Grace King: The Clemens Family’s Friend from New Orleans

Editor’s Note: One of the Center for Mark Twain Studies most important strategic goals is service to the general public. One way that CMTS fulfills this endeavor is the creation of Mark Twain related resource pages for students, teachers, and enthusiasts who are interested in learning more about Mark Twain and his world. CMTS asks Mark Twain Studies scholars to provide information about a specific topic, often consisting of concise summary, related images, and suggestions for further reading. If you are a scholar who is interested and participating in this act of public service and creating a resource page for CMTS, please contact Director Joseph Lemak at [email protected].

Miki Pfeffer at Quarry Farm

For this resource page, Miki Pfeffer graciously agreed to write about Grace King.

Miki Pfeffer holds a Master’s Degree in English Literature and a Ph.D. in Urban History from the University of New Orleans.  She is a visiting scholar at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana.  Her book, Southern Ladies and Suffragists: Julia Ward Howe and Women’s Rights at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair, was awarded the 2015 Eudora Welty Prize for scholarships in Women’s Studies and Southern Studies from the Mississippi University for Women.  Her latest publication is A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns (2019).

in 2018 she gave a Trouble Begins lecture for CMTS, you can find it here:

  • Miki Pfeffer, “Getting to Know Mark Twain through the Eyes of Grace King, a Southern Woman of Letters”

Near the end of Grace King’s long life (1852 – 1932) — and before William Faulkner wrote that the past is not even past– she claimed in her memoir:

“The past is our only real possession in life. It is the one piece of property of which time cannot deprive us; it is our own in a way that nothing else in life is. It never leaves our consciousness. In a word, we are our past; we do not cling to it — it clings to us.”[1]

Grace King

Perhaps the seminal event of Grace King’s past occurred in 1862 when she was nine and watched Union troops come ashore to take New Orleans. The trauma propelled her sectional allegiance. Women dealing with the war and reconstruction became the subject of her stories.

In King’s best-known collection, Balcony Stories (1893), protagonists settle for compromised resolutions to devastation and loss: a convent-educated girl, transported to her previously unknown mother of color, leaps into the Mississippi River; a formerly pampered belle sinks into a humbling marriage; a slave-trader’s crippled assistant grapples with the suddenness of emancipation; a sacrificing woman realizes that her “weak” sister secretly hoards their meager funds for herself.

These and other such stories brought King early acclaim. When literary tastes changed, she turned naturally to writing history and biography, having had a passion for research. Over her writing life, 1885 to 1932, King became an icon in her region; buildings were named in her honor.[2] Although her texts faced uneven repute over the years, her archived papers are a rich trove of business trends and personal missives that are cultural treasures. Incidentally, they figure in Clemens’ family history, for King, Twain, and the Clemens women were friends for over twenty years.[3]

The connection began indirectly in 1884. That year, Twain and New Orleanian George Washington Cable were touring the northeast honing their platform performances, and the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition was opening in New Orleans. Newspapers publicized antics of Twain and Cable [4]; King grabbed the attention of Charles Dudley Warner, editor of the Hartford Courant and Twain’s co-author of The Gilded Age. She was not yet a writer but rather a thirty-something, dispirited and “prospectless”[5] eldest daughter of seven siblings. Before war, the family was privileged but then part of the genteel poor, having been exacerbated in 1881 by the death of her father (whose favorite book was Innocents Abroad).[6]  

Charles Dudley Warner

Warner recognized a budding talent and became King’s mentor, placing her earliest stories with publications for which he wrote. He encouraged friends like Olivia Clemens to read them.

With Warner’s guidance, King became a minor star of “local color” or literary Regionalism. From the appearance of her first story, “Monsieur Motte,” in the inaugural issue of The New Princeton Journal in January 1886, publishers courted her for more and for the right to collect stories into volumes.[7] Harper’s Magazine listed her among important emerging southern voices.

King claimed she was writing realism from life in her native New Orleans, and Warner agreed. He wrote that she represented Creole conditions as perfectly as Hawthorne did New England culture, producing results in “exactly in the same way” with “truth of dialect” and knowledge of locale and its people. Neither author had need of “local color“ as a “varnish.”[8]

Yet, that genre waned, and King moved to nonfiction with her New Orleans, the Place and the People (1895), genealogy of Creole Families of New Orleans (1921), and textbook on the history of Louisiana. Then, two personal works: a semi-autobiographical novel of war and reclamation, The Pleasant Ways of St. Médard (1916), and Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters, completed just before her death in 1932 and published posthumously. Yet, King’s best works made only hundreds of dollars, never the thousands that writers and performers like Samuel Clemens as Mark Twain could earn.[9]

Nevertheless, personal triumphs brought satisfaction. When, in 1887, the Warners invited King to spend months with them in Hartford, they introduced her to artistic, publishing, and social worlds that included artist Frederic Church, activist Isabella Beecher Hooker, the silk manufacturing Cheney family, Chaucer scholar Thomas Lounsbury, and to Warner’s brother George and wife Elizabeth/Lilly Gillette Warner who also became proxy hosts to King.

Importantly, she became an intimate of the Clemens family next door in the Nook Farm neighborhood, and they further widened her world. Together they ate, played, traveled, talked, walked, and gossiped. King was a clever and charming guest and willing to play Hearts with Clemens into wee hours. She joined Olivia/Livy’s Browning circle where Clemens read poetry of Robert Browning.

The Clemens Family at their Hartford Home (Image Courtesy of the Mark Twain House and Museum)

King was enchanted when persona Twain “just let himself out,”[10] but she also appreciated the intellect and courtesies of “Mr. Clemens” and his capacity for generosity and friendship. The culture of the River was common ground for them. King admired Livy as a bulwark for her husband and, having managed her family’s house, as “a perfect housekeeper, ordering her servants & family marvelously for such a delicate little thing.”[11] Letters show their easy confidence and a forthrightness among friends who shared birthdays a few days apart.[12] King was also an adult chum to daughters Susy, Clara, and Jean who gave her the nickname “Teety” (rhyming with sweetie).  

She spent a weekend with the Clemenses in 1887, enthralled to find herself in the guest suite and feeling like “Beauty when the Beast left her alone in the castle.”[13] The next year, King stayed all of October with the family in Hartford and, in 1892, a month in their rented villa outside Florence. Her last connection was a letter from Clara in 1930.[14] A friendship that began in brilliance lasted through decades of joys, losses, and devastating deaths.

King recorded the camaraderie to home folks with lively reflection and wry wit. Letters with Livy were also filled with wisdom, sympathy, and opinions. Typical of frank exchanges were a shared disenchantment with Emerson the man despite a new biography and contemplation of consequences in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (1879).[15]

Such intimacies are not surprising; the predicament of women was King’s enduring theme. In a way, she was like her region: historically and psychically in transition, not quite belonging but trying to find a place. She also knew how to render that in stories. As Sam Clemens wrote her about her novella “Earthlings”:

I do suppose you struck twelve on Earthlings. . . . I felt the story, just as if I were living it; whereas with me a story is usually a procession & I am an outsider watching it go by — & always with a dubious, & generally with a perishing interest. If I could have stories like this one to read, my prejudice against stories would die a swift death & I should be grateful.[16]

Nook Farm and Hartford people remained fans of King’s work as did those in her beloved New Orleans. But over time, her literary reputation fluctuated.

About early stories, King had written to Warner her intent to “proclaim the love that exists between the two races, a love, which in the end will destroy all differences in color; or rather – I had better say – that that love, is the only thing which can do it.”[17] Whether or not readers detect that meaning or deem her stories condescending and racist is the subject of debate; similar quandaries now infect parts of Twain’s work.

A pack of letters from The Grace King Papers, Mss. 1282, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La.

Recently, King’s provocative portrayals of women’s lives are receiving renewed interest. Scholars detect bridges to modernism in the stories: in non-linear narratives and unreliable narrators and in inner worlds of silent characters; in the convergence of myth and reality and in open endings that invite readers to facilitate meaning; and in King’s employment of space, irony, masks, colors, mirrors, and taboos.[18]

In any event, her letters confirm that King was trying to make sense of her past, her southern identity, and the transitional era that was affecting gender, class, and race. There is no equivocation concerning the Clemens family, however: letters are clear demonstrations of mutual affection and respect during long years of friendship.

In her mature years, Grace King continued to write but spent more energy on civic involvement. Her intellectual commitment served the Louisiana Historical Society and its scholarly Quarterly and prompted her efforts to preserve her city’s French Quarter. She also encouraged young writers who were living cheaply there — Sherwood Anderson, Lyle Saxon, perhaps William Faulkner – and gained a reputation as a grande dame of New Orleans letters. Tulane University granted an honorary doctor of letters in 1915. The French government decorated her as an Officier de l’instruction Publique in 1918, and she proudly wore its medal: a wreath of golden palms below a purple ribbon and rosette. Her two remaining sisters pinned it to her funerary dress in 1932.

  • [1] William Faulkner’s full line is: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Requiem for a Nun, New York: Random House, 1951. Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters (New York: Macmillan, 1932), 1.
  • [2] Grace King Hall houses the Department of Residential Life at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge; Grace King High School is in Metairie, suburb of New Orleans.
  • [3] Unless otherwise indicated, all letters are from Grace King Papers, Mss. 1282, Louisiana and Lower Mississippi Valley Collections, LSU Libraries, Baton Rouge, La., and can be found in Miki Pfeffer, A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019).
  • [4] Cable was becoming persona non grata in his native New Orleans for his treatment of Creoles in Dr. Sevier (1884) and, especially, for his liberal stand on race in “The Freedmen’s Case in Equity” (1885). King sided with the Creole community; he became her literary nemesis.  
  • [5] Grace Elizabeth King (GEK) to Charles Dudley Warner (CDW) 9 September 1885, 10-11.
  • [6] Sarah Miller King (SMK) to GEK, 26 May 1887, 32-33.
  • [7] Twain and Warner also appeared in this number.  A. C. Armstrong and Son published four parts of “Monsieur Motte,” 1888; Harper and Brothers gathered four stories into Tales of a Time and Place, 1892.
  • [8] “Editor’s Study/Review,” Harper’s Monthly, June 1892.
  • [9] After expenses, Twain made $16,000 on his tour in 1884/85 with Cable who made $5000; agent James B. Pond $3000. Arlin Turner, George W. Cable (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press), 188.
  • [10] GEK to Nina Ansley King, 10 June 1887, 41-44.
  • [11] GEK to May King McDowell, 10 October 1887,80-82.
  • [12] Olivia Langdon Clemens (OLC) November 28; GEK, November 29; Samuel Langhorne Clemens (SLC) November 30.
  • [13] GEK to SMK, 8 October 1887, 78-80. This line is quoted during tours at the Mark Twain House while in the Mahogany Suite.
  • [14] Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch to GEK, 3 November 1930, 282-83.
  • [15] OLC to GEK, 7 August 1888, 92-93 ; GEK to OLC, 15 August 1888 (UCLC, 44127) Mark Twain Papers and Project, University of California, Berkeley, in A New Orleans Author, 97-99 . OLC to GEK, 25 February 1890, 170-72; GEK to OLC, 3 March 1890, 172-76.
  • [16] SLC to GEK, 16 November 1888, 138. “Earthlings” in Lippincott’s Magazine, November 1888.
  • [17] GEK to CDW, 22 November 1885, 17-18.
  • [18] Melissa Walker Heidari and Brigitte Zaugg, eds., Nineteenth-Century Southern Women Writers: Grace King and Modernism (New York: Routledge, 2020).

Suggested Reading

Bush, Robert. Grace King: A Southern Destiny. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983.

———. “Grace King and Mark Twain.” American Literature 44, No 1 (March 1972): 31-52.

———. Grace King of New Orleans: A Selection of Her Writings. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

Heidari, Melissa Walker. To Find my Own Peace: Grace King in Her Journals, 1886-1910. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.

King, Grace. Memories of a Southern Woman of Letters. New York: Macmillan, 1932.

Pfeffer, Miki. A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2019.

————. Southern Ladies and Suffragists: Julia Ward Howe and Women’s Rights at the 1884 New Orleans World’s Fair. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014.

Trombley, Laura Skandera. Mark Twain in the Company of Women. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.