Persons attempting to find a motive in Mark Twain’s doings are many. Those trying to find a moral in his life most often end up contradicting one another. But anyone hoping to find a plot in it would do well to follow the example set by Michael Shelden.
The motive behind Shelden’s Mark Twain: Man In White, an in-depth look at Twain’s final years, is to reverse the common viewpoint that Twain’s old age was merely a sad and uneventful countdown toward death. His argument would make for a nice PhD thesis – and the book could easily have been as dry as one – but Shelden rarely retreats to the distant tone of scholarship. Instead, he ushers his irrepressible, brilliant, complicated subject onto center stage and Twain becomes as compelling a main character as in a well-developed novel.
Shelden, whose past work includes biographies of George Orwell and Graham Greene, has the advantage here of having as his subject one of the pithiest and wittiest characters ever to dominate American literature. He draws from journals, letters, and newspaper accounts for a front-row, real-time view of Twain’s words and thoughts; it would have been a literary crime to let such lively material fall flat.
In the last years of Twain’s life, Shelden documents, he “built a mansion in Redding, Connecticut, survived a burglary by a couple of gun-toting thieves, enjoyed flirtatious friendships with some of the prettiest actresses on Broadway, debated female sexuality with the woman who coined the phrase ‘the It girl,’ helped a group of slum children start a theater, entertained a Texas Ranger...,” and more.
None of these exploits, of course, rise to the level of Twain’s formative and productive years. By 1906, “Huckleberry Finn” and Twain’s other great works were written, and his greatest adventures complete. Twain’s efforts to protect the copyrights on his work, a chief concern of his later years, can’t merit the same gravity as an account of how he came to write them. And yet, Twain being Twain, even mundanities and minutiae become larger than life, and Shelden’s pacing and commentary grant them added significance.
The unfounded rumor of a romance with his secretary, for instance, hardly the stuff of history, takes on an aching weight with Shelden’s account of a reporter buttonholing Twain to ask if they planned to marry. “Going to his room, he sat down and wrote two sentences.... ‘I have not known, and shall never know, anyone who could fill the place of the wife I have lost. I shall not marry again.’ ”
Twain’s 1906 speech before a congressional committee, which opens the book, segues into an explanation of the white suit he debuted at the hearing, inaugurating his years as the “Man in White” of the title. Shelden says the attention-getting outfit was a break from Twain’s mourning over his wife, “Livy,” and the earlier death of his beloved oldest daughter, Susy.
It was a shout-out in his final years that “he wanted to go out in the grand fashion of a man who had made a deep impression on the world, and who was convinced that nothing about him – including the manner of his passing – would be forgotten.” (Other biographers have had different interpretations of this and other circumstances of his life.)
Shelden’s detailed biography allows us readers to follow Twain closely through these last eventful years, as he faces financial disasters and victories, deals (sometimes badly) with one daughter’s struggles and the chronic illness of another, platonically dotes on a collection of surrogate granddaughters, skirmishes with Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, and faces betrayal and potential ruin at the hands of his most trusted employees.
It is often a sobering journey. Shelden’s book will make readers wish they could save Twain from his more ill-advised choices. They will feel for him as he faces the death of still more friends and family, and as his own health begins to fail. At such times, they will long to cheer him on.
Shelden makes a good case for his argument that Twain’s final years were “full of energy and hope,” though scholars will likely still debate whether they outweighed his share of grief.. Throughout, however, Twain’s lion-sized character is as compelling as they come. And that makes his final brush with life’s big eternal themes – friendship, family, vanity, betrayal, and old age – as absorbing as almost anyone else’s entire life saga.
Rebekah Denn is a freelance writer in Seattle.