Constructing Mark Twain: New Directions in Scholarship

By Laura E. Skandera Trombley; Michael J. Kiskis | Go to book overview

Mark Twain, Isabel Lyon,
and the “Talking Cure”

Negotiating Nostalgia and Nihilism
in the Autobiography

JENNIFER L. ZACCARA

While Mark Twain worked in the autobiographical mode throughout his life—in his fiction, in travel books, and even in the ongoing construction of his literary persona—he began to turn serious attention to the composition of The Autobiography of Mark Twain from 1897 to 1906. As a self-conscious master of mining the self for literary production, Twain took great interest in experimenting with form and methodology in his autobiography. After 1904, Twain developed a penchant for dictating as opposed to writing the Autobiography, with the privileging of voice over writing. Mark Twain's passion for striking out into fresh and original literary territory rarely faltered, but in the decision to try dictation, Twain revealed his hope that voiced memories might possess the power of psychic resurrection.

As a result of his interest in modern psychology and his two-year residence in Vienna from 1897 to 1899, Twain began to formulate a theory of autobiography that contained many of the tenets of an emerging psychological movement in which talk therapy or the “talking cure” played a decisive role. Working with stream of consciousness, free association, memories, and dreams, Twain aimed to tell stories that would enable him to cope with loss: financial bankruptcy followed by the deaths of his daughter Susy and wife, Livy. Mark Twain's personal assistant, Isabel Lyon, first hired as Livy Clemens's correspondence secretary in 1904, played an important role in the author's design to use talk as therapy; her diaries and journals record

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