By Alejandro Grattan
—The Compassionate Cynic
The world recently commemorated the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain’s death. Unlike the reputation of other once-celebrated American writers, the passage of time has only added luster to his place in history—both as a writer as well as a man.
During a period when even very good writers like O. Henry died broke and forgotten, Twain once had the world at his feet, having acquired substantial wealth, honorary degrees from prestigious universities and the acclaim of millions of readers—and that of other famous writers. Hemingway once called Twain’s Huckleberry Finn the finest novel ever written by an American. Time Magazine years later would dub him “America’s first superstar.”
He was lucky in another way, as well. Unlike many writers who dazzle readers but only bore friends, acquaintances and audiences, the handsome Twain was as scintillating in person as he was on the page. His wit was legendary.
On religious belief, he said that he preferred Heaven for its weather but Hell for its company. When people found him grumpy, he would answer, “Well, I am only human, though I regret it.” As for travel, he was once asked by a ship’s steward if he could get him anything for his seasickness. “Yes, get me a little island.” Back on dry land, and after his house was burglarized, Twain left a note “To the Next Burglar” asking among other things to “please close the door on your way out.”
As he succumbed to middle-age, his wit took on a sharper edge as he grew more cynical about the human race. But unlike Mencken and Shaw, Twain’s deeply-engrained kindness never let his cutting remarks go too deep.
He had never been the same after the death of his beloved wife, his infant son and his daughter Lucy. Thereafter, Twain vowed that he would never wear black again and from that time on dressed only in white. But personal tragedy was impervious to his mode of dress and in short order, he broke irreparably with one of his two remaining daughters, with another crushing blow coming as his favorite daughter died.
Inevitably, personal loss affected his professional life and toward the end he penned one of the darkest books ever written by an American. For a man who had first made his reputation with the wonderfully whimsical The Notorious Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, his Letters From the Earth signaled a turn inward toward the nether regions of his personality. No two writings by the same author could have been less alike.
But then came his crowning moment, not as a writer but as a man.
This model to millions had an idol of his own—Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of the Civil War and later president of the United States. Now in fading health, he had laboriously completed his memoirs and was looking for a publisher—but the best terms he could get were the standard 90/10 profit-sharing arrangement favoring the publisher. Twain, stunned that a national icon should be treated in such shabby fashion, vowed to publish Grant’s memoirs himself (he had earlier brought a complicated new printing process), and gave Grant ninety percent, keeping only ten for himself.
President Grant would die before the book was released but his widow would receive royalties of more than two million dollars—imagine that in current dollars! The book was a huge success—for everyone but Mark Twain, who went broke as a result of the endeavor.
Yet I think it was his finest moment. Would that we should all go broke in such glorious fashion.