A Family Sketch and Other Private Writings. By Mark Twain, Livy Clemens, and Susy Clemens. Edited by Benjamin Griffin of the Mark Twain Project. University of California Press, 2014. Pp. 200. Hardcover. ISBN 978-0-520-28073-1. $25.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-520-95963-7. $16.86 (ebook).

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The following review appeared 6 May 2015 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Cindy Lovell

Casual and scholarly readers and admirers of Mark Twain hold high expectations when the publisher of a new volume is the University of California Press and the editor is among the esteemed scholars of the Mark Twain Project. High though those expectations are, editor Ben Griffin exceeds them with his thoughtful and insightful compilation of six brief but compelling writings by Mark Twain, his wife Livy (Olivia) Clemens, and their then thirteen-year-old daughter Susy Clemens. The result is a hymn to family composed of conversations, memories, and reflections of the young family -- Papa, Mamma, Susy, Clara, and Jean that become audible in the reader's imagination due to the diligence of the editor to preserve the authenticity of the original sources.

The book includes six primary texts: 1) "A Family Sketch" by Mark Twain; 2) "A True Story, Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It" by Mark Twain; 3) "A Record of the Small Foolishnesses of Susie and 'Bay' Clemens (Infants)" by Mark Twain; 4) "At the Farm" by Mark Twain; 5) "Quarry Farm Diary" by Livy Clemens; and 6) "Mark Twain" by Susy Clemens. Ben Griffin's remarkable introduction and notes contextualize the writings and prepare the reader for the intimate experience the book offers, including more than a dozen photographs of the family and servants. Griffin also includes a complete and thorough biographical directory of the full cast of characters at the end of the book.

Both "A Family Sketch" and "A Record of the Small Foolishnesses of Susie and 'Bay' Clemens (Infants)" appear in this volume for the first time in their entirety. "A Family Sketch" was acquired by the Mark Twain Papers in 2010 at the record setting price of almost $250,000. Griffin's introduction offers a brief history of both of these manuscripts and their importance to Mark Twain biography.

The grieving Clemens was unable to satisfactorily complete a memorial he attempted to write about Susy after her death at age 24; however, "he found 'A Family Sketch' growing under his hands to become an account of the entire household -- family and servants too. Servants especially, we might say" (2). One would be hard pressed to find a richer account of 19th century servants' lives anywhere other than the biographies Clemens provides here of coachman Patrick McAleer, butler George Griffin, lady's maid Katy Leary, nursemaid Rosina Hay and others. His fondness for, and at times frustration with, the servants reveals a familial intimacy. Clemens's admiration for Griffin was genuine and well deserved. He described Griffin:

He was invaluable for his large wisdoms and his good nature made up for his defects. He was the peace-maker in the kitchen -- in fact the peace-keeper, for by his good sense and right spirit and mollifying tongue he adjusted disputes in that quarter before they reached the quarrel-point (18).

Clemens describes the interactions among servants and family members, which include Griffin's role as a lion or tiger in the Hartford home. The "Sketch" includes similarly rich stories about the daughters. For instance, Clemens inserted eight-year-old Clara's written account of a near disaster in the Hartford barn from which a quick-thinking McAleer saved her, Susy, and their friend Daisy Warner from suffocation in the oat-bin where they were trapped.

"A Family Sketch" is told from the perspective of a reminiscing Clemens years after the events had occurred. "A True Story Repeated Word for Word as I Heard It," however, was written by Clemens shortly after hearing the tale from Mary Ann Cord, a former slave employed as the Crane family's cook at Quarry Farm. Griffin restores the text to its original state in this edition. The Atlantic Monthly took editing liberties in its 1874 publication of the story. Clemens's retelling of Cord's incredible account of her life as an enslaved mother who had been separated from her children on the auction block represents some of his best writing. Told in the first person, Cord's dialogue is suggestive of the language that would later appear in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

"A Record of the Small Foolishnesses of Susie and 'Bay' Clemens (Infants)" spans nine years (1876-1885) and includes the kind of sayings and stories cherished by parents everywhere. Stories about Jean were included after her birth in 1880, but the emphasis is on the actions of "Modoc" (Susie) and "the Bay" (Clara), primarily at the Hartford home. Here the reader will especially appreciate Griffin's masterful editing and clarifications. Clemens's accounts of Livy's character, "in these writings and elsewhere, are hyperbolic, and no easier to interpret because of that. He represents her as an untarnishable character, incapable of wrong; it follows that she is the perfect mother, from whose ruling there is no appeal" (5). Griffin goes on to point out, however, that in Susy's biography of her father, "Mamma's oppinions and ideas upon the subject of bringing up children has always been more or less of a joke in our family" (5). The reader will likely conclude that the truth lies somewhere in the middle when reading about the naughtiness and punishments of the Clemens daughters. Clemens recorded a good example of this on December 31, 1880:

For some months Bay has been bribed to not quarrel with Susie -- at 3 cents a day. Conversation to-day:
Bay: "Mamma, you owe me for two days."
Mamma: "Bay, you have not seen Susie for 2 days -- she has been sick in bed."
Bay: "Why Mamma, don't you count that?" (81).

Immediately following that story is one Hal Holbrook has been known to perform eloquently in "Mark Twain Tonight!" in which Susie announces to Livy that she has altered her way of praying:

"Tell me about it, Susie."
"Well, mamma, I don't know that I can make you understand: but you know, the Indians thought they knew; and they had a great many gods. We know, now, that they were wrong. By and by, maybe it will be found out that we are wrong, too. So, now, I only pray that there may be a God -- and a heaven -- OR SOMETHING BETTER" (82).

And so it continues, the "Record" offering the tender and comic musings and antics of Susie, Clara, and Jean Clemens.

"At the Farm" consists of a handful of paragraphs Clemens recorded in Elmira. They are especially important because they provide generous descriptions of four-year-old Jean who was already revealing her love of animals. On July 7, 1884 Clemens wrote:

Yesterday evening our cows (after being inspected and worshiped by Jean from the shed for an hour,) wandered off down into the pasture, and left her bereft. I thought I was going to get back home, now, but that was an error. Jean knew of some more cows, in a field somewhere, and took my hand and led me thitherward (96).

The fifth text of the book, a mere six pages written by Livy Clemens during the summer of 1885, is "Quarry Farm Diary." It is all the more precious for its brevity and includes a surprising (considering Clara's feisty nature) note in Clara's Bible reminding herself, "Be good to Susy… Be sweet to Mamma… Be good always" (102). Livy laments having to leave "this beloved Quarry Farm" (103) and closes with an unfulfilled prediction: "Probably the next time I write in this book will be in Hartford, if we are spared to arrive there safely" (104).

The apt final text of the collection is a biography titled "Mark Twain" penned by thirteen-year-old Susy Clemens. Many readers will be familiar with this piece through Charles Neider's Papa: An Intimate Biography of Mark Twain (1985) and through Mark Twain's own insertions of Susy's writings in "Chapters from My Autobiography" in North American Review (1906-7). Giving Susy her due, Griffin's "present edition aims to preserve Susy's spelling and grammar, with minimal editorial correction, and to print her little book as she wrote it, without the intervention of her famous father" (7).

Susy's honest account of her beloved papa expands on the entire family, including the menagerie of pets, special friends and guests, and family members she knew or only knew of. She retells stories handed down to her, describing, for instance, how her Grandpa Langdon bought the newlyweds a home "in Bufalo; but he wanted to keep it a secret, from 'Youth' as Grandpa called papa" (110). It is a treasury of detail, intimate and sweet, full of day-to-day family tidbits that beckon the reader to join the family. Her love for her papa and her entire family is evident. Despite her inventive spelling she is a fine storyteller in her own right. It is a book one wishes to read in its entirety; however, it is a book that was never completed. The unsuspecting reader who makes it to Susy's entry on June 26, 1886 will experience high anticipation. She writes:

We are all of us on our way to Keokuk to see Grandma Clemens, who is very feeble and wants to see us. And pertickularly Jean who is her name sake. We are going by way of the lakes, as papa thought that would be the most comfortable way (164).

Now, who wouldn't be speculating as to what comes next? Does Jane Clemens tell the girls stories about Sam's Hannibal childhood? Does she suggest a trip to Hannibal, which is just sixty miles to the south? Are there celebrations planned for the upcoming 4th of July? We will never know. Susy's next -- and final -- entry for her book reads:

July 4. We have arrived in Keokuk after a very pleasant (164).

It ends mid-sentence, without any punctuation, and with all the intent of the average thirteen-year-old to resume writing any time now. But she does not, and that is where this book ends -- leaving the reader wanting much more.

It is impossible to reference every wonderful and delightful story in this review -- Clara's long list of wet nurses and the so-called effects of their characteristics upon her personality; Jean's speculation of "I wonder God lets us have so much ducks -- Patrick kills them so" (93); Susy's mention of a game of croquet or the visit to General Grant's with her papa.

In this age of blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, every cute utterance by babies everywhere is recorded and widely shared. The remembrances on these pages are the Clemens family's record and the stuff of every parent's most cherished memories -- the charmingly mispronounced words, the amusingly misunderstood concepts, and the endearingly phonetic spellings. It is also a partial record of Mark Twain's publishing career, with the children commenting on new manuscripts and favorite stories -- works that today constitute the Clemens literary canon but at the time were simply novelties to little girls whose papa was a wealth of stories.

This book is a credit to the Mark Twain Project and its editor Ben Griffin. The guides at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford regard it as their primary source for good reason. It offers a poignant and moving account of the happiest years of the Clemens family, and it is an excellent work of scholarship that can be relied upon to be credible, accurate, and authentic.


N.B. -- According to Benjamin Griffin of the Mark Twain Project, during the 1880s the Clemens family changed the spelling of Olivia Susan Clemens's nickname from Susie to Susy. This volume follows the spelling of the original source documents without alteration and this review follows that pattern.