Monday, May 16, 2016

Twain Will Meet His Obligation

It's the 1890s. Mark Twain is one of the most successful authors in America, but he's in bad financial shape.  He's lost the modern equivalent of millions in bad investments, especially the endless piles he poured into developing a typesetting machine that lost out to a better one. (There is no perfect equivalent in comparing money then and now, but basically, multiply by 30.)  That was bad enough.  But then his publishing company went under in the economic crisis of 1893.  Now he owed creditors $80,000 he simply didn't have. How he dealt with it is the subject of Richard Zack's new book Chasing The Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous And Redemptive Round-The-World Comedy Tour.

A friend he'd recently made, oil magnate (or robber baron, if you prefer) H. H. Rogers, suggested he negotiate tough with creditors, offering 50 cents on the dollar, but his beloved wife Livy wouldn't hear of it.  She came from money and felt deep humiliation over her husband's well-publicized bankruptcy.  He would pay every last cent and get his name back.

Before going bankrupt, Twain made sure to convey all his copyrights to Livy, so no one could go after them.  As she was one of his major creditors he could claim he was paying her back, though this action was, at the least, close to fraud.  After that, he planned to sell whatever assets his publishing company had, have his wife sell the rights to a publisher to put out a high-class edition of his collected work and, most important, go on a world tour, starting in 1985, where he'd raise money lecturing and later write a book about the experience. (His first best-seller, 25 years earlier, had been his travel book The Innocents Abroad).

It was not a happy time for Twain.  He was a master at delivering comic speeches, but he'd given that up years ago.  To have to go back on the circuit as he turned 60 was demeaning. 

For the last few years he and his family had lived at a fancy hotel in Paris--apparently this was cheaper than maintaining their large house in Hartford, which they now rented out.  He and his family returned to New York to deal with business matters and get the tour going.  It was Livy's dream they'd clear their debts and then return to their beloved Connecticut home.

He wanted to get out of New York fairly quickly, however, before he got a summoned into court.  He failed.  He was hauled in front of a judge by creditors, and his lawyer would have to continue financial negotiations during Twain's tour and then some.  Twain was also held up for weeks by a carbuncle in his leg that wouldn't seem heal.  He eventually got going, but the carbuncle would return, and he'd also be laid up regularly by coughs, sore throats (he smoked twenty cigars a day) and fevers--still, once he committed there was no going back.

He took his whole family--Livy and their daughters, Clara, Jean and Susy--along with him as he traveled though the northern part of the U.S. to the west coast, stopping to speak at various venues.  He needed the practice, and before too long had his material down.

He would come on the stage without any introduction and speak for approximately ninety minutes, telling stories taken from his writings.  He didn't believe in an author having his nose in a book--Twain memorized his material and adapted it for live performance. He had a number of set pieces--enough, in fact, to do three nights in a row without repeating.  Most of his stories were humorous, though at the advice of Livy he added a bit of pathos--a selection from Huck Finn where Huck wrestles with his conscience regarding whether or not to turn over runaway slave Jim.

His speaking style was unlike most others in that stentorian age.  He would speak with his slow drawl in a conversational style (when not doing voices of various characters).  He was also a master of the pause, knowing just how long to wait to get his laughs.  Audiences loved him--he was a masterful comic writer, but apparently just as good a speaker.  Zacks does a wonderful job conjuring up what an evening with Twain must have felt like, reproducing a number of his pieces.

Once on the west coast, he left Jean and Susy behind, taking Livy and Clara on the world tour.  This was not a small thing--the tour would take over a year, and would include countless hours on boats and trains.  They stayed at the best hotels, but it was an exhausting trek.

Twain needed an Anglophone audience, and lucky for him the sun never set on the British Empire.  After passing by Hawaii, his tour went from Australia and New Zealand (he wrote a special piece about Australia that went over well Down Under) to India (his favorite place for the rest of his life, with the bright colors and bustling humanity) to South Africa and then up to England.  He was well-received almost everywhere.

He was also regularly interviewed by the local press, but tended to stay away from politics, since he was there to clear up debts.  Still, he occasionally got in trouble.  As soon as he landed in Australia he was asked about the hot issue of the day--free trade. He said he was generally in favor of it--he didn't see why Californians should have to pay more for goods from New York when they could get them cheaper from Asia or Australia.  This caused a furor, teaching him to mostly keep quiet.  In India, for instance, there was unhappiness about imperialism, and though Twain would later write against it, he said little at this point.  In South Africa he visited with prisoners in the Boer War and his comments about how nice their accommodations were rankled some.

All the while, he and his wife and daughter saw the sights, and attended many receptions.  He may have been bankrupt, but he was living in high style.  He also checked in regularly via mail with H. H. Rogers, who was helping to negotiate Twain's publishing contract, as well as dealing with creditors.  Zacks quotes liberally from Twain's letters and journals, as well as his family's and others', to get a feeling for what was going on at the time.  Indeed, at 400+ pages, you feel like you've been on quite a trip before it's over.

Once Twain got to England, he stopped lecturing and took time off to write his book.  He planned to bring over Susy and Jean so the family could be together again. (He wanted to stay out of New York and any court cases that might await).  But then word came that Susy had died of spinal meningitis.  It was the worst blow he had ever received, and Livy never fully recovered.

Twain dutifully returned to writing the book--Following The Equator--though his heart wasn't in it.  Meanwhile, word got out he was destitute, living in squalor in London and near to death.  (This is where we get his line about reports of his death being greatly exaggerated). The book was published in 1897, and though it didn't receive raves--critics said there was too much padding, among other things--it sold well.  Along with the lecture fees, publishing advances and royalties, Twain was able to pay off his debts.

The family did not return to America immediately.  They spent some time in Vienna, where daughter Clara was studying music.  They didn't reach the shores of New York until 1900. He'd been abroad for five years and received a hero's welcome--America's great author who'd worked hard to pay back his creditors.  Everyone wanted to meet with him.  He was offered magnificent sums to give speeches, which he generally turned down.  And with help from H. H. Rogers--sometimes in ways that would today be considered insider trading--he soon rebuilt his nest egg (which he couldn't wait to throw into new bad investments).  It was a glorious time for Twain, and he would never again reach such heights in his personal life.

With Susy gone, Livy's dream of returning to their place in Hartford vanished.  The family lived in New York, but Livy's health was gone.  Doctors advised her to live a quieter lifestyle, and she was moved away from her husband, who rarely saw her any more. She died in 1904 of heart failure.  Daughter Jean, never a healthy girl, was found dead in her bathtub in 1909 after an epileptic seizure.  H.H. Rogers, who'd become one of Twain's closest friends, died of a stroke in 1909.  Twain himself died in 1910.

His world got very dark in his last decade. But the round-the-world tour born in disaster turned out to be the very thing that gave him some of his greatest moments of happiness.  And Richard Zacks has done a fine job recreating what it was like.  Certainly a must for any Twain fan, but should be of interest to general readers as well.


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