Mark Twain Was a Hero To His Maidservant
Her Memoirs of Thirty Years Service Are Salty and Unsophisticated
A LIFETIME WITH MARK TWAIN. The memories of Katy Leary, for thirty years his faithful and devoted servant. Written by Mary Lawton. With many illustrations. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co. $3.50
By Charles Willis Thompson
Miss Lawton, who is a very clever woman, seems of late to be specializing in cooks, ladies' maid and other flowers of that uncombed field. This time she has picked out an old acquaintance, for she is a friend of Mark Twain's daughter, Clara, and must have known Katy, "for thirty years his faithful and devoted servant." That accounts for the accent in this book being truer and the manner more effortless than in her autobiography - the word sounds queer, but there isn't any other - of Rosa Lewis, "the queen of cooks."
The books purports to be a monologue by this Irish servant girl, set down just as she spoke it, bad grammar, idioms, cuss words and all; and the effect is heightened by the art with which Katy breaks off in the middle of a sentence because she is reminded of something else. It is a most perversely enthralling story, for the reader is perfectly aware all along of the fact that it is Miss Lawton who is engineering the narrative and even padding it. It ought not to be enthralling, but it is.
It is a picture of the home life of the Clemens family, which is pretty well known already; but the salt of Katy's phrases, and the careless and unsophisticated way in which she talks of Mark Twain's friends and explains ingenuously that this or that one was "very famous" or explains with equal ingenuousness who such a man as Aldrich or Warner was, are very taking. It does not make the Clemens menage new, but freshens it up surprisingly. Naturally Katy knew a good deal more about the ladies of the family than about Mark Twain, but Miss Lawton's art is fully equal to the suppression of that fact.
Neither she nor Katy can add anything to one's knowledge of the man. He is the man we know so well, with the exception that he is just a little too good. There is no new light even on Mrs. Clemens; Mark Twain himself and Albert Bigelow Paine seem to have said the final word, with some correction from Van Wyck Brooks. In the field which Miss Lawton has set herself to cultivate her art has only one flaw, which is her effort to impress on you what extraordinarily fine folks her subjects were. The ideal sweetness of the relations between Samuel and Olivia is rubbed in until it becomes just a trifle cloying.
It would be silly to expect that anybody in Miss Lawton's place should really report Katy just as she spoke. The guiding hand of the director is necessarily evident. But the genuineness of Katy's talk wherever she needed no guidance speaks for itself. It is a little too steep, however, when Katy gives the history of Mark Twain's disastrous venture in putting a typesetting machine on the market or details how he arranged with General Grant the terms on which the General's memoirs should be published. The argument will be, of course, that Katy overheard the Clemens family discussing these business deals; but it is not in nature for an illiterate servant to take enough interest in such subjects to not the details and report them accurately in conversation forty years afterward. There are many other instances where, if Katy rally told the stories she is quoted as telling, she certainly got them not out of her own memory but out of books such as Mark Twain's Autobiography or Paine's life of him, and retold them in her own manner. And that is a charitable interpretation. But after all this, there is enough unmistakable Katyism in the book to make it a joy to the multitude of Mark Twain lovers. There is also a great deal of unmistakable Twainishness, to be found nowhere else. Take for instance, his comment of Mr. Gilder's death:
"Mr. Clemens felt terrible, and he said: 'So Gilder is dead - dead. Isn't he a happy man! We'll all be that way pretty soon - we're going fast.' "
That sardonic "Isn't he a happy man" is unmistakably Clemens. So, too, in a different but Twainish manner, is this, about his life in Vienna:
He had a little study right off the dining room, and when I left the door open one time and he told me to shut it, I asked him was he cold, and he said:
"Oh, no, Katy, no I'm not cold. It isn't that the open door lets the cold in, but it lets the coziness out!"
Katy's descriptions of his rages, which are frequent - and not always new - are racy. As, for instance:
Why, he used to get terrible mad - sometimes when he'd get a new suit of clothes. The tailor was a damned fool, he's say, that made that suit! he was an idiot! this was wrong and that was wrong! the pockets were too small - and oh, how he'd fuss! But even that was nice, very nice. Yes, I loved to hear him even then. When he talked that way it didn't mean that he was cross - it warn't really in an angry way. It really sounded more like a joke to me when he used them words - nobody thought anything about it when he raged round and said them things.
In another of her descriptions of this side of Mark Twain she retells the story of how, being kept awake at Thomas Nast's house by the ticking of the clocks, he furiously got up and put all the clocks out on the lawn. She tells it better than it has ever been told before, but spoils it toward the end by that fault of Miss Lawton's which I have mentioned - her desire to make everything lovely. She makes it appear that Nast enjoyed the performance; which, to any one who knows anything about the great cartoonist's temperament, is obviously impossible. This is one of the stories which she read somewhere and which Miss Lawton has either got her to repeat or has put in her mouth.
Better than this, because more real and equally characteristic, is her account of her visit to Heidelberg:
An then we stopped at that wonderful Schloss Hotel, and the first thing Mr. Clemens did he took me out to the front of the hotel ('twas built way up on a hill, you know). "Because," he says, "Katy, I want to show you a string of diamonds - the most beautiful string of diamonds in the whole world," he says. And so he took me out there to the open, and looking down there was rows and rows of these pretty little gas lights - all down that hill - two rows of them - glittering and sparkling and flashing in the night. And, oh! it did look just like a string of diamonds. It was a great sight, and Mr. Clemens he loved that. It struck him as looking so real - them rows of twinkling little lights - just like diamonds, as he said. And they was really more beautiful than any thing I'd ever seen before.
There are charming irrelevancies, such as occur in her account of how Clemens bolted the Republican ticket in 1884 and turned Mugwump:
I don't know anything about politics, but I know George, the butler, was terrible upset about this, 'cause he was a Republican, and it made him feel very bad to think Mr. Clemens was going to vote for Cleveland (a Democrat) and influencing all his friends to vote for him, too.
This is good. It is a pity that Miss Lawton (or Katy) saw fit to add the ancient story about Mark's call on the Clevelands, when he got Mrs. Cleveland to write an assurance to Mrs. Clemens that Mark had not worn his rubbers at the White House. In fact, Miss Lawton tries to cover too much ground. She has Katy arguing that Clemens, though an atheist, was a Christian at bottom. Among educated Catholics there are those who would cheerfully subscribe to such a sentiment, but uneducated Irish servant girls who go into the fundamentals of universal religion are rare. There is the ring of truth about Katy's account of how her parish priest, Father Hardy, was horrified over the publication of "A Connecticut Yankee at the Court of King Arthur." The priest says to Katy, or at least, she so translates his language:
"Why, how can you work for such a man as Mark Twain? Why he's just the biggest atheist that ever was, and he's written an awful book. *** The way he's written up the Catholic religion is something terrible."
But when Katy learnedly explains to Father Hardy the underlying thought in the apparent attack on their religion and puts the priest in his place, it is a little hard to swallow. It is good literary criticism, of a rather higher order than some professional critics are capable of, but did Katy really crush the priest by her power of analysis?
It is hard to resist the conclusion that while Katy talked a great deal to Miss Lawton, and was faithfully reported, she didn't talk enough to fill a whole book. Even if Katydid tell stories she had heard, such as "the report of my death is greatly exaggerated," it might have been as well to leave some of the oldest of them out. Toward the close of the book these well-known stories become so numerous that they exceed the things Katy obviously related from her own experiences. But Miss Lawton has skillfully preserved Katy's style and her habit of thought, even there. A touching thing is her account of her discovery of Jean Clemens's dead body and her report of it to Jean's father:
Mr. Clemens had heard the noise and thought we was getting ready to go to the station, and then - oh! I knew I must tell him somehow, and so I ran straight into his room for I couldn't thing any more, and I cried out, without even giving him any warning (I was so crazed with grief). I says: "Oh, Mr. Clemens, Mr. Clemens! Miss Jean is dead!" I hardly knew what I said! I couldn't think at all. I just cried it out.
He jumped right out of bed and put his two hands to his head whispered: "Oh, God! Oh, God!"
And he ran with me to the bathroom where she lay, and when he seen her he stood very still, and just looked and looked at her, and said, "How beautiful she looks, Katy! How beautiful!" And he stood there a long time, looking at her without speaking. Then he said: "She's happy now, she's with her mother and sister; and if I thought I could bring her back by just saying one word, I wouldn't say it."
It is, however, a little singular that Katy did not remember to marshal this significant saying along with the rest of the proofs she gives that Mark Twain, though an atheist, was at bottom a Christian. She remembered such inconclusive bits of evidence as the fact that he liked to sing negro spirituals, but this straightforward declaration of a belief in a happy future life (Heaven, to put it shortly) is not in the list.
If Katy did say all she is reported as saying, Miss Lawton should have used a sterner editorial judgment. At one time Katy was so hard up for something to say that she told that old one about how Roosevelt brought on the World War because he told the Kaiser the German army could whip the whole world and the Kaiser believed him. That was not very funny even when it was in vaudeville, and it had nothing to do with Mark Twain.
But even if the book is padded, it is a lovely thing to read. The matter about the Clemens family becomes a little too syrupy, as I have said, but Katy herself stands out. Her quaintness and humor, her wisdom and ignorance, make a character fit to stand among some of the best in literature. From first to last Katy is fascinating. Even where one has doubts about whether it is Katy or Miss Lawton who is talking, there is not the slightest incongruity or let down in character and style. Here is the full-length portrait of the old time Irish servant girl of the Victorian period, painted so exactly that one cannot find a flaw - except in the perfection of her adoration for the master and mistress and children. That old-time Irish servant girl might love her employers limitlessly, but there was always a keen eye for their defects and a sharp and often witty tongue to deal with them. But let that pass, Miss Lawton has contributed an enchanting figure to literature; and if we must be meticulous about it, we can easily imagine for ourselves some of the snappy things that Katy said and her editor suppressed.
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