WMU News

New book looks at Mark Twain's feminine side

Nov. 12, 2001

KALAMAZOO -- Two women forced to marry one another?

Does it seem possible that the beloved author Mark Twain, who gave the world the epitome of boyhood in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, would spin such a scandalous tale?

As a matter of fact he did, and produced 11 other tales of unconventional young women that have been unearthed and published in a new book by Dr. John Cooley, a Western Michigan University Professor of English.

In the book, "How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson and Other Tales of Rebellious Girls and Daring Young Women," published by the University of Nebraska Press, Cooley, a noted expert on Twain, has collected 12 stories by Twain that share two common traits: the protagonists are female and behave in ways that flagrantly violate Victorian convention.

"While Twain had an interest in writing stories about young girls and women during his whole writing career, it intensified between 1895 and 1908," explains Cooley. "He wrote many of these 'girl stories' as the world was evolving from the Victorian virtues of gentleness, innocence and purity to the 'New Woman' movement that focused on women's rights.

"The heroines of these stories are all young, unmarried and assume personality traits and behaviors that Twain and his society typically reserved for young males."

While most of Twain's girl stories were published in such publications of the day as Cosmopolitan Magazine, the Buffalo Express and the Californian, Cooley's book brings to light several stories not before seen by the public. "Wapping Alice," the tale of a transvestite who traps an unwitting beau into marriage, never appeared in print during Twain's lifetime. And it wasn't until nearly 80 years after it was penned that "How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson," another same sex farce, was finally published.

According to Cooley, Twain's motivation to write girl stories may have originally been money, but his wife, Olivia, and three daughters had a strong influence on his foray into feminine fiction.

"At the time, women were the primary book buyers for their families, and Twain realized that his success as a writer was increasingly tied to female and family-oriented readers," says Cooley.

"However, he always had a circle of women around him and, as his daughters became teens, they read and commented on his manuscripts. His eldest daughters, Susy and Clara, influenced and shaped the direction of these stories and aspects of their personalities are apparent in the protagonists of several of the stories."

Interestingly, while Clemens experimented with many female roles in his stories, he made sure his own daughters did little to emulate the brave, strong and rebellious heroines found in his fiction.

"The female protagonists express an independence of thought and action that Clemens was unwilling to give his own daughters," Cooley says. "In fact, Clemens stated publicly that he carefully raised his daughters as young ladies, 'who don't know anything and can't do anything.'"

By leaving home and pursuing a singing career, Clara provoked Clemens's disapproval and punishment on various occasions for acting in ways he deemed inappropriate. Clemens even insisted that Clara travel with and be accompanied at all times by a chaperone until she married, which she did at the age of 35.

Another common thread found in Twain's girl stories is that many are about capable women and incapable men.

"In order to elevate women, male roles are denigrated, " explains Cooley. "The men are lacking in intelligence, or they're weak or indecisive."

One story included in the volume, however, may beg the question of being a "girl story." "Wapping Alice" depicts a male transvestite who convincingly fools the family for which he works as a female nanny and ultimately coerces a young man into marriage. Although dressed as a young lady, Alice most definitely is not. Cooley says that Twain later dismissed the male identity of Alice as "an inessential part of the story, with the swipe of a pen he could make Alice a girl."

Also influencing Twain's girl stories were his friendships beginning in 1905 with a dozen young schoolgirls who were members of his "Aquarium Club." These young girls were not unlike his own daughters at that age. They were all from wealthy families and fit into the Victorian ideal of an adolescent female. Clemens called the girls his "Angelfish," meeting and entertaining them in proper places such as concert halls, on ocean liners, in Bermuda hotels and at his estate in Redding, Conn.

"It's not a coincidence that there are a dozen girl stories and a dozen girls in the club," says Cooley, who wrote about the Aquarium Club in his 1991 book, "Mark Twain's Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens Angelfish Correspondence, 1905-1910." "But the female protagonists of these stories are entirely different from the girls in the club because they push the envelope and are willing to stand up for what they want. In five of the stories, the girls are impersonating men, cross-dressing and cross-acting. That is essential Mark Twain: where the characters masquerade as something other than what they are to achieve their goals."

Cooley notes that publishing the book "How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson and other tales of Rebellious Girls and Daring Young Women," is especially timely, given that "Mark Twain," a new film directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, will air on PBS stations Jan. 14 and 15.

"Mark Twain is the essential, if not the quintessential, American figure, and his popularity continues to ride a high crest," says Cooley. "He was the humorist of his day, and he experimented with a lot of different things in his literature. We're still trying to figure him out."

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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