Monday, August 19, 2013

"Man in White": the final years of Mark Twain, superstar


Because he is, as one of his contemporaries phrased it, "the Lincoln of our literature," Samuel Clemens holds center stage in American fiction, and Mark Twain, his literary creation, remains our collective conscience on matters ranging from manners to politics. If there is an idea to be said on any topic or controversy, a reader can be assured that Clemens thought it first and Twain expressed it best, if most slyly, in his humor.

Clemens had the luxury of fame, if not always fortune. He was a serial bankrupt, and consequently wrote to the end of his life. He argued in Congress for the extension of copyright law so his daughters would continue to benefit from his work. He wrote a two-volume autobiography at the same time he retained Albert Bigelow Paine to write a similarly larger-than-life biography; Twain wrote so much he directed that some of his writing be withheld for publication over the hundred years after his death. "The edition of A.D. 2006 will make a stir when it comes out. I will be hovering around taking notice, along with other dead pals," he wrote; in 2008 his bushy countenance made the cover of Time magazine with the heading Our Original Superstar.

With an abundance of material Michael Shelden has wisely chosen not to present the whole of Twain, which would be daunting in any single volume. Mark Twain: Man in White (Random House) takes up the last three-and-a-half years of Twain's life when the author presented himself as a stunning apparition, all in white broadcloth. After a long, harrowing period of sadness and mourning for the loss of his wife, daughters, and son, he told his biographer, "I can't bear to put on black clothes again." The public paying their final respects at his funeral found the author arrayed in white, as if he were an angel already ascended to heaven.

The white suits gained the author a visibility that buoyed his spirits and gave the figure of "Mark Twain" an unmistakable image in the public imagination. It burnished his reputation as a wit and a public figure -- he traveled as easily from poolroom to the White House, making friends with stage stars and business tycoons (who could, he found, help him in his financial difficulties). There was no reason to expect that the afterlife would be any different.

The white suit also gave him the opportunity to express himself more freely in his Mark Twain persona. Religion and politics, always good source material for the Clemens pen, became frequent targets at banquets and testimonials in his last years, when admirers mainly gathered to hear Twain speak "and nobody was inclined to contradict what the old boy wanted to say," Shelden writes.

"So after a few preliminary remarks about citizenship, Twain suddenly began to explain why he didn't think America had any business using In God We Trust as a motto: 'There is not a nation in the world which ever put its faith in God. It is a statement made on insufficient evidence. In the unimportant cases of life, perhaps, we do trust in God -- that is, if we rule out the gamblers and burglars, and plumbers, for of course they do not believe in God. If the cholera or black plague should ever come to these shores, perhaps the bulk of the nation would pray to be delivered from it, but the rest of the population would put their trust in the Health Board of the City of New York."

Privately (and in a piece published posthumously, in 1940's Mark Twain in Eruption) Twain railed on in full to his biographer: "It is not proper to brag and boast that America is a Christian country when we all know that certainly five-sixths of our population could not enter at the narrow gate ... twenty-two ministers put up a prodigious assertion unbacked by any quoted statistics and passed it unanimously in the form of a resolution: the assertion, to wit, that this is a Christian country ... so is hell."

He knew that posthumous publication would allow him to write freely, and he reveled in the chance to enjoy life while he was able. The book is subtitled The Grand Adventure of His Final Years, and Twain was up to mischief until almost the end, making trips to Bermuda, smoking against doctors orders ("I don't care for death, and I do care for smoking," he quipped), still writing furiously. "He was fundamentally young to the day of his death," remarked his daughter Clara; his wife's fond nickname for Clemens was "Youth," and she often addressed him by it.

Like the character of Twain himself, Shelden has a grand time writing about the author -- depression and dark clouds always quickly pass, and the old man is once again back in the public eye nearly until his death on April 21, 1910. The book itself is a friendly and familiar, popular biography, even to its telling of Twain's last and still unpublished work.

Some critics have called the 1909 "Ashcroft-Lyon manuscript" a personal attack on those who he felt had wronged him, "a 400-page rant;" Shelden gleefully writes: "As rants go, it is a gem. It is the kind of thing Twain always did well, but here there is no attempt to hold anything, no effort at balance, and no pretense of civility at the start."

Twain enjoyed his reputation as a traveler and a tale-spinner to the end, and worried that his fame might be passing. Mark Twain: Man in White shows he did everything in his power to ensure his continued recognition -- even to badgering the newspapers at one point to print his obituary, so he himself could read it. (One paper went along. "Here it is," the headline read.) If his "400-page rant" is ever published, Mr. Clemens and Mr. Twain will undoubtedly enjoy the commotion it stirs should it ever see print -- most likely in the 25th century.

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