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The following review appeared 5 August 2012 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Some of the most useful and frequently cited books from the vast literature on Mark Twain are those that pair him with a family member, friend, or fellow author. Among many examples, those pairing Twain with his wife Livy, his brother Orion Clemens, Joseph Twichell, William Dean Howells, Henry H. Rogers, Bret Harte, George Washington Cable, Elisha Bliss, and Charles Webster are most familiar. These studies flesh out the relationship with correspondence, details of their interactions and conversations, and nearly all have relied upon previously unpublished sources. Twain studies have also paired him with a seemingly endless series of themes--women, religion, imperialism, race and the places he traveled and lived. Unlike the books that pair him with people, the books that study Twain's relationship with places and themes tend to rely less on unpublished sources and eye-witness testimony, and more on convincing arguments that connect the dots between Twain and particular places or events. Philip McFarland's Mark Twain and the Colonel, belongs in this latter group rather than the former, and examines the often conflicting reactions Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt had to the events, people, and places that shaped their times.
This study focuses on the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century, during which time Twain and Roosevelt established themselves as heroic American figures--Colonel Roosevelt for his charge up San Juan Hill, and Mark Twain for his successful lecture trip around the world to pay off his debts. Roosevelt was so proud of his accomplishment that he preferred the title of "Colonel" to all others and Twain was equally proud to have paid off his creditors in full. Both men were loved by the public as distinct exemplars of the American character, but they shared very different backgrounds (with more in common than either might have imagined) and often viewed the same events in very different ways. Their personal encounters were infrequent. They met shortly after Roosevelt's election as governor of New York, visited once in the White House, crossed paths at a Yale graduation ceremony, and they sometimes attended the same Lotos Club dinners. Each was well aware of their own and the other's public esteem and was careful about what they said in public about each other, versus what they said in private. Twain was keenly aware that his income depended upon the readers who bought his books. Roosevelt, the consummate posturing politician, was always thinking of the next election. But Roosevelt once privately remarked that he wanted to skin Mark Twain alive, and Twain jotted down his private opinion that Roosevelt was "the worst President we have ever had."
Because the two men rarely crossed paths, a chronological dual biography would not have worked here. McFarland instead organizes his account by grouping his forty-eight chapters into six thematic sections: war, the west, race, oil, children, and peace. Along the way he generally alternates one chapter on Twain, then the next on Roosevelt, and sometimes goes for pages without any mention of the other man, sometimes connecting the dots later on in his text, and sometimes leaving it to the reader to connect whatever dots might seem to connect. This thematic approach works well, although at times one section will overlap chronologically with another, with the result that people and events will suddenly pop up, then disappear, and suddenly reappear without warning. McFarland defends this feature of his narrative, saying that his thematic arrangement "lets us come to know the protagonists as we do our friends, not step-by-step from birth to death, but by entering lives at an all but arbitrary point, from which incrementally, through succeeding days, in succeeding pages, we gain insights and revelations as we watch Clemens and Roosevelt respond to concerns of their age" (p. xiv).
"War" is the theme that begins the story. Roosevelt glorified warfare. Although his exploits in Cuba led the Spanish to sue for peace after the Battle of San Juan Hill, the actual story is far less glorious. Both Roosevelt and Mark Twain saw the United States' claims on Cuba and the Philippines as mutually beneficial and a natural extension of Manifest Destiny but Twain's views on imperialism changed after the Boxer Rebellion in China and he declared himself an anti-imperialist as he learned more about the behavior of American soldiers in the Philippines. On the other hand, Roosevelt campaigned as an "expansionist" preferring that term over the negative connotations of "imperialist" but at the same time called anti-imperialists "traitors" (p. 70-1)--without singling out Mark Twain personally. Roosevelt embraced war as a man's duty, and declared that women fulfilled their duties in the home. After a brief taste of soldiering Twain had headed west during the Civil War, while Roosevelt late in life unsuccessfully begged President Woodrow Wilson to let him lead a regiment in World War I. On war Twain and Teddy would never agree.
Clues to how these two men came to embrace such different values can be found in their childhoods, which are compared in the second section, "The West." Roosevelt adored his mother and father and later said he never made a decision in life without first considering what his father would have done. Twain adored his mother, but not his father. Roosevelt was a sickly child with asthma and poor vision, and was taught to value discipline and duty; Twain's robust childhood reflected his Huck Finn taste for freedom and escape. For both men their early married life was shadowed by death. Just six years after marrying, Roosevelt's first wife and his mother died of unrelated causes on the very same day. He spent nearly a year hunting in the wilds of North Dakota to deal with his grief. In the first years of Twain's marriage, Livy's father died, a close friend who came to help Livy died in their home, Livy became deathly ill, and their son Langdon died in infancy. Twain was effusive in his grief and poured himself into his work. Roosevelt's hunting trip resulted in a book, Hunting Trips of a Ranchman, and Twain's writing resulted in Roughing It. Both books reflect some aspects of Manifest Destiny and both books can be said to designate the western frontier as the "gravitational center" of the American character. McFarland then traces Roosevelt's rise to power, advancing from New York Police commissioner, to assistant secretary of the Navy, to war hero, to Governor of New York, to McKinley's Vice-President, and then President after McKinley's assassination. At the same time he traces Twain's evolution toward anti-imperialism, first supporting war with Spain over Cuba, but opposing American actions in China and the Philippines, where Twain saw America as an oppressor rather than a protector, resulting in "To the Person Sitting in Darkness."
The third section, "Race," begins with one of Twain
and Roosevelt's few encounters, and what Twain said during that conversation
may surprise scholars who don't already know the story. The two men met at
a Yale graduation and Roosevelt asked Twain if he had been right to invite
Booker T. Washington to dine at the White House. Twain's response was a carefully
measured reply, saying that while a private individual may invite anyone he
wishes to his home, a public figure should be mindful of causing offense to
many people while at the same time reaping no benefit to the country. While
Twain's timid response sounds far less progressive than might be expected,
Twain's evolution away from racism had followed a long arc from the nasty
comments in his letter from New York in 1853. Roosevelt was not quite so evolved.
He accused his black Rough Riders of cowardice, a charge that was disputed
by his white officers and envisioned a "new race" in America would
rise up as less civilized races like Indians, Chinese, and African-Americans
became extinct. He urged foreigners coming to America to Americanize their
names, learn English, and shed their culture or face the same extinction.
He boasted that American democracy had been vindicated because it "kept
for the white race the best portions of the new world's surface" and
that the white race had been "right in wresting from barbarism
these beautiful states" (p. 200). McFarland amply documents that the
crude state of science of the day supported such racist thinking. Roosevelt
considered Booker T. Washington one of the "occasionally good, well-educated,
intelligent and honest colored men." As for Mark Twain, he viewed Washington
as "worth a hundred Roosevelts, a man whose shoe-latchets Mr. Roosevelt
is not worthy to untie" (p. 209).
In the section on "Oil," McFarland follows both men through the Gilded Age as they react to emerging corporate America. Twain befriends Standard Oil tycoon Henry Huddleston Rogers even as his sympathies deepen for the working man and labor, while Roosevelt continues to worship wealth even as he becomes the nation's great trust-buster. Although Roosevelt detested ill-gotten gains and fought to protect women and children from sweat-shops, he could not bring himself to support a minimum wage, or abolish forced convict labor, or enforce an eight hour work day. Roosevelt, who embraced Herbert Spencer's notion of "social Darwinisn," also wanted to change immigration laws to exclude anarchists, the uneducated, and the poor, because he believed they could not assimilate and survive in Anglo-Saxon America. In the meantime, Twain was chasing wealth through a series of bad investments in the Paige typesetter and the Webster Publishing Company, and relying on Rogers to reorganize and restore his finances. Both men were regularly featured in rather similar cartoons--big-headed mustachioed figures, Roosevelt with his toothy grin and Twain with his wild head of hair. By the time Roosevelt was President, Twain's opinion of his fellow cartooned celebrity had soured. Twain deplored Roosevelt's habit of "showing off" and his unending bragging about San Juan Hill and his hunting exploits. All the while Twain cherished his friend and savior Henry H. Rogers, just as Roosevelt cherished the thought of busting up Standard Oil and other trusts like it.
The section entitled "Children" could just as easily be called "Family" or "The Domestic Scene." Twain and Roosevelt, according to McFarland, experienced rather different domestic lives. When Twain returned from Italy with Livy's body, he and Clara were escorted swiftly through customs without the bother of delays or inspections thanks to Roosevelt's interceding on Twain's behalf, and after losing his wife, Twain was left with two of his three daughters. His domestic life had always been decidedly feminine, surrounded by a wife and daughters. After losing his first wife, Roosevelt had remarried and had four sons and two daughters, and most of his attention seems to have been focused on his sons and on manly pursuits, a decidedly masculine domestic scene. Alice Roosevelt is compared to Susy Clemens but Alice's frequent disdain for her father and constant attempts to become independent more closely resemble Clara Clemens's relationship with her father. Both men enjoyed very close strong marriages, and while Roosevelt pursued his obsession with the concept of "manliness" Twain remained in his feminine household, according to McFarland. However, he overlooks Twain's own admiration of manly pursuits. McFarland quotes Roosevelt's comment "I believe in rough manly sports." (p. 350) but nowhere mentions Twain's meeting with World Champion boxer Jim Corbett after a boxing match or his vivid letter to Livy describing the exciting violence of that sport. Nor does he mention Twain attending a Yale-Princeton football game and his enthusiastic comment that would have liked to play football himself. Twain concluded that "the country is safe when its young men show such pluck and determination as were in evidence today," sounding just as bully as Roosevelt himself. The two men had more in common on the home front than McFarland admits.
In the final section headed "Peace," both men experience personal and professional losses and physical decline. For Twain the loss of Livy, Jean, and Henry Rogers loom large, and he begins to feel his age in his last years. McFarland cites Michael Shelden's biography Mark Twain: Man in White, but still focuses on the bleakness of Twain's final years despite Shelden's convincing argument that Twain's last years were evenly balanced between disappointments and pleasures. Twain's relationship with pacifist and anti-imperialist Andrew Carnegie is also examined--a sharp contrast to the bombastic Roosevelt. After Twain's death, Roosevelt's last decade included political disappointments and the loss of one of his sons in war. In this section McFarland also recaps and catalogs Twain's criticisms of Roosevelt and believes Twain's criticism about Roosevelt was wrong. McFarland admits and then excuses Roosevelt's racism, saying it was based on the "brightest scientific light of the time ..." (p. 390). He claims that Roosevelt's widow and daughter were hurt to read Twain's criticism when Mark Twain in Eruption appeared in 1940, but he does not cite a source for this. The book ends with an account of Twain's and Roosevelt's children and their lives and there is no shortage of unhappiness, with stories of alcohol, drugs, suicide, and adultery playing major roles.
McFarland has gathered a mass of information, although none
of it appears to have come from previously unpublished sources, even though
he used a number of images from both the Mark Twain Papers at University of
California, and the Roosevelt Papers at Harvard, so the reader is left to
wonder if a search through Mark Twain's unpublished letters and notebooks
at Berkeley and a similar digging into the Roosevelt archives at Harvard might
have yielded even more insights. Both men attended dinners at the Lotos Club,
and although the club is mentioned in the text, there is no evidence the club's
archives were searched for further evidence of personal encounters. The reliance
on published sources in a work of this length makes it less useful to Twain
or Roosevelt scholars, but even well-read students of either man are certain
to gain new insights about the other. The organization of the material is
confusing at times, despite the author's reasoning behind his thematic arrangement.
His habit of not always connecting the dots between the two men and the events
they witnessed, and revisiting themes from other sections at unexpected moments
doesn't help clarify matters. Despite these modest flaws, the author does
a masterful job of evoking the times, the mood, the tensions of that era,
and the sometimes pungent personalities of both men, and that makes reading
this book a pleasure.