A Further Perspective

The Phaeton Liberal

There is one thing left to say about Mark Twain.

By 7.22.11

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Now that his death centenary has passed with the publication of the unexpurgated, 900-page Autobiography of Mark Twain (so ably reviewed by Joseph Bottum in a recent issue of TAS), is there anything left to say about Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, that hasn't been printed by himself, or by a century of critical opinion?

Having read an earlier edition of the autobiography in paperback some thirty years ago, I skipped the latest magnum opus, but being in a Twain mood I recently read Justin Kaplan's Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain (1966). It's the definitive biography of half a life, with Kaplan examining Twain on the brink of his career as America's first literary celebrity. When the book opens, Twain is 31 and basking in the glory of the publication of his famous short story "The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

He is certainly a young man on the make. After his western years of "living out of a valise," Sam Clemens wants to write books, get happily hitched to Olivia "Livy" Langdon, and "be located in life," as he writes to a friend. All of which he does after the publication of The Innocents Abroad (1869), his hilarious account of his first travels in Europe and the Middle East. Roughing It (1872) follows, as do offers to write for prestigious newspapers and magazines, such as the Atlantic Monthly, edited by his friend and literary conscience William Dean Howells.

Clemens' increasing wealth and fame allows him to cultivate the liberal-minded gentry of Hartford, Connecticut, where he meets such luminaries as Harriet Beecher Stowe and oversees the building of a sumptuous mansion for his growing family. Around the same time he collaborates with a blueblood named Charles Dudley Warner on The Gilded Age (1873), a satire on one of the most financially and politically corrupt periods in American history (our own notwithstanding).

The great paradox of Mark Twain's life was that while he never hesitated to use his "pen warmed up in Hell" to attack plutocrats, he always wanted to be one himself. Like many writers he suffered from the delusion that his talent also included that of a shrewd businessman, and this put his family into near penury a few times.

The small fortune that Twain amassed as the publisher of the by-then-deceased U.S. Grant's Personal Memoirs (an American classic both historic and literary) went down the financial rat hole of the infamous Paige Typesetter, the Edsel of 19th century printing technology. In an extended bleed from 1880 to 1894, Twain lost $300,000 (the equivalent of $7 million today), mostly on the Paige Typesetter, which by the 1890s had become obsolete with the advent of Linotype. At the same time, his publishing company went broke by publishing one turkey after another (The Life of Pope Leo XIII) following the success of the Grant book. And his masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn (1884) didn't sell well in its first years. Twain went back on the lucrative lecture circuit -- easy money during his salad days, but a grind that he increasingly hated.

Twain was rescued from financial ruin by one Henry Huttleston Rogers, who sat on the board of John D. Rockefeller's Standard Oil Co. Rogers was a cutthroat businessman, but he was also a big fan of Mark Twain's books, which he read to his children. He personally took over the management of the author's finances and brought him once again to solvency, then wealth. Twain was grateful, writing of Rogers: "He is not only the best friend I ever had, but is the best man I have ever known." The friendship endured until Rogers' death in 1909, only a year before the writer's own passing.

Yet Twain did not share Rogers' politics. The author was America's first limousine liberal (maybe in the 19th century context we can call him a "phaeton liberal" after the luxury conveyance of the time). His Rogers friendship -- the friendship of a master satirist to a plutocrat -- benefited Twain's lust for influential wealth, and seems hypocritical.

Twain's political views were those of a modern liberal. He was a supporter of civil rights (as outlined in Huckleberry Finn, for instance). He was pro-women's suffrage, and -- despite the Rogers friendship -- he supported the national labor movement. He could definitely be counted among the Gilded Age's most prominent reformist voices. His wife Livy was very influential in this way, as was Howells from his perch at the Atlantic Monthly (the Atlantic's editorial stances reflected and influenced that staunch New England liberalism that is still present in a more radical, multicultural milieu today). According to Kaplan, Howells -- the utopian socialist -- once said of Twain that he was "a theoretical socialist and a practical aristocrat." Twain's opprobrium for John D. Rockefeller ("Satan, twaddling sentimental silliness to a Sunday school, could be no burlesque upon John D. Rockefeller...") is paradoxical considering his dealings with Rogers, a Rockefeller man.

Twain in old age (the Letters from the Earth Twain) is understandably more politically cynical than ever. The Spanish-American War and particularly its theater in the Philippines raise his ire: "I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land," Twain told the New York Herald in 1900. And a typical piece from this period was his biting "The United States of Lyncherdom," an attack on the mindless violence against black people in the Jim Crow South.

Forty-five years after its publication, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, if not the definitive biography of a life, remains the best portrait of the public, private and complex character of our most intrinsically American writer.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.