06.09.10

Mark Twain's Sex Toys

Recent news reports that Mark Twain owned a vibrator have surprised his fans, but biographer Laura Skandera Trombley says Twain was a famously sexual man—and a bully who blackmailed his assistant, Isabel Van Kleek Lyon.

Mark Twain was obsessed with his legacy, and he was determined to create an edifice that would withstand fickle readers and prying critics and forever establish him as America’s greatest writer. 2010 has been a banner year for Twain, and somewhere beyond Captain Stormfield’s heaven he is cackling with glee about how well his best laid plans have succeeded. He was aided in his task by his hand-picked biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, who opined that no one should ever be allowed to write about Twain: “As soon as this is begun (writing about him at all, I mean) the Mark Twain that we have ‘preserved’... the traditional Mark Twain—will begin to fade and change, and with that process the Harper Mark Twain property will depreciate.” Paine need not have worried. The “property” has maintained its popularity. A century later, the white-suited, genteel figure of the elderly Twain remains one of the most recognizable figures in American culture. As for his literary reputation, Charles Kuralt commented: “If I had to say as much about America as I possibly could in only two words, I would say these two words: ‘Huck Finn’.”

For some keepers of Paine’s “traditional Mark Twain,” the thought that Twain would have owned a vibrator is as unpalatable as the prospect that he may have used one for something other than his sore back.

This fall, Twain will manage to achieve his ultimate ambition, namely having a new book come out 100 years after his death. On November 30, 2010, Twain’s 175th birthday, the first of three volumes of his autobiography will be published. Readers will be treated to Twain’s non-chronological, unchained thoughts and while there will be anecdotes about growing up in Hannibal, there will also be plenty of Twain settling scores with the individuals on his personal hate list. In that vein, the third volume will reportedly include a 429-page blackmail manuscript that Twain spent five of the last 12 months of his life writing, a manuscript that he never intended for publication. Twain’s hoots of delight would instantly cease if he knew readers would soon be exposed to the “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript.” The object of Twain’s wrath was Isabel Van Kleek Lyon, his social secretary and companion for six and a half years.

The “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript” overflows with bile and shows Twain at his worst. To insure that Isabel would never tell anyone his family’s secrets, Twain relied on his best weapon of all, his writing, to silence her. He makes the outrageous claim that he could not be held responsible for granting power of attorney to Isabel (and excluding his two daughters) because she had held him in a hypnotic trance for “two or three years.” He also accuses Isabel of repeatedly trying to seduce him, although he supposedly refused to succumb to her licentious ways.

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Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years. By Laura Skandera Trombley. 352 pages. Knopf. $27.95. ()

Recent news stories have paid attention to two objects briefly noted by Twain—a pair of hand-held electric vibrating machines, referred to in news reports as “sex toys,” and the unlikely phrase “Mark Twain and Sex Toys” currently receives 131,000 hits when Googled. For some keepers of Paine’s “traditional Mark Twain,” the thought that Twain would have owned a vibrator is as unpalatable as the prospect that he may have used one for something other than his sore back. But Mark Twain was a sexual man. Prior to his marriage, he asked his good friend Frank Fuller to send him condoms: “Please forward one dozen Odorless Rubber Cundrums—I don’t mind them being odorless—I can supply the odor myself”; he fathered four children; wrote “Letters From the Earth” which contains a graphic description of women’s sexuality and 1601, which is, according to scholar Edward Wagenknecht, "the most famous piece of pornography in American literature."

Context is important. At the turn of the century with electricity available for home use, vibrators were the fifth electrical appliance to be invented—the first was the sewing machine; the iron would arrive a decade later. The belief that electricity had health benefits was widespread and massage was also accepted. In her fascinating study, The Technology of Orgasm, Rachel Maines discusses the history of the vibrator as an aid for treating “neurasthenia” or “hysteria.” Signs included muscular aches and pains, headaches, inability to relax, and irritability. Vibrators were most commonly used as a masturbation aid for women to relieve these symptoms. It was Isabel who purchased the Arnold Electric for Twain. Both of them used and liked it and Twain recommended it to friends. A few months later, Twain had a falling out with Isabel and he abruptly fired her. Working seven days a week for $50 a month and taking care of her employer’s every desire, Isabel’s reward was being forced to return the home and property Twain had given her, was branded by him as “a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction and always getting disappointed, poor child,” and told to keep her mouth shut or the blackmail manuscript would be published, ruining her reputation forever.

The Autobiography and the “Ashcroft-Lyon Manuscript” reveal evidence of uncomfortable truths about Mark Twain’s life-long animosities and predilection toward blackmail. This means that the general public and Twain scholars will need to reassess someone they thought they knew (and defended) so well. The whitewashed version of an asexual old man that has been in place for a century is passé. The time has come to rethink Mark Twain, vibrator and all, and discover the man behind the icon.

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Laura Skandera Trombley is most recently the author of Mark Twain's Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years. She was raised in Southern California and attended Pepperdine University, where she earned her bachelor's and master's degrees, and the University of Southern California, where she earned a Ph.D. in English literature. She is the president of Pitzer College in Claremont, California. She lives in Claremont with her husband and son.