New Book on Mark Twain’s World Tour: Chasing the Last Laugh by Richard Zacks

In 1893, even though he was the highest paid writer in America and married to an heiress, Mark Twain–Samuel Clemens–was on the brink of financial ruin. This book tells the story of how the already famous writer got out of financial trouble and grew his persona to mega rock star proportions.

One of the big take-aways from this book is that Mark Twain was one hard working writer. He may not have had much business sense, but as a writer and student of human nature he was always observing, pondering, and making notes in his journal.

When it came to writing or telling a story, he would change the details to create a more dramatic story, if necessary, such as in the case of a shuffleboard tournament aboard ship which Twain actually won, but in the telling of it he has another player win to better fit his storyline. He also “stole” stories, such as one from his friend Bram Stoker about a christening. It is impressive that Twain also worked on creating multiple performances so that if he were performing three nights in one city, people would hear fresh material each night. His seemingly simple stories were actually painstakingly constructed works of art.

Apparently Livy Clemens, Twain’s wife, had much to do with the success of Twain’s onstage storytelling (and perhaps his written work, too). While he was creating content for the tour Livy suggested that instead of telling joke after joke, he add a longer, more serious and emotionally charged story. This blending of pathos and humor is the roller-coaster ride that audiences the world over love.

From the publisher: Richard Zacks, drawing extensively on unpublished material in notebooks and letters from Berkeley’s ongoing Mark Twain Project, chronicles a poignant chapter in the author’s life—one that began in foolishness and bad choices but culminated in humor, hard-won wisdom, and ultimate triumph.

This is an enjoyable read. It’s well-written, has a good pace, and packs in a ton of information: the circumstances that landed Twain in serious financial straights and how he managed, along with his wife and good friend H.H. Rogers, to climb out of debt, detail about his friendships & relationships, what it was like to travel in the late 19th century, and even physical ailments such as the carbuncle the great writer had on his leg that was so big and/or painful that he couldn’t wear pants for weeks. Physical ailments do impact the creative process. (All hail antibiotics. While they have been over-prescribed in recent years, I think I prefer life with rather than life without antibiotics.)

If you’re interested in Twain and have never read anything about him, this is a fascinating place to start. And if you’re in the Hartford, CT area Zacks is giving a talk at the Mark Twain House & Museum on Thursday, April 21, at 7pm. Check out his tour schedule here.

Title: Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour
Author: Richard Zacks (author of Island of Vice, An Underground Education, History Laid Bare, The Pirate Hunter, and The Pirate Coast)
Publisher: Doubleday, released April 19, 2016
Source: bound galley advance reader copy

One comment

  1. This does sound interesting! I don't know much about Twain, but I would like to (especially as I do intend to visit his house some day). This seems like a good starting point.

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