Friday, April 9, 2010


By Michael Shelden

Random House, $30

528 pages


As we approach the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death, there has been a deluge of new books on the market. Michael Shelden breaks from the pack, concentrating on the final 3 1/2 years of the life of the man Time magazine recently labeled “Our Original Superstar.”

Rather than hugging the widely accepted view that Twain was an embittered grouch and this period was “a largely bleak and dull conclusion” to an otherwise colorful life, the portrait that emerges here is of a consummate showman suffused with energy and hope, determined to put sorrow behind him in order to live, as Twain put it, “richly, sumptuously, imperially” as “only Genius” can.

By 1907, Twain was an international celebrity, the admired recipient of honorary degrees, including one from Oxford University, determined to make the most of his remaining years. He was handsome, generous, wise and funny, and women sought his company, among them actresses Billie Burke, sexpot Elinor Glyn and writer Helen Keller. With his friend, Standard Oil magnate Henry Rogers, Twain enjoyed numerous cruises to Bermuda and the company of his adopted family, American Vice Consul William Allen and his wife, Marion Schuyler Allen, and daughter Helen.

Not even financial near-ruin or the upheaval of building a new mansion in Redding, Conn., seemed to deter the old man. Knowing death was not far off, Twain cheerfully cracked that he preferred heaven for climate, hell for company. If intimates found him grumpy on occasion, he might have replied, “I am only human, although I regret it.”

A liberal sprinkling of Twain’s quips throughout the text guarantees a chuckle on every page. Nothing, it seems, could repress Twain’s famous humor. Once, clinging to the rail of a yacht during a heavy storm, he was asked by the steward if the steward could get anything for him. “Yes,” the seasick Twain replied. “Get me a little island.”

After his house was burglarized, Twain left a note “To the Next Burglar,” asking - among other things - “please close the door when you go away.”

The book opens in December 1906, when Twain made a special appearance at the Senate Reading Room of the Library of Congress, where a hearing was in progress on copyright legislation. Modifying the copyright law was an important issue to Twain, who wanted to guarantee his heirs a proper income from his life’s work long after he was gone. What garnered the most attention was the resplendent white flannel suit that Twain debuted that winter day, a uniform that forever crafted his image as the “Man in White.”

There are biographers who have attributed Twain’s decision to wear white as a fetish, as evidence of “erratically disquieting behavior” by an emotional wreck “crippled” by “despair and pessimism.” Others have suggested that Twain’s refusal to wear any other color may have been because he was making a point about racism. Mr. Shelden wisely refrains from “putting Mark’s old ghost on the modern Freudian couch.”

After the deaths of his beloved wife, his infant son and daughter Susy, Twain confessed to his friend and authorized biographer, Arthur Bigelow Paine, that he had come to a point when “I can’t bear to put on black clothes again.”

Just as in Mr. Shelden’s previous book, “Graham Greene: The Enemy Within,” we are given a selective portrait of the protagonist that emphasizes only one dimension of the character. Other famous writers like Twain (Shaw and H.L. Mencken among them) did much to perpetuate their public persona, so much so that, as writer and critic Edmund Wilson once observed, it became a lifelong habit to play up to the role their publics expected of them, hiding truth behind a quip.

Even though Mr. Shelden observes, “[I]t is unrealistic to saddle [Twain] with one dominant emotion during his final years,” more glimpses into the character and sadder thoughts of the private Twain would have given the proper balance and depth to an otherwise excellent book.

Nevertheless, Mr. Shelden’s portrayal of Twain’s daughters is extremely well done, and after making their acquaintance on these pages, one does not question his choice for finding Jean’s diaries a more reliable record than those of the resentful Clara. The fact that the humorless Clara should become an ardent Christian Scientist in her old age, knowing of her father’s public quarrel with its founder, Mary Baker Eddy (whom he called “a remorseless tyrant”) is a delicious irony.

And we can understand the crushing blow that came with the death of favored Jean, the one daughter who most resembled Twain in her energy, good spirits and wit. The story of her passing is vividly and masterfully told. Even the photographs in this book have been chosen judiciously.

Overall, “Man in White” opens an entertaining window into the people, places and events of an age. At times, though, Mr. Shelden’s enthusiasm for his own research - as in the instance when recounting Woodrow Wilson’s friendship with Mary Peck - while amusing, goes on a tad too long, detracting from the narrative’s main flow. The anecdotes easily could have been placed in the notes that clarify the record and provide guideposts for further study.

Less care seems to have been taken with the bibliography, which includes a handful of books that not only have little relation to the text, but also are not cited in the notes, making one wonder if the titles were simply jotted as a favor to their authors.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” now out in Blackstone AudioBooks.

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