In 1896 Mark Twain faced a debt of $79,704.80 to assorted creditors with his publishing firm Charles L. Wilson and Company and his investment in a new style of typesetting as being his most egregious. The debt was substantial and would calculate to roughly $2,220,474.90 in today’s dollars. This large amount served as the motivating force behind Twain’s round-the-world-stand-up comedy tour between 1895 and 1896. In the appendix of Richard Zacks’ new book, CHASING THE LAST LAUGH: MARK TWAIN’S RAUCOUS AND REDEMPTIVE ROUND-THE WORLD COMEDY TOUR Twain’s debts are listed individually and one gets the feeling that this iconic and brilliant observer of the human condition was a rather poor investor. Twain would travel across the American west, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, India, Ceylon, and South Africa in an attempt to take his fees and eradicate as much of the debt as possible. This global journey which at times reads like a Rick Steeves travelogue is described in delicious detail by Richard Zacks who allows Twain’s own words, recorded in letters, newspaper accounts, and his own notebooks tell the story of their journey. The journey concluded in England where he wrote a travel book about his experiences in another attempt to reduce his debt.
Twain who hated to perform on stage was America’s highest paid author and one of America’s biggest investment losers. He would perform 122 nights in 71 different cities, in addition to spending 98 nights at sea of which he was afflicted with a myriad of illnesses including repeated bouts with painful carbuncles during his tour as he used a number of pre-modern and modern conveyances to earn enough money to “talk his way out of hell and humiliation” of losing his entire fortune and a good part of his wife Livy, a coal heiress’ wealth also.
Zacks describes the initial success of his publishing company publishing the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and other works, but this profitability succumbed to embezzlement, poor choices of publications, and the death of Henry Ward Beecher before he could complete his memoirs. Compounding Twain’s problem was that the United States was in the gripe of the Depression of 1893 creating the fear that Twain could not only loose his publishing house, but also the copyrights to his writings, his life’s blood. Twain also faced loses on Wall Street after sinking money into inventions that proved to be expensive failures.
Zacks does a nice job reviewing Twain’s financial machinations and his relationship with H.H. Rogers, a partner in Standard Oil who befriended the insolvent author and tried to “bring Mr. Clemens” to some sort of financial solvency, the key to which was declaring bankruptcy for his publishing company, and transferring his copyrights and other assets to his wife Olivia Livy as a means of hanging on to his life’s work.
(Mark Twain, Olivia Livy Twain and their three daughters, Clara, Jean, and Susy)
After spending the first part of the book describing Twain’s financial travails Zacks prepare what appears to be an annotated travelogue of Twain, his wife Olivia and their daughter Clara as they work their way across the western United States and board ship for Australia and beyond. Twain’s humiliation was complete before he left on his journey as the New York State Supreme Court pronounced a judgement against him of $31, 986, and Twain grew ill from the idea that he was a pauper and thanked god that no laws against the indigent existed in the Empire State. Once the journey commences Zacks does a commendable job integrating Twain’s written material and comments into the narrative as he performs on tour.* Twain grew stressed when certain audiences expected a comedy routine as opposed to his normal literary and societal aspects of his presentations. Though negative comments and reviews were few and he was broadly praised throughout, Twain was very sensitive to criticism though his approach of just “chatting” with his audiences as technique was very successful. Throughout the journey Twain grew depressed he would never be able to repay his debts, but his wife Livy and Rogers were able to temper his feelings and control his finances.
The best description of Twain during his journey was offered by Carlyle Smythe, his agent in India, he states that Twain is “a sedate savant who has been seduced from the path of high seriousness by a fatal sense of the ridiculous.” When the arduous tour finally came to an end, Twain was overjoyed stating “that the slavery of it….is so exacting and so infernal’ and hoped never to experience it again.
(Mark Twain and his friend and benefactor, H.H. Rogers)
Twain’s observations throughout the book are interesting as his comments range from the ecology of Australia, the wonders of India, especially their “colorful costumes,” to the Anglo-Boer conflict raging in South Africa. What is surprising is that Twain, known in the United States as an anti-imperialist had nothing but praise for the British Empire, particularly as it related to India causing him to be blind to the oppressions and the humiliations of English rule. To Twain’s credit he did comment negatively concerning the machinations of Cecil Rhodes and British policy in South Africa. The book also served as a form of therapy for Twain when his daughter Susy died of spinal meningitis in the United States while he was writing and he could not be with her or attend the funeral. He castigated himself for creating the debt that forced the family to separate for the world tour to earn enough money to rectify the family’s financial situation.
Overall the book makes for a fascinating read about one of America’s most important humorists and literary figures and zeroes in on the trials and tribulations that Twain and his family suffered very late in his career. Twain was able to overcome his debt situation thanks to his good friend H. H. Rogers, an executive for Standard Oil, and in the end pay he would pay off all of his debts and live a life free of financial worries.
*For those interested in researching Twain’s life in detail the University of California press has published over 2000 pages of Twain’s daily dictations written between 1907 and 1909 encompassing his entire life in the form of an autobiography. The three volumes are edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith and are the first comprehensive edition of all Mark Twain’s work fully annotated by the editors of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California.