What I Don’t Know About Mark Twain

When I was about ten, I discovered in my father’s study a shelf of handsome, red, limp-leather volumes, their covers embossed with a man’s bewhiskered, scowling profile. It was a full set of Mark Twain’s books, given to my father as a boy not long after his mother died.  He’d read them over and over, he told me, adding that Mark Twain had just about saved his life during those sad years. My father’s motherless boyhood was almost unthinkable to me–how could I survive without my own mother?-–but I was impressed that his life had been saved by a writer, so I read the books as a found them, starting with Roughing It and ending with Joan of Arc.  At times, I hardly understood what I was reading, but I carried on anyway, wanting to oblige my father and mesmerized by the voice of Mark Twain, that intimate, keen, wisecracking, impatient, thunderous, all-knowing voice.  It sounded to me then like the voice of God.

Twenty years later on a cold November afternoon, I arrived in the driveway of Mark Twain’s house in Hartford, where a tour was already underway. A young guide was telling a small crowd that visitors often believe that Mark Twain designed his house to look like a steamboat.  I stepped back to look at the house–which is large and rambling and built of bricks, and yet seems somehow buoyant, with a prowlike veranda and cheerful little balconies and three smokestack chimneys–and sure enough, it did look like a steamboat.  But the tour guide added that Twain did not intend for this house to look like a steamboat and that a host of the other misconceptions were really wishful thinking on the part of his admirers.

She went on to tell us that Mark Twain had fathered three daughters, the oldest of whom was called Susy. T his was also my childhood name, spelled slightly differently. Susy and her sisters used to put on plays in their schoolroom, in which they wore their mother’s gowns and impersonated English queens and ordered each other’s beheadings.  I recalled similar dramatics with my own two younger sisters–we were likewise drawn the bloodthirsty themes.  Our tour guide described how Twain had entertained his little girls by the living room fire, making up thrilling stories about the bric-a-brac on the living room mantle.  My father, too, had been an inventive storyteller.  He used to sit us next to him on the piano bench and tell wild, funny stories about ogres and witches based on the notes he played, ending always with a reverberant glissando.

A dangerous but absorbing confusion began forming in my mind as I wandered through Mark Twain’s house, peering at his wallpaper and admiring his carved Venetian four-poster bed.  The more I discovered about Mark Twain’s daughters, the more I felt I already knew.  Their father had been hot-tempered and humorous; so had mine.  They had lived in a big beautiful house; which was later lost to them; so had I.  It hardly mattered that the differences between our families were far more numerous than the similarities; that there were similarities at all between my family and Mark Twain’s seemed heady enough.

Ten years after visiting his house, I began a novel about Mark Twain’s daughters. It would be a historical novel, I decided, set in Hartford during the Gilded Age.  I could already visualize the Merchant Ivory movie that would follow-three decorative little Victorian girls in white pinafores bowling hoops on a green lawn while their fierce-looking father smoked his corncob pipe in the background.  But after three years of trying, I found that I could not do it.

I sat down and listed various theories to account for my failure: Mark Twain would have resented such an intrusion into his family life.  I had done too much research and become musclebound with facts.  I identified too much with the daughters.  No plot that I could devise did the justice to the girls’ complexity, plus my motives for writing about them were murky and contaminated by self-regard.  All true.

Yes it was at this painful moment that the book I was eventually to write came into being. What really interested me, I finally understood, were the ways in which we claim to understand other people’s lives based on our own. Misconceptions and wishful thinking are as much a part of what we know about other people as any “truthful” details about them.  As the narrator of my book says about her father, whose version of her childhood does not agree with her own: “That was the story he put together from all those details, a story like that, like most stories people tell themselves about other people, was mostly about him.”

This character, who writes historical novels for girls and happens to be writing about Mark Twain’s daughters, has finally figured it all out.  Then again, the minute you think you’ve got the last word on someone-well, that’s exactly when he gets away from you, isn’t it?