MARK TWAIN FORUM BOOK REVIEWS: “A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court” edited by Miki Pfeffer

Editor’s Note: CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project.

In the past two years, Ms. Pfeffer has had a number of welcome interactions with CMTS, including:

A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns. Edited by Miki Pfeffer. Foreword by Steve Courtney. Louisiana State University Press, 2019. Pp. 304. Hardcover $55.00. ISBN 978-0-8071-6973-5 (Hardcover). ISBN 978-0-8071-7281-0 (pdf). ISBN 978-0-8071-7282-7 (ebook).

Few readers expect a page-turner when they open a volume of collected letters, or tremble with anticipation at the thought of being drawn into an irresistible epistolary novel, even if the volume includes Mark Twain letters. Some previous collections of Twain’s letters–his correspondence with Howells and Twichell, for example–are certainly compelling and rewarding reading, but they don’t quite rise to the level of the drama of a novel, or inspire sustained page-turning. But thanks to the able editing of Miki Pfeffer, Grace King’s correspondence with various members of the Clemens family does indeed have the feel of an epistolary novel, and there are moments when page-turning is compulsory. This is true even though just a handful of the letters are to or from Twain himself. These letters shed new light on the daily lives of the Clemens family and their Hartford neighbors, and even those Twainians familiar with Mark Twain’s Hartford social circle through previous books like Kenneth Andrews’s Nook Farm (1950), Steve Courtney’s biography of Joe Twichell (2008), or Mark Twain’s own account in A Family Sketch (2014) will gain new insights and find themselves at times eagerly turning pages.

Grace King (1852-1932) had not yet established herself as a writer when she first met the Clemenses during a visit to Hartford in 1887. King’s family lost their fortune during the Civil War, and like many such families struggled to maintain their social standing despite their loss of wealth. King’s way of coping was to earn her way in the world by becoming a writer, and Twain’s Nook Farm neighbor and coauthor, Charles Dudley Warner, took her under his wing, prompting that 1887 visit. King and the Clemenses liked each other immediately, and King’s own experiences made her sympathetic to the Clemenses a few years later when their economic status suddenly changed. King had family dramas of her own to deal with, including an alcoholic brother who eventually committed suicide and a supposedly “sickly” sister who would outlive everyone else in the family. King was shrewd, an astute observer, and was well-versed in the social graces and soon enjoyed the hospitality and trust of the Warners, Clemenses, and others. She stayed for a month with the Clemenses in 1888, spent a few weeks with them in Florence in 1892, and corresponded with Olivia Clemens and her three daughters. She less often corresponded with Twain himself, but spent hours in conversation with him and observed him first-hand as a father and story-teller. All three Clemens daughters took her into their confidences, treating her like a big sister. Olivia Clemens wrote her intimate letters, prompting King to offer advice based upon her own similar experiences. King also wrote to her family about her interactions with the Clemenses and their Hartford friends, and her letters routinely include her unguarded comments on dinner parties, fashion, shopping, manners, literature, games, jokes, religion, politics, and juicy gossip.

Grace King

The story told in King’s letters provides the page-turning moments, but King’s own turns-of-phrase, descriptive skills, and wry wit carry the story along in between. Her letters are further enhanced by being lightly and clearly edited. The texts of the letters between King and Twain are printed in full, but extraneous matter is appropriately deleted from some of the letters between King and her own family, preserving the narrative flow, and keeping the focus on “Mark Twain’s court.” A few small errors creep in among the footnotes. The birth and death dates for Lillian Gillette Foote (1874-1948) seem to be in error (51.n.10), and should probably read (1860-1932). One footnote (241.n.33) identifies Susan and Theodore Crane as the aunt and uncle who cared for Susy Clemens in 1896, but Susan’s husband had died in 1889. The presence of these trivial errors are more a testament to the overall excellent editing than flaws.

King’s acerbic wit emerges most often when she describes Hartford society. The young King was awed by Hartford’s wealth and social life, but that did not blind her from a clear-eyed view of what lay before her. During her 1887 visit she notes that people there “seem to know all about literary people and the names of books” but apparently do not read books (45-46). Oscar Wilde would not publish his famous quip about a cynic knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing for another five years. She also comments that Hartfordians “have the contented expression of face and speech of souls assured of salvation in the next life and prosperity in this” (47), echoing Twain’s famous comment on the “serene confidence which a Christian feels in four aces.” It can be no wonder that Twain liked Grace King; she was irritated by the “uncritical” attitude of Hartford society and noticed that those who had been to Europe were still “provincial in every respect” (77). Apparently, travel was not always fatal to prejudice, as Twain claimed. When in Paris herself, King (who was fluent in French) recorded with amusement that she understood French in Paris better than she understood English in London. Twain’s own observations on the awful German language and French translations of his own works come to mind. But her sharpest comments are for the “dried up uninteresting” girls at Smith College “with not the slightest eruption of chest development.” King concludes that “if ever I had daughters to educate they should be educated not to make a living, but to make a man make a living for them” (57). She found Smith girls to be “all ugly uninteresting girls” who were being “trained into science and homeliness” and reported that one girl had drowned herself in the river the previous week, saying “I am not surprised–only I would have loved to drown some of the others too, if I had been she” (143).

Of course, Twainians will be most interested in King’s reports on Twain’s behavior and conversation, and she does not disappoint. In her journal King gives a good idea of what it was like to talk with Twain, saying he was an attentive listener and quick to catch your idea, that he did not impose his own ideas, that he was “delightfully unpremeditated” in the way he worked his stories into a conversation, that he was frank and autobiographical, and that he treated a woman in conversation the same as he treated a man, and in this way put you at ease (xii). She describes Twain’s mocking impersonation of George W. Cable (223), describes Twain’s story-telling as “the greatest circus I was ever at” (42), witnesses Twain’s readings of Browning (42), and captures some amusing episodes, including one when she and the Clemenses and Warners were traveling together and entered a very hot train car. The women immediately opened the windows to cool off and this disturbed Twain who had curled up in a corner to read. She reports Twain grumbling “If a lot of women were sent to hell the first thing they would want to do would be to open the windows” (38). King was not only a recorder of Twain’s words and deeds, but she may have served as a model for some of his writings. When King was preparing to visit with the Clemenses in 1888, at a time when Twain was avoiding visitors while working on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Olivia wrote to King encouraging her visit, quoting her husband who said that he did not consider King “a mar to my work but an inspiration” (100).

As mentioned before, some page-turning moments come when Olivia Clemens shares with King her innermost thoughts after the death of Susy…….

…….Finish reading Kevin Mac Donnell’s review at the Mark Twain Forum

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Through a Southern Woman Writer’s Eyes: Seeing the Man in “A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns”

Miki Pfeffer at Quarry Farm

Editor’s Note: Miki Pfeffer, recent Quarry Farm Fellow, gave a lecture for CMTS on Grace King and Mark Twain as part of the Fall 2018 “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series. Her talk, “Getting to Know Mark Twain through the Eyes of Grace King, a Southern Woman of Letters,” can be found HERE.

“Why should we be interested in Grace King and her letters?” Steve Courtney asked me at the 2019 Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge. “Because she was a respected fiction writer and historian in her time (the late nineteenth and early twentieth century). And because she was a friend of Mark Twain and his family, for goodness sake! Hers is a fresh southern voice too little known, even by Twain scholars. There are nuggets of the personal lives of each of the Clemenses here, and this collection has never been gathered in one place in this way. King’s letters are not digitized, and many have not been transcribed previously. What a keen observer and letter writer she was. As examples, a meticulous description of food served at a Clemens dinner and her declaration from the splendid guest suite that she felt ‘like Beauty when the Beast left her alone in the palace,’ a line that is quoted during tours of the house.”

Steve Courtney of the curatorial staff at Mark Twain House was helping me launch A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns. He had written a foreword on how I made contact with the house just as he was reading King’s biography and her published notebooks. My book covers essential years from 1885 to Twain’s death in 1910, the period of King’s development as a writer and over the course of Twain’s zenith and nadir. In the letters, she tells delicious tidbits about Twain’s quirks, jokes, and stories, his warm generosity to her, and his loving ways as husband and father. Grace King and Olivia Clemens reveal remarkable confidences in their exchanges, and the personalities of Susy, Clara, and Jean shine through in uninhibited letters to their special friend, “Teety.”

Grace King first met the Clemenses in 1887 when she was visiting their neighbor and her mentor, Charles Dudley Warner, with whom Twain had written The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today (1873). The new acquaintances immediately began to spend much time together reading, talking, traveling, playing games, and sharing meals. The Clemenses invited Grace to spend a weekend with them that year and then a month with them in 1888, where the friends became more devoted to each other. The couple even brought Grace to New York so she could offer the dramatization of her first story, “Monsieur Motte,” to Augustin Daly, an impresario that Twain knew. Then in 1892, Grace King and her sister Nan visited the Clemenses for another several weeks at the Villa Viviani outside Florence, Italy. In between these visits, Grace, Livy, and the girls, especially, kept track of each other’s lives, ailments, sorrows, and pleasures in unfiltered letters with sometimes quite startling revelations.

Grace King

I first encountered King’s letters at the Hill Library at Louisiana State University while researching my previous book, Southern Ladies and Suffragists. I knew then that I’d return to those fascinating morsels of life, literature, and family in New Orleans. The next round of transcribing brought me to her friendship with Twain, about which I then knew little, and to the discovery of a cache of her letters to the Clemenses at the Mark Twain Project at University of California, Berkeley. Bob Hirst became my partner in uncovering all those letters, some of which, he told me, had been sitting there since the late 1960s waiting for someone to be interested enough and able to decipher what was apparently considered a difficult handwriting. I was delighted to assume that role.  The rest was pleasure and discovery, with each new letter unfolding another scene in the drama.

I intended from the beginning to include all of the Clemens letters. To tell Grace King’s own story, I chose excerpts and near-complete letters from the hundreds of family letters and wove them into a contextualizing narrative that allows her own voice to sing through. She tells how when she meets Twain, the writer of her deceased father’s favorite Innocents Abroad, she is thrilled; when he parodies her literary nemesis George Washington Cable, with whom Twain had toured and performed in 1885, she becomes further devoted. The sections of complete letters of each of the Clemenses to and from Grace allow the saga of family and friendship to be central to the story. These are interspersed with only narrative enough to keep the reader grounded.

Grace cultivated Livy’s friendship as well as Twain’s; she was no threat to wives of famous men. Instead, they seemed to have welcomed her as a smart, amusing, informed, and charming southerner who was good company, a reasonable card player, and an appreciative guest. Grace and Livy shared intense interest in food, fashion, manners, religion, business, literature, and more. Grace attended the regular “Brownings” at the house, when Twain read and performed Robert Browning’s poems. They played his favorite Hearts into the wee hours.

Many of the letters come from and tell little details about life at Quarry Farm, where the girls enjoy baseball games and moonlight rides, and in Hartford, about their lessons and performances and autographs of favorite stars of the theater, which Twain himself helped Clara gather. Livy writes about his intense writing at the farm and invites Grace to spend a month with the family in Hartford in October, 1888. She assures Grace that Mr. Clemens asserted that she would cause no disruption in the writing he planned, although he discouraged visits from male friends during that period of work. Grace became enfolded in the family during that month, when Twain voted Democratic in the presidential election, when Livy comforted Grace in her mourning for her maternal uncle, and when friendships deepened. These details might enhance some entries in the Twain Day by Day, which fascinated me when I spent time at Quarry Farm last year to speak in the Center for Mark Twain Studies’ Trouble Begins lecture series.

The letters take readers through joys and sorrows, especially during loss of both families’ members. Brief notes are as poignant as are formal announcements of deaths. Even when Clara alone is left of the Clemens family, she and Grace King exchange a few letters of affection. They see each other once more, in New Orleans in 1915, when Clara’s husband Ossip Gabrilowitsch performs with the city’s symphony.

The two-plus decades of letters are treasures from a unique friendship in a notable literary and cultural age. I have been gratified by the response of attendees at the Louisiana Book Festival and elsewhere to A New Orleans Author in Mark Twain’s Court: Letters from Grace King’s New England Sojourns. My hope is that this collection will fill tiny interstices in the study of Twain the man as friend and en famille.

Miki Pfeffer is a Visiting Scholar in History at Nichols State University, as well as author of Southern Ladies & Suffragettes, which won the Eudora Welty Prize in 2015.

Lecture focusing on Twain’s friend from New Orleans starts the Fall 2018 Trouble Begins Series

The fall portion of the 2018 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, begins Wednesday, October 10 in the Barn at Quarry Farm.  The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

Portrait of Grace King

The first lecture “Getting to Know Mark Twain through the Eyes of Grace King, a Southern Woman of Letters” will be presented by Miki Pfeffer, from Nicholls State University. New Orleans writer, Grace King, enjoyed a two-decade friendship with Sam and Livy Clemens and their daughters, Susy, Clara, and Jean. King visited the family in Hartford in 1887 and 1888 and in Florence in 1892. She wrote to her family about the Twain homes, meals, dress, and habits. From New Orleans, she exchanged letters with each Clemens, especially Livy, with whom she became a confidante. As each family member died, she kept in touch with the living, right through Clara’s brief messages around 1918. Miki Pfeffer will read from some of King’s captivating letters that offer a fresh view of the Clemenses and of Mark Twain as loving homebody, father, and generous friend to this ambitious southern woman.

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 scholarship in Women’s Studies and Southern Studies from the Mississippi University for Women.Her current mission is to see Grace King’s letters published and appreciated, and she offers the collection of the family of Twain in a book to be published in 2019.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series

In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series.  The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.