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“Was It Heaven Or Hell?”: The Triumphs and Torments of Mark Twain. By Billie Valentine-Fonorow. Tucson, AZ: Fonorow and Associates, Inc., 1995. Distributed by Intelisoft Media, Inc., Lisle, IL. Pp. 199. Paper, 5-3/4″ x 8-3/4″. $16.95. ISBN 0-964-45570-6.
Who was Billie Valentine-Fonorow and why did she, at age 70, write a perceptive biography of Mark Twain that addressed the underappreciated aspect of the impact of women on Samuel Clemens’s life and writing?
The author sent Triumphs and Torments to the Forum in 1996, but the original reviewer never delivered, and the author died in 2008 apparently without ever having posted to the Forum herself. Some unusual coincidences have recently happened to make me think that Valentine-Fonorow’s ghost has been prodding me to realize that I had another copy of book (which has become rare) in storage for many years and that I had better complete what is herewith the most hideously overdue review that has appeared on the Forum.
The first edition of “Was It Heaven Or Hell?”: The Triumphs and Torments of Mark Twain was published in 1995, but the copyright page states “1990, 1994.” To properly review the book, we must stand in the time the author wrote it, which was probably before the appearance of reference works such as The Mark Twain Encyclopedia (1993), Mark Twain A to Z (1995), and before the Internet had (m)any authoritative sites. Judged from this perspective, Valentine-Fonorow’s biography is a substantial accomplishment that cannot supplant today’s biographies, but that provides a complementary point of view (of women) that was needed then and probably still needed.
The preface of Triumphs and Torments states that it is not intended to be a chronological account of Mark Twain’s life, but rather an examination of “the elysian highs and stygian lows” that provoked him to write the story, “Was It Heaven? Or Hell?” first published in Harper’s Monthly in 1902. Valentine-Fonorow’s biography is, in fact, a mostly chronological biography that has very little to do with that story which is not mentioned again until page 166, and then never discussed. This gives the impression that the book was mistitled and that Valentine-Fonorow did not articulate well a larger objective for her biography.
Triumphs and Torments is a concise overview of the major events of the life of Samuel Clemens. Valentine-Fonorow understands well the timeless appeal of Mark Twain, which she ascribes in part to his humour and his ability to look forward, noting that Mark Twain intentionally left many writings to be released only many years after his death. While Mark Twain’s best-known works are set in the period of his boyhood, Valentine-Fonorow observes astutely that “he never viewed the past sentimentally. When he looked to past eras in his works it was to portray the barbarism of those earlier times and to show that only outward appearances change over the years. . . His works remain new because . . . essentially, people haven’t changed” (11).
Valentine-Fonorow sees beyond many of the common misconceptions about Mark Twain. She explains that despite any impression that Mark Twain himself may have conveyed, Samuel Clemens was an industrious writer and a voracious reader, had a scientific mind, and loved technological innovation. Valentine-Fonorow is careful to explain the satiric intention of many of Mark Twain’s works to show that he was the opposite of a racist, and that he was forward-looking concerning the equality of humans. “Humanitarianism was the force behind Mark Twain’s works,” Valentine-Fonorow writes positively. “However, if his craftsmanship and humor had not been great they may have fallen on deaf ears” (55). Although Mark Twain is the best satiric successor of Jonathan Swift, Valentine-Fonorow reports that Clemens disliked Swift for his attitude toward women (61).
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