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”
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.
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.