In 1894, Mark Twain was famous, beloved, and bankrupt. Although he attempted, with the help of his friend H. H. Rogers, a Standard Oil executive, to wiggle out of much of what he owed, his wife, Livy, insisted that he pay back his creditors. Zacks exhaustively chronicles Twain’s ambitious round-the-world speaking tour to raise funds. Despite health troubles and anxiety about his finances, Twain had a fervent curiosity that never faltered. In Montana, he visited shantytowns and in New Zealand a pa, or Maori longhouse; he adored India for its color and its clamor. Zacks’s engaging account of Twain’s travels shows the raconteur at his best and his worst: charming, childish, ribald, and intemperate.
Not since Michael Shelden's spellbinding Mark Twain, Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years (Random House, 2010) has such an impossible-to-put-down book emerged that yields fresh information about episodes in Twain's life on every page.
Zacks manages the nearly impossible feat of maintaining the momentum of his narrative while filling in the behind-the-scenes factors that add immeasurably to our grasp of the significance of each occurrence.
By committing to narrate only a portion of a pivotal decade--a biographical period often neglected except by scholars interested in Twain's growing distaste for the colonial imperialism he witnessed at firsthand--Zacks is able to explain many incidents with greater contextual background than any full-length biography can possibly allocate to them. The result is a joy to read and a lesson in what can be done to bring an era to life.
COLUMBUS DISPATCH (5/1/16)
PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY (STARRED)
Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour
In 1895, at the age of 60, Mark Twain, the nation’s highest-paid author at the time, faced financial disaster. To raise cash, he launched a yearlong lecture tour of 122 performances spanning several continents. As Zacks (The Pirate Hunter) relates in this deeply entertaining account, Twain’s rugged journey was redemptive. While restoring his spirit through the excitement of travel, the laughter of audiences, and the admiration of global high society, Twain made good money. Zacks’s book brims with side adventures, including intercontinental sea voyages and visits to African diamond mines. Australia welcomed Twain as a superstar with billboards calling him “the greatest humorist of the century.” Twain was fevered and sick in India, a land he nonetheless ended up adoring. His precarious finances became a well-known gossip item, but Zacks stresses that the public loved him all the more for his fortitude in crisis and successful efforts to pay off his debts. Twain spent four years in Europe after the tour and then returned to America to receive unprecedented tribute and adulation. Zacks’s narrative is well-researched with rich detail, some drawn from unpublished archival material at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, and it will strike ardent Twain fans and history lovers as fresh and inspiring. Agent: Esther Newberg, ICM. (Apr.)
An amusing, singular account of the world tour by the nation's most famous humorist, chased by creditors. Zacks (Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest to Clean Up Sin-Loving New York, 2012, etc.) journeys with Mark Twain (1835-1910) on his around-the-world tour in 1896, when he peddled his "greatest hits" to live admiring audiences in order to gain enough money to keep his creditors at home in check. Having made several disastrous investments—e.g., buying a publishing house and putting his nephew in charge and backing James W. Paige's pie-in-the-sky mechanical typesetter—Twain also had to support his heiress wife, Livy, and three daughters in grand style in Paris. On the advice of his friend and fellow investor, oil baron H.H. Rogers, Twain turned over all of his assets, including his book copyrights and Paige stock, to his wife to avoid persecution and embarked, with Livy and middle daughter Clara, on a world tour as essentially a stand-up comedian. He offered snippets from his more hilarious material while drumming up thousands of dollars to pay the creditors. Zacks has thoroughly mined the notebooks Twain kept on the tour—which detailed his "almost bizarre" range of interests: "religious preferences in ant colonies, worst public floggings, the anonymity of executioners, the insecurities of God"—and letters home to the two daughters who stayed behind, while tracking the family's progress across Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, and London. Apparently, Twain was beginning to enjoy himself immensely, and these snippets of his performances are endearing and affecting. Although the news of the sudden death of daughter Susy in 1896 dampened the family's homecoming, Twain was able to recoup many of his losses with new publishing and magazine contracts—and thanks to the financial wiliness of Rogers. Between the dizzying sums lost and gained, Zacks offers a rollicking history perfect for Twain's countless fans.
In 1895, at age 60, Mark Twain was dead broke and miserable—his recent novels had been critical and commercial failures, and he was bankrupted by his inexplicable decision to run a publishing company. His wife made him promise to pay every debt back in full, so Twain embarked on an around-the-world comedy lecture tour that would take him from the dusty small towns of the American West to the faraway lands of India, South Africa, and Australia. Zacks’s narrative provides a portrait of Twain as a complicated, vibrant individual, and showcases the biting wit and skeptical observation that made him one of the greatest of all American writers. Twain remained abroad for five years, a time of struggle and wild experiences—and ultimately redemption, as he rediscovered his voice as a writer and humorist, and returned, wiser and celebrated. Weaving together a trove of sources, including newspaper accounts, correspondence, and unpublished material from Berkeley’s ongoing Twain Project, Zacks chronicles a chapter of Twain’s life as complex as the author himself, full of foolishness and bad choices, but also humor, self-discovery, and triumph.
Who knew that for a talented author a mountain of debts could provoke laughter heard round the planet?
In this fast-paced chronicle, Zacks recounts how the 60-year-old Mark Twain dissolves a huge debt incurred through imprudent business dealings as he sets out on a world tour exploiting his singular gift for deadpan mirth. Readers join Twain on lecture platforms in the American West, Australia, India, and Africa, sharing in the mock drama and real hilarity of routines such as “Grandfather’s Old Ram,” with its
cornpone storytelling laced with sly impiety, and “The Golden Arm,” with its explosively amusing finale.
But even as Twain draws crowds with his jokes, he experiences the serious trials of nineteenth-century travel—including illness and long-distance family troubles—trials that Zacks exposes to view. And excerpts from journals and correspondence uncover private reflections at odds with Twain’s persona as a gypsy comedian, as the author fumes over the human stupidity and chicanery he sees. A diverting—and revealing—look at a neglected episode in Twain’s life.
— Bryce Christensen