Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mark Twain: The Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years by Michael Shelden

100 years ago today, Mark Twain died in his recently built home outside Redding, Conneticut. His final years had been somewhat difficult. His daughter Jean, who had been treated for epilepsy, had died four months before. He had fired both his housekeeper and financial manager, who were together trying to gain complete control of his assets. Many friends had died, and, near the end, Twain suffered from angina and a hacking cough, both related to his constant smoking of cigars and pipes. Some biographers in the past have left readers feeling that Twain in his final years was depressed and helpless. In Mark Twain: The Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years, Michael Shelden disagrees. Though Twain had dark moods, he enjoyed life nearly to the end. "You go to heaven if you want to - I'd druther stay here."

Shelden starts his book with December, 1906, when Twain first began to wear his white suits regularly without regard to seasons and occasions. His daughters Clara and Jean were aghast and pleaded with him to dress more decorously. The author never really said why he donned white when everyone around him wore black and gray. Sheldon suggests Twain was tired of being in mourning for his wife and wanted to live his final years with joy and dignity. He was also an extrovert who enjoyed attention. He stood out in white, and the suit quickly became a symbol for him. Modern readers often do not realize that it was only in the last four years of his long life that he wore white.

Shelden's evidence against depression is convincing. He tells numerous stories about Twain's travels, friendships, and speaking engagements. He went before Congress to ask for stronger copyright laws. He accompanied his powerful friend Henry H. Rogers, a vice-president at Standard Oil, to the Jamestown Exposition, the World's Fair in Norfolk, Virginia. He hung out with Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda. Most gloriously, he went on a tour of England which ended with his grandly accepting an honorary degree from Oxford University. When he wanted to be particularly festive in his last years, he would throw on his Oxford cape and celebrate again. Twain did need companions, such as his authorized biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, to make arrangements and sometimes save him from his fans, but he was not by any means helpless.

I do not remember when I last enjoyed a book more. Shelden portrays Twain as a feisty, wayward grandfatherly type with a quick wit and terrible investment judgment. The man in white had bad habits and personal failings, but in many ways he saw beyond the prejudices of his society. Reading Mark Twain: The Man in White is a pleasure.

Shelden, Michael. Mark Twain: The Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years. Random House, 2010. ISBN 9780679448006.

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