Luther Spoehr, Review of Michael Shelden's "Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years" (Random House, 2010).
“Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” Mark Twain supposedly quipped. Biographer Michael Shelden, an English professor at Indiana State University, asserts that reports of Twain’s unhappiness in his final years have been exaggerated, too.
“Though Twain’s old age was much sadder than many of his contemporaries would have guessed—especially at the very end—it was also funnier and a lot happier than later generations of critics and biographers have been willing to admit,” Shelden says. He makes a good case.
Shelden begins with the 71-year-old Twain’s 1906 visit to Washington, where he testified in favor of extended copyright protection for authors’ written work. His testimony was vigorous; his all-white suit, worn at entirely the wrong season according to the fashion dictates of the time, caused a sensation. Twain was shaping his legacy in more ways than one: the white suit became his trademark and “fashioned much of the image by which he is still known a century afterward.”
“When I put on black it reminds me of my funerals,” Twain said, referring to the loss of his children Langdon and Susy, and, in 1904, his beloved wife, Livy. So he pushed grief aside and worked to provide for his surviving daughters, Clara and Jean, by stamping his presence indelibly on American culture. He was seen everywhere: strolling down Fifth Avenue on Sunday mornings (just as churches were letting out); sailing to England to accept an honorary degree from Oxford; yachting with his best friend, financier Henry Rogers; feuding with Christian Scientist Mary Baker Eddy; letting the world know he was vacationing in Bermuda. Always there were reporters and admirers, hoping for another witticism or trenchant observation.
Clearly, he loved being Mark Twain. Hoping to recreate the domestic bliss he had enjoyed with his young family in Hartford, he built a new home, “Stormfield,” in Redding, Connecticut. And he continued to write--candid, often autobiographical pieces that he knew wouldn’t be published until after his death.
Rogers had rescued his finances once, but when Twain entrusted too much power to his secretary, the naïve but ambitious Isabel Lyon, and his business manager, the scheming Ralph Ashcroft, he nearly lost everything again. Fortunately, Twain finally believed Clara’s suspicions, and in 1909 he regained control, even having Jean, an epileptic who had been living in guarded conditions for years, move to Stormfield.
Then it all fell apart. Rogers had died in May 1909; Jean died suddenly just before Christmas; and Twain’s heart disease became increasingly painful and debilitating. On April 21, 1910, he died, just as Halley’s Comet, last seen when Twain was born in 1835, reappeared.
If Twain’s last years weren’t quite the “grand adventure” that Shelden proclaims in the sub-subtitle, they were eventful, filled with joy—and sorrow—and plenty of laughter. Shelden’s readable, always engaging, and often moving narrative captures all of it.
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