- - Tuesday, August 21, 2012

By Philip McFarland
Rowman & Littlefield, $28, 498 pages

Philip McFarland’s book “Mark Twain and the Colonel” is a hybrid biography of two of the most colorful figures of their era and a fascinating look at America at the beginning of the 20th century.

Both Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910) and Teddy (Theodore Roosevelt, 1859-1919) shared common characteristics. They wrote books, loved the limelight and were masters of self-promotion — well adept at firing off quotable phrases. Both possessed a curious boyish quality. Yet their temperaments and outlook on life were quite different, with Twain becoming highly critical of President Roosevelt. Roosevelt represented the new, vibrant century, advocating in his essays a “strenuous life” for an America emerging as a global power, while Twain in his notebooks reflected, “The twentieth century is a stranger to me.”

The United States changed rapidly upon arrival of the new century — from a rural country into an urban nation. Enormous fortunes were made by names still synonymous with money — Rockefeller, Carnegie, Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan. Twain gave the era the definitive title, the “Gilded Age.” Burgeoning wealth was matched by increasing immigration: Between 1860 and 1900, the population soared from 36 million to 76 million. Many immigrants sought work in industry as trade unions rose to battle corporations. A capitalist economy organized on a purely secular basis replaced an older America more in touch with the social and spiritual needs of men and women.

Henry James, disgusted with America’s emphasis on having instead of being, left for England. Twain stayed home, reveling in its money-making potential. Says Mr. McFarland: “Spades atirist of the Gilded Age, he was an avid speculator who relished his friendships with the captains of American industry and grumbled when President Roosevelt hectored them.”

A printer-newspaperman turned successful author, Twain purchased Webster and Co., a publishing firm that in 1885 published two enormous best-sellers — his “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and the now sadly neglected classic “Grant’s Memoirs” — earning Gen. Ulysses Grant, dying of throat cancer, more than $400,000 for his family. However, the firm went bankrupt in 1894. Twain landed further into insolvency, investing in a newfangled typesetter machine. To extinguish his debt, Twain left America in 1885 with his family on a five-year worldwide lecture tour.

Twain reminds one of Benjamin Franklin, another printer-turned-writer also known by a pseudonym (Poor Richard). Intrigued by new inventions, both men were materialists who enjoyed being wittily irreverent. Like Franklin, Twain — a utilitarian — equated inventors of mechanical devices with the “highest order of poets.”

An artist of America’s oral tradition, Twain wrote his best books about his youth out West. Twain was gifted in his brilliant use of dialect, and his books contain the heavy presence of nostalgia — later deteriorating into an embittered self-pity and a dark, dreary deterministic materialism.

Twain’s years abroad were those of phenomenal ascendency for Theodore Roosevelt on the American political stage. A national hero in the 1898 war with Spain, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York. Picked by President William McKinley to be his running mate in 1900, Roosevelt became the youngest president of the United States when McKinley died of an assassin’s bullet in 1901.

Historians rate Theodore Roosevelt as one of America’s greatest leaders. Twain wrote in journals published after his death that TR was far and away the worst president we ever had. Referring to him as our windy and flamboyant president, he had low regard for Roosevelt’s intellect and loathed his expansionist foreign policy. Twain even found fault with Roosevelt’s successful resolution of the Russo-Japanese War, for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. Twain thought Roosevelt’s intervention pulled the czar’s chestnuts out of the fire and prevented an early version of the Russian Revolution.

Roosevelt had contempt for the “hard” and “narrow, shut-in materialism,” Twain expressed. He thought man possesses free will and can act no matter how dark life sometimes seems. As president, he put Edwin Arlington Robinson on the federal payroll, stipulating that the poet do little government work. He urged Scribner’s to publish Robinson’s poetry. Roosevelt thought, along with G.K. Chesterton, that poets were often a nuisance to their families but were a general blessing for mankind. Roosevelt was no pessimist. In a letter to Robinson (who suffered from depression and drinking), Roosevelt encouraged, “That there is not one among us in whom a devil does not dwell: at some time, the devil masters each of us. It is not having been in the Dark House, but having left it that counts.”

Readers of Mr. McFarland’s very well-written book, filled with wonderful anecdotes, can judge for themselves who is the better man.

Patrick J. Walsh writes from Quincy, Mass.

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