On October 13th, Lynn Cullen launched her ambitious new novel, Twain’s End. It examines the complicated last years of the most popular man in America–Mark Twain–and the even more complex life of Samuel Clemens, the flesh and blood man behind that pseudonymous mask. Yesterday, in the first of this two-part interview, I asked Cullen how her research on this famous author turned her preconceptions on their head. Today we go even deeper into the subject.
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I think most readers who know your work only from Mrs. Poe, which is told in a linear timeline through the eyes of Fanny Osborne, will be surprised by Twain’s End in terms of the storytelling approach you took. What were some of these changes, and what inspired you to make them?
The leading question around which I wrote Mrs. Poe was what made Edgar Allan Poe plunge from the very pinnacle of success to rock bottom rejection in the space of a year? In answering this question, it made sense to organize the book in sections that follow the seasons from Winter 1845 to Winter 1846, the period of Poe’s monumental rise and fall.
The lead question that I asked myself for Twain’s End was why did Sam Clemens turn so violently against his faithful secretary of nearly seven years right after she married his business manager, his rage oddly centered around her alleged attempts to seduce him? I realized that I needed to start the book at a point when Isabel Lyon’s relationship with Clemens was in crisis; alarms went off in my head when I saw that right when Isabel was breaking down over losing Sam in January 1909, his good friend Helen Keller, paid him a visit. It turned out that Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan Macy were in crisis at that time, too, due to the closeness of Helen to Anne’s husband John. In real life, Isabel Lyon actually remarked in her diary about that visit that Helen was obviously in love with John Macy and he was doing nothing to discourage her. Throw in the tension suffered at this time between Twain and his daughter Clara over her affair with her married accompanist, and that traumatic weekend visit seemed like a good place to start the story. However, I had to backtrack to show the reader how things had come to that point and so much of the book is a flashback from the time Isabel met Twain, resuming at the Keller visit and then moving forward.
In grad school I studied that, in his later life, Clemens was so consumed with the tragedies that fell like hammer blows in quick succession and by his fatalistic view of “The Damned Human Race” that he was unable to complete much of his writing. I don’t see you presenting his struggle in this grad school sort of way. Rather, your character is consumed by socializing and playing the raconteur. Was this his way of escaping his failure to complete his writing or the cause of it? Or both?
In his adulthood alone (I won’t even go into his childhood), Samuel Clemens suffered from the worst blows imaginable. He lost his first child—his only son–as a toddler. He went bankrupt, realizing his worst fear as a bankrupt’s son. His favorite child (who he made no bones of preferring, even in front of his other daughters) hated him for constantly imposing his will upon her and especially for parting her from her soul mate and lover, who happened to be another woman. She refused, therefore, to travel with Clemens and the rest of the family while he recouped his debts; while they were gone, she succumbed to meningitis in their Hartford home, at age twenty-four. His beloved wife and shadow editor, Livy, was bedbound the last years of her life. Sam was ordered from her sickroom except for two-to-five minute visits a day—if he was lucky, often he wasn’t–his visits being deemed harmful to her health. She died at age fifty-eight. His daughter Clara refused to see her father or even receive his letters for a year afterward. His youngest daughter Jean had epilepsy, the impact of which he could never come to terms with. He kept her at arm’s length until he found himself alone after banishing Isabel, at which time he called Jean home. Eight months later, unprotected from the risks of her disorder, Jean died in her bathtub after suffering from a seizure.
Clemens both blamed himself and shirked responsibility for all of these events, believing that as one of the damned human race, he was bound to make self-serving decisions. He found little outlet for his rage in his writing; if he revealed his growing misanthropy and despair, he risked losing the adoration of the world. No wonder he preferred to be feted at parties, to accept honors and accolades, and to bask in the attention of the press. It kept the love flowing his way, love he so desperately needed. His penchant for performing attention-grabbing stunts increased—wearing white suits in all seasons, a practice started only four years before he died, was one of them. His dear friend, writer William Dean Howells, noting Clemens’ dwindling literary output, said he wished that Twain would attend fewer dinners and write more books. But writing no longer provided balm for Sam’s wounded soul.
I imagine many of your Poe readers had to adjust their assumptions about Poe. Do you expect the same for Clemens?
Twain’s End explores the impact that living up to the Mark Twain image had upon the real life Clemens. Although the scenes in the book are dramatizations, they spring from actual incidents reported in Isabel Lyon’s diary and elsewhere. They reveal a Sam Clemens who at times little resembles the wry American humorist of legend. However, it was not my intention to heap scorn upon the man, but to make readers appreciate the pain and hardship that Sam Clemens had to endure to become—and remain—the most beloved man in America. Those who need their heroes to be perfect might be resentful, but others who, like Clemens, know that “every man is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody” might like to take the journey with me for a closer look at the man behind the curtain.
It’s so tempting to compare and contrast Poe and Twain’s End that I can’t resist—both of them tell the stories of giants of American literature but through the eyes of women who loved them or, at least, were close to them. But the time difference—60 years—brings many changes to the lives of American women. Could you address how women’s lives changed and how they stayed the same, as seen in a few of your many interesting real-life characters?
In Twain’s End, Isabel Lyon’s mother represents the old order, feeling that her daughter can only be fulfilled through marriage and motherhood. Although forced out of the marriage market (and marketplace, it was!) by losing her fortune after her father’s death, and therefore not by choice, Isabel represents the new woman who works outside the home. Isabel’s generation of unmarried women were the first to find employment opportunities in the city as secretaries and clerks, formerly men’s work. Frances in Mrs. Poe could not have dreamed of being a secretary.
Still, women had made few strides in sexual freedom by Isabel’s time. In fact, Isabel had to have been acutely aware of the impropriety of her traveling with her boss and clearly understood the risk to her reputation in doing so. She had to have known how scandalous it was for her to build a house for Clemens in which her bedroom adjoined his, and to have heard tongues wagging about her stays in Bermuda with her boss. Clemens had to know that his reputation as a clean-living family man was being smudged, too. Interesting that when his attack on Isabel came, he focused so intently on her being a loose woman. This was the most damning insult one could heap upon a woman, which is not so very different than from Poe’s time.
How do your expectations of a novelized version of a famous person’s life differ from those of a biography? Do you have a preference, or do you read both genres?