Book Review: Mark Twain, Man in White


For decades, the accepted view of Mark Twain’s last years is that he spent that time as a bitter, angry misanthrope, railing against human nature, religion, and society. Certainly, a posthumously-published collection of some of Twain’s more vitriolic essays, Mark Twain in Eruption (1940, edited by biographer and historian Bernard DeVoto) supports this view. It is also bolstered by Twain biographies, including Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain by Justin Kaplan and Mark Twain: God’s Fool by Hamlin Lewis Hill.

A new biography, focusing on Twain’s twilight years, offers a different story. Covering the years 1906 until his death on April 21, 1910, Shelden argues that he was productive, reasonably happy, and interested in life.

A portrait of the American writer Mark Twain t...

It was not unalloyed happiness, of course: His dear wife of 34 years, Livy, had died in 1904 after a long illness. Jean, his youngest daughter, was battling epilepsy (she would die in 1909) while his other daughter, Clara, was pursuing a career as a singer. Clara, resentful of constantly being referred to as “Mark Twain’s daughter,” was semi-estranged from her father and only occasionally lived with him between tours.

Perhaps the most disrupting event in Twain’s later life was the financial troubles with  and dismissal of his long-term assistant, Isabel Lyon. The personal and financial tangle that caused her departure – and lingered long after she was fired in the spring of 1909 – caused Twain the sort of worry and trouble that the 73-year-old author neither wanted nor needed. In the end, the situation was resolved and, in typical Twain fashion, he dealt with the emotional aftermath by writing a 429-page screed (still unpublished) blasting her character and actions.

Beyond these troubling events, Shelden writes, Twain seemed to enjoy himself hugely, involving himself with causes, projects, friends, and honors. While he worked on his autobiography (just now being published in segments, 100 years after his death as he had directed) and cooperated with Albert Bigelow Paine on his authorized biography, Twain also worked to have a new copyright law drafted and passed through Congress. It was at a hearing concerning his bill, fittingly held at the Library of Congress, that Twain introduced his new iconic dressing style: a white suit. Summer and winter, defying the strict dress code of the time, he continued to wear only white until his death.

Not satisfied with the dark atmosphere of his rented brownstone in Manhattan, he purchased acreage in the then-rural area of Redding, Connecticut and had a house built, which he named “Stormfield.” Almost all of the work of planning and overseeing construction was handed over to others while he was busy on trips, including vacations in his beloved Bermuda. Hardly the actions of a bitter recluse.

Never coy about his love of attention, Twain was delighted when Oxford University offered him an honorary degree in 1907. The trip to England to accept the D.Litt. degree included a four-week grand farewell, primarily spent in London, during which time he gave speeches, made pronouncements and enjoyed the work of being Mark Twain. This trip yielded numerous Twainesque anecdotes, including his famous cable to a New York newspaper reporting that accounts of his death had been “exaggerated.” While at Oxford, a don asked him if he would like to “come to Jesus.” After a moment’s confusion, Twain realized it was not an offer by a Christian evangelist but an invitation to visit Jesus College at the University.

Drawing upon his extensive research at The Mark Twain Papers & Project archives at the University of California, Berkeley, Sheldon gives us a fresh view of Mark Twain’s last years. Mark Twain, Man in White offers a more rounded view of the complicated years of a complex man.

Mark Twain, Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years / by Michael Shelden 484 p.

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