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'Dangerous Intimacy: Mark Twain's Final Years' Review

The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years

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Dangerous Intimacy: Mark Twain

Dangerous Intimacy The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years

University of California Press
Dangerous Intimacy is the title of Karen Lystra's biography about Mark Twain's final years. The title suggests a torrid love affair and other romantic misadventures; and the book follows through with that assumption, though not in the way one would expect.
A myriad of critical studies and biographies have been written about Mark Twain, many of which have studied the ups and downs of his life: his early days in Hannibal, the events of his childhood that creep into his novels, the publication of his short stories and books, and his family life. With so many books that take into account the totality of Twain's life, Lystra decided to take a different approach.

In this biography, she challenges many of the assumptions that have been made about Twain's final years. "Some suggest that Twain was close to paranoid fantasy," says Lystra, "while others more charitably hint that he was losing his grip on reality as he slid into depression and despair."

Drawing from the source material left behind by some of Twain's closest family and friends, Lystra paints a very different portrait of Mark Twain's last days. Lystra offers evidence, which turns the tables on the conception of Twain as a "downcast, cheerless old man." In depicting his tragedies and triumphs, she puts the stories of his life into mythic perspective, offering a story that has largely been hidden until now.
King Lear / Fairy Tale

Mark Twain plays the part of King Lear as he recounts his folly: "I couldn't help myself; that all in good time they would be indisputably supreme here, & I another stripped and forlorn King Lear."

As for the fairy tale, Jean Clemens is the youngest daughter, tormented by the evil would-be stepmother (Twain's secretary/housekeeper) and locked away in a castle (sanitarium) far removed from all that she knows and loves. Like so many fairy tales, she is subjected to plots and devices that keep her away from her home and family. And, it's only after the spell is lifted and her father is able to see the reality of the situation, that she can finally return to her place at her father's side.

Aside from the fairy-tale aspects of the story, Jean could also be compared to King Lear's youngest daughter, Cordelia, as she demonstrates the same capacity for forgiveness and self-sacrifice. Jean continues to love and trust her father, even as he refuses to acknowledge or respond to her urgent pleas for help.
The Separating Factor & Prejudice

It was a time of prejudice, and Jean was the center of it all. Of course, Jean wasn't separated from her family by an act of will or fault. Instead, she had epilepsy, an incurable ailment that ostracized her from society and eventually was the cause of her death by drowning.

Capitalizing on the misinformation and confusion that surrounded the disease at the time, Twain's trusted secretary and Jean's doctors were easily able to convince him that Jean needed to be placed into a sanitarium.

Now, "After many years," Lystra says, "it is time for prejudice and prevarication to give way to an honest and compassionate story. Surely Jean deserves better than to be characterized by her seizures." In this book, we are given glimpses into Jean's life, and we get Jean's perspective on her father. It's far different than the portrayal that Susy Clemens once wrote of her father in her youth. Along with the glimpses of the relationship between Twain and his daughter, we see something of who Jean was: her joys, her fears, and her ambitions. And now, Mark Twain's days are also drawn to a close.
The End or the Beginning of the Legend...

The tragedies of Mark Twain's last days culminate in this biography. With Jean's death, we see despair, with snow falling over everything. So much of what Mark Twain had loved passed away, leaving him with an empty sense of agony and loss. We see, as Lystra says "a man in the raw: his uncommon dignity, his intensity of feeling, his sensitivity to the telling detail, his biting irony; and most of all, his honesty, even as he gazed at Jean's corpse."

Perhaps, it's best to end with the last line in this biography, which is a quote from Twain: "You can find in a text whatever you bring, if you will stand between it and the mirror of your imagination." May you find in this biography that for which you search...

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