When novelist Larry McMurtry reviewed Karen Lystra's Dangerous Intimacy for The New York Review of Books, he offered the offhand remark that “Mark Twain is one of those authors who is, invariably, more interesting to read than to read about, which is far from being the case with every writer.” McMurtry is right on both counts: Twain is more interesting to read than to read about, and the same is not true of most writers. However, McMurtry's dictum does not mean that Twain himself is not interesting to read about. In fact, his complex life makes for endlessly fascinating reading.
Twain is one of those rare historical figures who seems to inspire at least one new revisionist biography every year, along with a growing flow of popular biographies, book-length monographs, and scholarly articles. Much of what is published about him analyzes his writings, probing for greater depths of understanding while seeking to explain his work to new generations of readers. However, interest in Twain goes well beyond his written works, prolific and diverse though they are. He had a long and complicated life that would be interesting to read about even if he had never published a single book. However, that, of course, is nonsense, as he would not have been the man he was had he never written his books.
Born in 1835, Twain lived until 1910 and packed into those years careers as a journeyman printer, a Mississippi steamboat pilot, a Western prospector, a frontier journalist, an author of best-selling books, a lecturer, a publisher, and an investor. Along the way, he lived, at least briefly, in almost every region of the United States, including Hawaii. He crossed the Atlantic Ocean two dozen times, and he spent twelve years of his life abroad. His books were translated into all the world's major languages, and his face was known almost everywhere. By the turn of the twentieth century, he was not only the most popular author in the United States, he was also one of the most famous people on the face of the earth. Moreover, he was fully aware of his fame and popularity and relished both.
The central narrative of Dangerous Intimacy begins around 1902. By that time, Twain was in his late sixties, and his most important work was behind him. After recovering from the 1894 bankruptcy of his publishing company, his finances were stable, and he was content to dabble in smaller writing projects and to confine his public speaking engagements to unpaid after-dinner speeches—for which he was in constant demand. Through the early years of the new century, he lived in or near New York City most of the time and was such a familiar figure in that great metropolis that he was popularly dubbed the “Belle of New York.”
If there was a central theme to Twain's private life, it was his never-satisfied quest for wealth. After growing up in poverty in Missouri and seeing his father fail and die young, he hungered for financial security for his own family but never achieved it to his satisfaction, despite the great successes he enjoyed as a writer and a lecturer and the fact that he married into wealth.
By the early 1880's, he had achieved a prosperous lifestyle that exceeded anything he may have dreamed of when he was younger. Happily married with three daughters, he was the master of an enormous house in Hartford, Connecticut, that was maintained by a large staff of devoted servants. Most of his books were best-sellers, he was constantly in demand as a lecturer, and he was probably earning more money than any other writer in the United States. Nevertheless, he was not satisfied.
In 1884, Twain launched his own book-publishing company and quickly scored two enormous successes: His own novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Memoirs of U. S. Grant. The latter was such a huge best-seller that Twain was able to hand over to Grant's widow the largest royalty payment ever made in the history of publishing. Basking in these triumphs, he was convinced that everything he touched would turn to gold—a judgment that would ultimately drive him to make poor business decisions. His worst decision was pouring money into the development of an automatic type-setting machine that was destined to fail. By 1894, his investments in that machine were a total loss, and his publishing company went bankrupt that same year.
By then, Twain had already closed down his grand Hartford house and condemned himself and his family to years of wandering in Europe, where he figured they could live more cheaply than in the United States. He managed to pay off all of his company's debts by going on an arduous round-the-world lecture tour and publishing his last great travel book, Following the Equator, in 1897. After several more years abroad, he returned to the United States with his family in 1900 and was received as a conquering hero. His popularity had never been greater, and the celebrity that he enjoyed at that moment would continue to grow through the last decade of his life.
The triumphs of Twain's last years were offset by personal tragedies within the family. His oldest daughter, Susy, died of spinal meningitis in 1896, before the family could reunite after his round-the-world lecture tour. Around that same time, his youngest daughter, Jean, was diagnosed...
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