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Is Mark Twain’s old age best forgotten?

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

7 May 2022

9:00 AM

The Life of Mark Twain: The Final Years 1891-1910 Gary Scharnhorst

University of Missouri Press, pp.712, 45.95

Mark Twain conquered almost every challenge that came his way except old age. Living well into his seventies, he was a printer, an investigative journalist, a riverboat captain, a government functionary, a bestselling novelist, an imperialism-defying political essayist, a successful playwright and a devoted father and husband. He travelled the world giving lectures that made him many fortunes, which he often used to replenish the fortunes he lost from his madder and most poorly managed investment schemes, such as the Paige Compositor, a self-justifying printing press which worked briefly for a few days in 1894 and then, just as mysteriously, stopped.

When Twain’s publishing house subsequently went bankrupt, he refused to go bankrupt with it and, at the age of 60, spent the next several years furiously travelling, earning enough to pay back what he owed. No wonder he invented characters such as Huck Finn and Tom Canty – paupers who became princes and princes who became paupers. Eventually he concluded: ‘There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can afford it and when he can’t.’ Throughout a long and hectic life, he never paused long enough to take his own (very good) advice.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens claimed that he adopted the pseudonym Mark Twain from riverboat parlance; but his western friends claimed it stood for tallying up drinks on a bar bill. (Eventually the name served as sufficient international address for posting fan mail.) Like America, Twain lived a double life, one which extended both east and west of the Mississippi valley where he grew up. Out west, he prospected for gold, drank and partied and transcribed tall tales; then he went east, married Olivia Langdon, and inherited her old money and social prestige. He was one of the few American writers who enjoyed and embraced both coasts of a too-big nation, from New York to San Francisco; and even more unusually, he explored what life was like in other countries, journeying and lecturing widely throughout Australia, Europe and India, and making new friends and admirers at every stop on the way.

Gary Scharnhorst’s massive three-volume project feels more like a monument to Twain than an intimate investigation of who he was, and what made him so obsessed with making fortunes and moving home. Like Hershel Parker’s double-doorstopper biography of Herman Melville, these volumes are densely packed with almost too much information – including the names of individual cities where Twain lectured, lists of newspapers that reviewed even his most minor books and pamphlets, and the names of the multitudinous people he ate dinner with (including Helen Keller, Booker T. Washington, Andrew Carnegie and Teddy Roosevelt).

But while Scharnhorst’s volumes lack the narrative and emotional concision of Ron Powers’s 2005 biography (which entirely dismisses Twain’s final years as being too depressing to think about), they are absorbingly immersive, and a lot more easy-going than a hectic day in Twain’s always hectic life. If you want to read the ‘story’ of the life, you might prefer Powers – or even the much earlier 1966 volume by Justin Kaplan, Mr Clemens and Mark Twain. But if you want to know exactly how exhausting it must have been to be Twain, then these books are the next best thing to having lived with him. (And just living with him must have been pretty exhausting.)

In many ways, Twain was a robust and vigorous representative of America’s strengths and weaknesses. He possessed extraordinary energy and invention, and even in his last dozen years produced widely various books, such as his fascinating experiment in crime-solving, Pudd’nhead Wilson, about the absurdities of racial inequality, and a fictional autobiography of Joan of Arc, which he serialised anonymously so as not to mislead those readers who might expect it to be funny. (It’s not.) He never stopped trying to make new fortunes with his steady stream of inventions (including a tabbed notebook, a pre-gummed scrapbook, a history game, bed clamps to prevent children from losing their bedcovers, and a perpetual calendar); and he outlived many friends and enemies, as well as his wife and two of his three daughters.

His work grew increasingly dark, inventive and complex – and so bitter that much of it was long kept unpublished by his surviving daughter after his death in 1910. He wrote angry open letters and essays about American adventurism in the Philippines, and about religions, such as Christian Science and Catholicism, which served their believers only on a ‘cash and piety basis’. (In Twain’s opinion, the term ‘beneficent God’ was an absurd contradiction.) ‘Curse all the world’s gifts, for mockeries and gilded lies!’ the protagonist of ‘The Five Boons of Life’ concludes at the end of one of the most feel-bad fairy tales ever written. ‘They are not gifts but merely lendings.’

The creative high point of Twain’s late-life melancholy was probably his marvellous short novel The Mysterious Stranger, in which Satan comes down to Earth long enough to teach people about their inherent awfulness. Satan confides to the young boy who befriends him:

I know your race. It is made up of sheep. It is governed by minorities, seldom or never majorities. It suppresses its feelings and its beliefs and follows the handful that makes the most noise. Sometimes the noisy handful is right, sometimes wrong; but no matter, the crowd follows it.

Like Whitman, Twain grew increasingly critical of America even while, outside America, he was increasingly identified with it.

But while Clemens/Twain often resembled the ‘dynamo’ of Henry Adams, he was clearly drawn to the ‘virginal’ aspects of life as well; and during his final decades he spent an inordinate amount of time with Lolita-aged girls with whom he corresponded in endless, gushingly silly letters, and with whom he was photographed in numerous, now embarrassing photos which featured Twain in his white suit and whiskers with a prepubescent girl sitting in his lap. As his personal assistant, Isabel Lyon, wrote in 1908:

His first interest when he goes to a new place is to find little girls… off he goes with a flash when he sees a new pair of slim legs appear and if the little girl wears butterfly bows of ribbons on the back of her head then his delirium is complete.

He called them his ‘Angelfish’, and while there was never any evidence of impropriety, these photographs and correspondences of Twain’s final years have caused his reputation to lose much lustre over the decades, leading one 20th-century critic, Guy Cardwell, to accuse him of everything from pederasty to excessive masturbation.

Scharnhorst comes down with a more balanced assessment than Cardwell’s – just as he finds more to honour in Twain’s last years than Powers. In old age, Twain seemed savvier, angrier and more embittered than just about any other prominent writer of his generation. He wrote numerous letters in support of women’s suffrage; endeavoured to introduce Maxim Gorky to East Coast society; and embarked on a projected historical work about lynching, which eventually grew more complex and daunting than even he could manage.

Yet he found himself too cynical and depressed about the world’s problems to do much about them. As he told his nephew, he could not believe in socialism, since he ‘knew too much about human nature’; and Upton Sinclair remembered him as a friend who was always ‘full of understanding’ when it came to social inequalities, but ‘when we asked for a public action, a declaration, he was not there’. Some considered his failures to be those of courage; but as Scharnhorst recounts, Clemens seemed to privately suffer in the same proportions as he publicly laboured – greatly.

‘Death is the most precious of all the gifts this life has for us,’ he declared a month before he received the precious gift himself. But even after he burned his life down to ash, his smoke rose up forever.

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