effect on the young woman and on the study of a towering literary figure.It launched Skandera, then 26, on a scholarly journey far different from the one she had envisioned. She switched her focus from Wordsworth and other English Romantic poets to Twain, a writer whose style and subjects were profoundly American. Nearly two decades later, Laura Skandera Trombley, as she is known these days, is a noted Twain scholar and the president of Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif.Feminist, provocative and often controversial, her scholarship has challenged established views of Twain as a strong, almost iconic male archetype of American literature.She argues that the author actually was deeply influenced by the women in his life and was largely dependent on their ideas and support to produce his best work.Much of her early research and writing centered on the roles of Twain’s wife, Olivia, and other family members. More recently, Trombley has looked primarily at the influence of his longtime secretary, Isabel Lyon.Many in the field consider the work groundbreaking.”Her research has been absolutely enlightening,” said Ann Ryan, associate professor of English at New York’s Le Moyne College and president of the Mark Twain Circle of America, a national organization of academics specializing in the author. “She invites this larger rethinking of Twain that shifts it from the conventional reading . . . to a much more complicated, more nuanced view.”She’s one of the most important scholars on Twain in recent years.”But Trombley’s work, especially her first book, “Mark Twain in the Company of Women,” also raised hackles in Twain circles. “Feminist fantasy,” one reviewer wrote of the 1994 volume.In a recent interview, Trombley shrugged off the criticism. “You’re dealing with Twain,” she said simply. “People tend to be pretty invested in their views of him.”Now 45, she juggles leadership of the small liberal arts college with forays to Twain forums and research centers, and hours devoted to finishing up her third book on Twain.The scholar’s latest book project is “Mark Twain’s Other Woman.” The book, which is nearing completion, is a detailed look at Lyon, Twain’s secretary for more than six years and his close companion after the 1904 death of his wife.Lyon is a controversial figure in Twain circles. Some scholars believe she had a sexual relationship with Twain; others that she stole money from him. The Pitzer president disputes both views.”They had an extraordinarily close relationship; he was utterly dependent on her and talked about everything with her, including sex and religion,” Trombley says. “But I haven’t seen anything that would indicate she was in a sexual relationship with him or that she embezzled from him.”In a place of honor in Trombley’s Pitzer office, there is a large framed black-and-white photograph of Twain and Lyon, standing close together. A rare picture of the two, it was taken during a trip to Bermuda about 1907, Trombley says.Trombley’s academic path was laid out in 1986, when she sat down at a cluttered card table in the stamp collector’s home to read through a pile of correspondence.Most of the letters — all in pristine condition, with 98 to Twain’s daughters and two to his sister-in-law Susan Crane — were signed “Father,” or with his initials, S.L.C. The name on the return address was “S.L. Clemens” — for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, his real name.Trombley traced the letters from the hobby shop back to a Hollywood Hills estate. That house, it turned out, was once owned by Twain’s daughter Clara and her husband. Through interviews and detective work, Trombley found that Twain’s relatives, in need of cash, had sold Clara’s letters to the same family that had bought the house. Years later, they were sold again.Trombley says the amateur collector told her that the name on the envelopes meant nothing to him but that his wife, struck by the clever, sometimes poignant writing, urged him not to discard them. One day, he mentioned his curiosity about them to a fellow bus passenger, who sent him to Martin at USC, and that led to Trombley.Once authenticated, the letters were split up and sold at auction for about $250,000, although the Mark Twain Papers & Project retains copies.The most significant among them, which a grieving Twain wrote to his sister-in-law in July 1904, soon after his wife’s death, was recently offered for sale again, for more than $38,000.But when Trombley first read them, she was intrigued most by the closeness and complexity of the family relationships and, later, by the discovery that those connections figured little in Twain biographies.Olivia Clemens was generally seen as having limited influence on her larger-than-life husband; Twain’s daughters were rarely mentioned at all.Trombley’s research over the next few years would reach a controversial conclusion: that Twain, who often sought reaction to his writing from his wife and daughters, leaned heavily on this collaborative female circle in order to produce his most creative work. Trombley also believes that Olivia, whose family had long supported the anti-slavery and temperance movements, played a crucial role in shaping her husband’s views on those issues.When death shattered that close family network, Twain lost his ability to write powerful, extended works of fiction, asserts Trombley, who is married to artist Nelson Edmond Trombley and is the mother of a young son.Trombley’s unorthodox analysis brought her praise. It also brought controversy.”Huckleberry Feminist,” retorted a dismissive review in the (London) Times Literary Supplement. The review, by the late Harvard professor Kenneth S. Lynn, a literary biographer, described Trombley’s views as “politically correct confections.”But even scholars who don’t always agree with Trombley’s conclusions consider her work innovative and admire her dedication to basic, laborious research, even now that she’s a college president.”She’s a very bold investigator,” said Robert Hirst, general editor of the University of California, Berkeley’s Twain project. “She doesn’t take the standard story. She looks for ways to challenge it, and make it better . . . . And that is all to her credit.”


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