Mark Twain, the Comedian: Richard Zacks’ ‘Chasing the Last Laugh’, Grouchiness, and a Whistlestop World Tour

Mark Twain: fun guy! (Despite the carbuncles and bereavement!)

Just months before his sixtieth birthday, Mark Twain found himself bankrupt. His publishing house, Charles L Webster & Co, owed more than $100,000 to creditors and bookbinders. A separate venture — a typesetting machine Twain anticipated would revolutionize printing — turned out a disaster, costing the writer and his wife Livy a sum equal to $5 million today. Twain, who ought to have been basking in privileged comfort as the nation’s celebrity author, found himself fatigued and crushed by debt. He was disgraced by financial ruin, a feeling aggravated by the merciless publicity of the affair. MARK TWAIN FAILS, declared the San Francisco Call, a newspaper where he once worked.

The dramatic episode of Twain’s debt and redemption is the subject of a new book, Chasing the Last Laugh by Richard Zacks. The book weighs in at 400 pages, and covers barely a year of Twain’s life; it’s hard to conceive of many literary lives that could accommodate so detailed a biography of so brief a period. Yet dense in action and experience that period was. From 1895-96, Mark Twain and his family traveled across the wide face of the Anglophonic world. In a single, sprawling tour, the author performed in 122 cities, charming audiences in nations as diverse as the US, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, and Britain.

The reason for Twain’s travels was business. His trade was stand-up comedy. The author hoped to pay off thousands of dollars of cumbersome debt by taking his raucous, 90-minute set on the road. The press followed him everywhere and his audiences adored him. The public’s admiration was even ardent enough to ignore the author’s smoldering resentment. “I am demeaning myself to be a mere buffoon,” said Twain of taking to the lecture platform, “It is ghastly. I can’t endure it any longer.”

Twain may have detested prostituting his talents in such a way, but he was damn good at it. He mined his past work for bits, repurposing and editing them for performance. His delivery was deadpan and smileless, although he would readily inhabit the voices of different characters. Among Twain’s segments was a parody of the German language, a poem about Australian wildlife, and a dialogue between Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.

Today, we might be surprised by how playful and anarchic Twain’s comedy was. Unlike contemporary stand-up comedy, in which a largely-consistent persona pervades an entire set, Twain rapidly indulged new characters and conceits, switching narrative voice nearly as often as he changed bits.

Still, it is not likely Mark Twain would sell out theatres today with his comedy, though the same might be said of other past luminaries: vaudeville duos, Lenny Bruce, and even Eddie Murphy. Thus is comedy’s short cultural shelf-life. Humor, by reveling in the unusual, needs a consensus of the usual to contrast against. As the status quo inevitably shifts, the exaggerations once borne from it lose their bite. Twain’s “Jumping Frog,” for instance, will elicit fewer belly laughs today because the rugged, Western ethos it parodizes is too distant from us to notice its distortions.

We label Mark Twain humorist over comedian because we do not need to laugh to appreciate humor. We have all smiled and admired Twainian wit, to be sure, but we are still far from the rapturous mirth of his touring audiences. Chasing the Last Laugh brings Twain’s comedy close to its wider context, and enlivens both. By situating the writer in his world and his time, biography actually makes Mark Twain funnier.

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Mark Twain’s debts were split between two major ventures. A decade before, the writer’s publishing company saw massive success with its sales of President Grant’s Memoirs. Now, Charles L. Webster & Co. was saddled with debt. The company began to offer a library of classics for $33, but a customer needed only to pay the first $3 installment of the subscription to receive it. When the Panic of 1893 struck, customers couldn’t pay off their collections, and the company’s cash flow was frozen.

Yet nothing failed as spectacularly as the Paige typesetter. An intricate machine of 18,000 parts, it was meant to maximize printing production. Instead, the machine was prone to malfunction after malfunction, and never worked. The venture devoured Twain’s cash, a sum equal to millions of dollars today.

Much of Last Laugh is reliant on financial drama. Originating in humiliation and utter lack of skill in capital matters, Twain’s problems must be solved by a compromise of his talents. The author sends home disbursement after disbursement (we learn that Twain had paid off a quarter of his debts after the tour’s Australian leg, for instance), and latch on to a steady, numerical march toward redemption.

The pressures on Twain — those of family, character, reputation, and finance — punctuate the better parts of the story. For added drama, his health was in a pitiful state. He was fatigued and inflicted with carbuncles. The painful pustules flared up in Twain’s armpits and legs, sometimes reaching the size of an egg, and were in frequent need of drainage and opium shots.

But beyond this malady, Twain, Livy, and their daughter Clara had it relatively calm on the road. The author was well-received everywhere, and audiences from New Zealand to India were entranced by his performances. There were the inconveniences of body and travel, to be sure, but none compared to the stress and humiliation that plagued Twain and family at home.

Without the anxieties of finance and reputation to draw from, Last Laugh relies on Twain’s travels for action. And without pressing conflict, Twain becomes more a witness to spectacle than the sudden protagonist of romping worldwide tour. While some of these anecdotes are delightful — a skittish Twain atop an Asian elephant comes to mind — many arouse the same idle interest as another family’s vacation photo album. The book records the loud crows outside Twain’s Indian hotel room, his attendance at various dinners, and the time he saw children shear sheep in New Zealand. After this sort of narration persists for some 120 pages, the reader almost longs for some kind of catastrophe to befall them, just to get the story back on its feet.

And then Twain’s daughter Susy, who remained in the US during the family’s travels, dies of meningitis. The distance, both physical and communicative, tormented Mark and Livy as they got news of the tragedy. Many believed Livy never recovered.

Here we encounter Twain at his most sympathetic. He lamented the “books that Susy would have written that I shall never read now.” The author found himself in spiral of guilt and self-loathing:

My remorse does not deceive me. I know that if she were back I should soon as be neglectful of her as I was before… My selfishness & indolence would resume their power & I should be no better father to her, no more obliging friend and encourager & helper than I was before. If I could call up a single instance where I laid aside my own projects & desires & put myself to real inconvenience to procure a pleasure for her I would forget all things else to remember that.

Two years later, Twain had returned from abroad, published his travel memoir, and profited from the wise financial control of his friend and Standard Oil tycoon H.H. Rogers. His debts were paid and he was financially secure. Two years later, as the family read the creditors’ letters, Twain said Livy enjoyed the only “really happy day” since the death of their daughter.

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Like any full persona, Mark Twain is exuberantly inconsistent. “He embodied so many contradictory traits,” writes Zacks, “in so many ample helpings — envy/generosity, suspiciousness/gullibility, loyalty/paranoia, arrogance/insecurity — that no one, not even he, could predict his moods.”

However, Twain’s grouchiness becomes, if not his most reliable, his most fascinating trait. Here is a reflection from the road:

It is the strangest thing that the world is not full of books that scoff at the pitiful world, the useless universe & the vile & the contemptible human race — books that laugh at the whole paltry scheme & deride it. Curious for millions of men die every year with these feelings in their hearts. Why don’t I write such a book? Because I have a family. There is no other reason. Was this those other people’s reason?

Grouchiness made Twain detest excessive complexity. His sketches and performances satirized the unnecessary “complications and perplexities” of the world. One of his tour’s greatest hits was “Grandfather’s Old Ram,” a tale told by a garrulous storyteller that digresses and meanders and never gets where it promised. Twain made not only comic windbags, but bureaucrats. We see this in some of his strongest sketches, from “Facts in the Case of the Great Beef Contract,” to “Cannibalism in the Cars,” in which turgid language, litigation, and parliamentary discussion shroud matters that any gut-thinking, practical soul would settle in moments.

Twain’s humor betrays a distaste for the intricate and byzantine, bringing us closer to understanding his overall negligence in finance. But we find another contradiction, one fitting of the artist. All at once, Twain avoids witnessing to his peril, yet sees, criticizes, and transforms so much of what the common eye fails often fails to perceive.

Twain’s grouchiness can get the best of him, and the author at times sounds less like our cultural forefather than its senescent grandpa. The admirable Twain, the anti-imperialist, is not so simple evaluation. He reviews the state of India under the British Empire, and commends the British race as a “merciful people — the best kind of people for colonising the globe.” He also records a redress to the matter of English soldiers’ frequent contraction of venereal disease on deployment. These are archetypal declarations of a man of Twain’s time and temperament. Yet what is most striking in Twain’s cantankerous soul is an absence, that is, a lack of nostalgia.

Mark Twain saw a nation shake away the institution of slavery, witnessed brethren slaughter brethren. Pap of his Adventures, in his willful ignorance and blustering hypocrisy, is as much part of the American identity as Roughing It, indulging Gilded Age excess, or the numerous other American modes Twain parodized so successfully.

Twain harbored few illusions, and this sharpened the critical instinct necessary to his comedy. One could say he achieved a peculiar peace with a world that oft let him down. Perhaps he held some contempt, but at least he got to see so much of it.