Female. Education: Case Western Reserve University, Ph.D., 1973.
Office—California State University, Fullerton, Department of American Studies, CD-672, Fullerton, CA 92834-6868. E-mail—[email protected]
Author and educator. California State University, Fullerton, professor of American studies.
Sierra Book Prize, Western Association of Women Historians, 1990, for Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America.
Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 2004.
Contributor to volumes such as Prospects: An Annual of American Cultural Studies, edited by Jack Salzman, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1983. Contributor of book reviews to periodicals such as Western Historical Quarterly, Huntington Library Quarterly, Magazine of Western History, Archives of Sexual Behavior, and American Historical Review.
Karen Lystra is a scholar whose research interests include areas such as gender and sexuality, American cultural history, and American family history. In Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America she aims "to penetrate the barrier of silence that has surrounded intimate relations between middle-class men and women in Victorian America," noted Lillian Faderman in Archives of Sexual Behavior. Lystra plumbs a number of archives containing family papers from the nineteenth century and focuses her research on hundreds of love letters and similar documents from these personal collections.
In her research, Lystra discovered that, despite accepted ideas of the relatively conservative Victorian approach to courting rituals and sexual behavior, "both sexual expression and gender behavior were different from the articulated 19th-century ideals," Faderman commented. Public behavior of romantically involved men and women conformed to the chaste public morals of the day; the letters analyzed by Lystra, however, "reveal an astonishingly passionate intensity between the heterosexual Victorian men and women who wrote them," Faderman remarked. "The public rhetoric that defined and constricted Victorian gender roles mattered little to couples alone in the parlor or bedroom," observed Mark C. Carnes in American Historical Review.
Although arranged marriages based on personal and family economics still existed in the nineteenth century, Lystra notes that by 1800 most eligible singles in middle-class America "were selecting their own partners based on romantic love, and they suffered little interference from their families," Faderman wrote. Lystra also concludes that the stereotypical sex roles of Victorian times—stoic and domineering men, emotional and submissive women—are not accurate, based on the passionate, unguarded contents of the letters. For example, "Masculine role performance did not require [men] to be emotionally controlled and constricted," Faderman stated. "While in public men were expected to be restrained, 'in the protected romantic sphere men led richly emotional lives.' They were allowed a range of expression that paralleled that of women's," Faderman noted. "Lystra's engaging study adds to the literature that rejects the old stereotype of Victorian sexual repression and moves beyond it to advance the more provocative and more problematic argument that women gained power, standing and status through romantic love," commented Sarah Stage in Nation.
"Original, deeply informed, and elegantly written, Searching the Heart enriches and transforms our understanding of highly personal relationships that had powerful social and cultural consequences," remarked Mary Kelley in Journal of American History, adding that the book "deserves the widest readership among students of nineteenth-century America." Carnes commented that "Lystra's writing is sharp, and her analysis often shrewd," while Jonathan Kirsch, writing in the Los Angeles Times, called the book "a graceful but utterly earnest work of scholarship."
Lystra recounts a dramatic, ultimately incredible episode from the latter life of one of America's favorite writers in Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years. Basing her book largely on an unpublished and rarely seen manuscript known as the Ashcroft-Lyon document, Lystra explores the manipulation and exploitation of an aged and grieving Samuel Clemens by his secretary, Isabel Lyon, and his business manager, Ralph Ashcroft. Lystra also uses Lyon's diaries and notebooks to assemble perspective from the other side of the story.
Clemens's beloved wife, Livy, died in 1904, leaving the well-known and well-respected author known as Mark Twain alone for the first time since he and Livy were married. Thereafter, Lyon, an attractive woman many years younger than Twain who had worked as his secretary since 1902, set her sights on marriage to the elderly author. Under the pretense of sparing CLemens increased effort and anxiety over his personal affairs, Lyon eventually assumed control of Clemens's finances, diverting his funds to her own use and bitterly resenting anything Twain spent on his daughters Clara and Jean. Lyon also colluded with Ashcroft to convince Clemens to sign over a power of attorney to the pair, giving them control over his business affairs as well.
Lyon made every attempt to remove Clemens's daughters from influence over their father, which resulted in heavy conflict; Clara eventually accused Lyon and Ashcroft of embezzlement, though an audit found no evidence for it. Lyon was so intent on having Clemens to herself that she even managed to get epileptic daughter Jean committed to a sanitarium and left there much longer than necessary, unjustly depriving Jean and her father of each other's company. Lyon's treatment of Jean became the catalyst for turning Clemens against both Lyon and Ashcroft. The writer eventually managed to regain control of the business and personal affairs that Lyon and Ashcroft had wrested from him, but his conflict with the scheming duo persisted until his death in 1910. Ironically, Lyon and Ashcroft married each other during the turmoil they created for Clemens.
"This gripping examination of Twain's later life recounts a family drama so fantastic it reads like the subplot of a daytime soap opera," commented William D. Walsh in Library Journal. Walsh called the book "a remarkably powerful and moving study" of the beloved humorist's misplaced trust and Lyon and Ashcroft's opportunism.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
American Historical Review, February, 1991, Mark C. Carnes, review of Searching the Heart: Women, Men, and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America, pp. 260-261.
Archives of Sexual Behavior, December, 1994, Lillian Faderman, review of Searching the Heart, p. 701.
Journal of American History, December, 1990, Mary Kelley, review of Searching the Heart, pp. 1012-1013.
Library Journal, April 1, 2004, William D. Walsh, review of Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain's Final Years, p. 93.
Los Angeles Times, February 15, 1990, Jonathan Kirsch, "Steamy Mail of Victorian Lovers," review of Searching the Heart, p. 16.
Nation, April 23, 1990, Sarah Stage, review of Searching the Heart, p. 568.
New York Review of Books, April 8, 2004, Larry McMurtry, "The Lives and Loves of Samuel Clemens."
Publishers Weekly, March 8, 2004, review of Dangerous Intimacy, p. 63.*