Chasing the Last Laugh; How Mark Twain Escaped Debt and Disgrace with a Round-the-World Comedy Tour by Richard Zacks. Anchor, 2017 paper.
In 1894 Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) took on an around-the-world-tour. A successful writer and publisher, he was, however, not a successful investor. A publishing company that he owned was failing, as was a company that had developed a new typesetting machine in which he owned now worthless stock. The publishing company, however, had had its successes. It had been the publisher of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and the highly successful The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. Twain had lined up several other Civil War generals, only to have the reading public turn away from the subject.
Richard Zacks has provided a revealing description of the life of a writer over a century ago that would seem familiar to many writers these days. The profession has its ups and downs.
Twain was also working on several writing projects; the most ambitious was a “complete works”, which included his short stories and two travel accounts already published. Each volume would have the same fancy binding. The set would then be marketed directly to Twain’s public by traveling salesmen.
It was decided by his managers, editors, and family that his best hope for a financial recovery was to undertake an around the world tour – first venues in the American west by train and then Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and South Africa, mostly sea voyages, which Twain much preferred over train travel. His manager would make arrangements, rent halls, etc. and schedule several lectures in each venue. His wife, Olivia (Livy), and one of his three daughters, Clara, would accompany Livy. Zacks has succeeded in bringing together the trials and tribulations of travel in the late nineteenth century, the ignominy and exuberance of public entertainment, but also the perils to family life of this touring.
The touring circuit was well established, and Twain’s reception was gratifying. But the performance of a standup comedian was not to Twain’s liking. He would only accept the best in hotel accommodations and expected a lot from their staffs. He was a big enough star to expect the royal treatment from public officials in the towns where he performed. He was a grouch by nature.
Most of his tour entertained the English-speaking diaspora settled around the British Empire. Surprisingly, his favorite part of the tour was the time he spent in India. He arrived in Bombay and was taken by India’s exotic opportunities. He says this of the Bombay train station in 1896. “It was a very large station, yet when we arrived, it seemed as if the whole world was present – half of it inside, the other half outside, and both halves bearing mountainous head-loads of bedding…” His description is remarkably like my experience in the train station in Calcutta some seventy years later.
Twain loved being courted by the various “native princes” that the British had left in place – though under supervision. He liked rolling their titles off his tongue. He liked the fact that cows had the right-of-way on city streets. He liked the noisy crows that awakened him every morning.
The Twains decided that, upon completing their tour in Europe, they would find a place to live that was cheaper than their returning to the States. Vienna filled the bill. They liked hobnobbing with the Viennese elite. Clara took piano and voice lessons in anticipation of returning to a career in the US.
Livy was an important part of the tour. First it was partly her money that had been badly invested and lost. Hence to be recovered. Also she was his editor and routinely cut out some of his off-color jokes and stories. And particularly she censored his maxims, some of his best writing. For example. “Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”
There were tragedies involving the two other daughters during their stay abroad. Susy died while the Twains were in Europe. Jean was increasingly subject to epileptic seizures. Twain felt guilty about his daughters. Had he not made choices that brought on financial difficulties, he might have been in a better position to help his family. On the other hand his ‘chasing the last laugh’ had allowed him to get out of debt.
This is not a biography. Zacks has given us an account of Twain’s tour but we are left somewhere in the 1890s.