The possibility at first seemed far-fetched: A Los Angeles collector, who had paid a dollar apiece for the stamps on 100 old envelopes in a downtown hobby shop, wondered if the letters inside might have been written by Mark Twain.
The man approached USC English professor Jay Martin, who in turn asked a graduate student, Laura Skandera, to look into it. Sure, she replied, but the letters were probably phony.
Written mainly to Twain’s three daughters around the turn of the 20th century, the letters were funny, sharply observant and occasionally cantankerous, like the author himself. And for a young scholar who then knew little of Twain, they were irresistible.
The serendipitous role Skandera played in investigating and identifying one of the largest caches of Twain correspondence ever found would have a dramatic effect on the young woman and on the study of a towering literary figure.
It launched Skandera, then 26, on a scholarly journey far different from the one she had envisioned. She switched her focus from Wordsworth and other English Romantic poets to Twain, a writer whose style and subjects were profoundly American. Nearly two decades later, Laura Skandera Trombley, as she is known these days, is a noted Twain scholar and the president of Pitzer College in Claremont.
Feminist, provocative and often controversial, her scholarship has challenged established views of Twain as a strong, almost iconic male archetype of American literature -- the adventurous riverboat pilot who became the nation’s irascible sage.
She argues that the author actually was deeply influenced by the women in his life and was largely dependent on their ideas and support to produce his best work.
The author of such tales of independent boyhood -- and manhood -- as the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “Roughing It”, Trombley asserts, was less than independent himself.
Much of her early research and writing centered on the roles of Twain’s wife, Olivia, and other family members. More recently, Trombley has looked primarily at the influence of his longtime secretary, Isabel Lyon.
Many in the field consider the work groundbreaking.
“Her research has been absolutely enlightening,” said Ann Ryan, associate professor of English at New York’s Le Moyne College and president of the Mark Twain Circle of America, a national organization of academics specializing in the author. “She invites this larger rethinking of Twain that shifts it from the conventional reading ... to a much more complicated, more nuanced view.
“She’s one of the most important scholars on Twain in recent years.”
But Trombley’s work, especially her first book, “Mark Twain in the Company of Women,” also raised hackles in Twain circles. “Feminist fantasy,” one reviewer wrote of the 1994 volume.
In a recent interview, Trombley shrugged off the criticism. “You’re dealing with Twain,” she said simply. “People tend to be pretty invested in their views of him.”
Now 45, she juggles leadership of the small liberal arts college with forays to Twain forums and research centers, and hours devoted to finishing up her third book on Twain.
Trombley also was among a handful of academics to serve as advisors and on-camera experts for Ken Burns’ 2002 PBS documentary on the writer, who died in 1910.
“Her book was particularly interesting to us, showing that this guy we tend to think of as a rapscallion was really influenced by the women in his life,” said Dayton Duncan, who co-wrote the film and collaborated with Burns in producing it. “Once his wife was dead, it really signaled an end to his major work.”
In addition, Duncan said, Trombley, an engaging storyteller herself, was “just a lot of fun to work with.”
Trombley says she is still fascinated and amused by Twain, a man so gifted at marketing himself that nearly a century after his death, his name still evokes his white-haired likeness.
“That’s the image we have of him because that’s the image he wanted people to have,” she said, chuckling, during an interview in her Pitzer office. “And it’s been so co-opted, it sells everything from pizza to banks to luggage. You know, Twain and Elvis, two symbols of American cultural life that are just indelible.”
Her latest paper, on Twain’s youngest daughter, Jean, and the effects of Jean’s health problems on the author and his household, was presented in August to a gathering of Twain experts at Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y., a town where Twain spent his summers, did much of his writing and is buried.
Every four years, the college’s Center for Mark Twain Studies plays host to an international conference that draws academics, memorabilia dealers and even impersonators.
Trombley’s paper looked at Jean’s worsening form of epilepsy, including two episodes of violent, apparently psychotic behavior.
Trombley argued that Jean’s illness and death at 29, following the deaths of Twain’s wife and oldest daughter Susy, deepened his bitter state of mind in his final years.
Trombley, who consulted neuroscientists and experts in 19th century medicine, believes that Jean suffered from postictal psychosis, delusions or bizarre behavior that can occur in some epileptics, usually after a cluster of seizures.
Her research also drew on the meticulous daily journals kept by Lyon, Twain’s secretary. In the journals, now at UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain Papers & Project, Lyon also recorded two episodes in which the young woman, “in a burst of unreasoning rage,” attacked the family’s longtime housekeeper, Katy Leary, in one instance striking her in the face.
On Christmas Eve 1909, Jean was found dead in her bath. At the time, she was believed to have drowned after a seizure; Trombley’s paper suggests it may have been from another form of sudden death common to some epileptics.
A comment Twain made just after her death suggests how difficult Jean’s final months were for all in the household, in Trombley’s view.
She writes that as Twain stood looking at his daughter’s body on the bathroom floor, he reportedly 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.” The comment was contained in Leary’s 1925 memoir.
Trombley’s study of Jean’s illness and its effects on the family grew out of the scholar’s latest book project, “Mark Twain’s Other Woman.” The book, which is nearing completion, is a detailed look at Lyon, Twain’s secretary for more than six years and his close companion after the 1904 death of his wife.
Lyon is a controversial figure in Twain circles. Some scholars believe she had a sexual relationship with Twain; others that she stole money from him. The Pitzer president disputes both views.
“They had an extraordinarily close relationship; he was utterly dependent on her and talked about everything with her, including sex and religion,” Trombley says. “But I haven’t seen anything that would indicate she was in a sexual relationship with him or that she embezzled from him.”
In addition to serving as the writer’s secretary and managing his household, Lyon, according to Trombley, also washed Twain’s hair periodically and bathed his feet in iodine as a treatment for gout.
In a place of honor in Trombley’s Pitzer office, there is a large framed black-and-white photograph of Twain and Lyon, standing close together. A rare picture of the two, it was taken during a trip to Bermuda about 1907, Trombley says. The handsome, white-haired writer, then in his early 70s, wears a white three-piece suit -- a flower in his buttonhole -- and carries a Panama hat. Lyon, nearly 30 years Twain’s junior, is in a long, layered dress, with a turban-like hat, gloves and amber beads.
Trombley’s academic path was laid out in 1986, when she sat down at a cluttered card table in the stamp collector’s home to read through a pile of correspondence.
Most of the letters -- all in pristine condition, with 98 to Twain’s daughters and two to his sister-in-law Susan Crane -- were signed “Father,” or with his initials, S.L.C. The name on the return address was “S.L. Clemens” -- for Samuel Langhorne Clemens, his real name.
Trombley traced the letters from the hobby shop back to a Hollywood Hills estate. That house, it turned out, was once owned by Twain’s daughter Clara and her husband. Through interviews and detective work, Trombley found that Twain’s relatives, in need of cash, had sold Clara’s letters to the same family that had bought the house. Years later, they were sold again.
Trombley says the amateur collector told her that the name on the envelopes meant nothing to him but that his wife, struck by the clever, sometimes poignant writing, urged him not to discard them. One day, he mentioned his curiosity about them to a fellow bus passenger, who sent him to Martin at USC, and that led to Trombley.
Once authenticated, the letters were split up and sold at auction for about $250,000, although the Mark Twain Papers & Project retains copies.
The most significant among them, which a grieving Twain wrote to his sister-in-law in July 1904, soon after his wife’s death, was recently offered for sale again, for more than $38,000.
But when Trombley first read them, she was intrigued most by the closeness and complexity of the family relationships and, later, by the discovery that those connections figured little in Twain biographies.
Olivia Clemens was generally seen as having limited influence on her larger-than-life husband; Twain’s daughters were rarely mentioned at all.
Trombley’s research over the next few years would reach a controversial conclusion: that Twain, who often sought reaction to his writing from his wife and daughters, leaned heavily on this collaborative female circle in order to produce his most creative work. Trombley also believes that Olivia, whose family had long supported the anti-slavery and temperance movements, played a crucial role in shaping her husband’s views on those issues.
When death shattered that close family network, Twain lost his ability to write powerful, extended works of fiction, asserts Trombley, who is married to artist Nelson Edmond Trombley and is the mother of a young son.
Trombley’s unorthodox analysis brought her praise. It also brought controversy.
“Huckleberry Feminist,” retorted a dismissive review in the (London) Times Literary Supplement. The review, by the late Harvard professor Kenneth S. Lynn, a literary biographer, described Trombley’s views as “politically correct confections.”
But even scholars who don’t always agree with Trombley’s conclusions consider her work innovative and admire her dedication to basic, laborious research, even now that she’s a college president.
“She’s a very bold investigator,” said Robert Hirst, general editor of UC Berkeley’s Twain project. “She doesn’t take the standard story. She looks for ways to challenge it, and make it better.... And that is all to her credit.”
In a relatively rare feat for a college leader, Trombley manages to work almost every day at her own research. Rising most days at 5:30 a.m., before her 9-year-old wakes up, she steals an hour or so for her projects and carves out a few more hours on weekends.
A Southern California native, Trombley earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Pepperdine University and a doctorate in English literature from USC. She then taught English and held administrative posts at State University of New York at Potsdam and at Coe College, a liberal arts school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
She was chosen in 2001 to lead Pitzer, which has about 950 students and is the newest of the five undergraduate schools in the Claremont Colleges consortium. Trombley has worked hard to boost Pitzer’s endowment and made headlines in 2003 when the school became the first California liberal arts college with competitive entrance standards to declare the SAT optional for its applicants.
Trombley also teaches courses on Chinese American women writers and has edited a collection of essays on one, Maxine Hong Kingston, author of “The Woman Warrior.”
Yet Twain remains her primary area of scholarship; she teaches a course on him at least every other year and gives a seminar to freshmen during their orientation.
Whatever her audience, Trombley says, she enjoys the fact that people always seem familiar with and interested in the prolific, timeless author.
“There’s just this amazing connection that people seem to have with him and a real sense of ownership that you wouldn’t get with William Wordsworth, I don’t think,” she says. “And then you take the fact that Twain was such a complicated individual, that he wrote so much and that he led this gigantic, colorful life. There will be enough to keep a lot of us busy for a long time to come.”