If you’re familiar with the life of Mark Twain, you’ll know that by 1900, he was fed up with Teddy Roosevelt. “Far and away the worst president we’ve ever had,” he said as he lambasted the presidents’ military venture in the Philippines.
For his part, Roosevelt came to despise the great American humorist, once saying to a small group of friends he’d like to skin Mark Twain alive.
Back when the two men first met in the 1880s, they had admired each other. Roosevelt loved Twain’s writings and Twain said he’d never shaken Roosevelt’s hand without feeling an electric charge move up his arm. But their background and their principles were already leading them in vastly different directions.
Where those differences came from, and how they shaped the lives of these men, is the focus of Philip McFarland’s Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century, (Rowman, & Littlefield, 2012).
These men—who were probably the two most famous Americans of their times—took vastly different routes to success. For Twain, it was a wandering path for a small-town boy who became a steamboat pilot, prospector, journalist, and finally world-renowned humorist. For Theodore Roosevelt the journey was much quicker: in just 43 years, this frail child of money and privilege became a reform-minded politician and, to everyone’s surprise, president.
To a great degree, Twain retained the outlook of a man of the 19th century, while Roosevelt saw a future in which America would become a global power, and that’s where the trouble lay.
But the bitterness between the two wasn’t caused only by their differences. As McFarland points out, “There were enough similarities between Roosevelt and Clemens to cause friction anyway. Both were writers and public performers possessed of restless, perpetually youthful temperaments. Each grew a bit nettled when the spotlight wandered off him. And both had a wide circle of friends, the circles often overlapping… keeping the one, if only inadvertently, aware of the other’s views and doings.”
In this dual biography, McFarland weaves the threads of their lives around the key events and important people of their day. While Clemens lambasts the moneyed classes in his novel The Gilded Age, Roosevelt becomes a progressive who challenges “the malefactors of great wealth.” But McFarland also notes the difference between what these men said and what they did. How both men talked a better attitude toward black Americans than they practiced. How they could withhold their criticism of robber barons when it suited themselves.
Their lives, and their outlook couldn’t be too divergent because they were, ultimately, shaped by the same great forces in American society: the excesses of the Gilded Age, the financial panic of 1893, the rise of Progressivism, the growing desire to reform America, the pride in America’s new technologies, the growing realism in art—McFarland seems to weave it all together.
I should note one peculiarity of this book. Because McFarland writes about themes more than sequential events, the continuity of “Mark Twain and the Colonel” is more disrupted than a typical biography. But then, a book concerning two men born a generation and a world apart should be expected to be a little disjointed.
Overall, it’s a highly enlightening book that offers you two biographies and a vast panorama of American society at the beginning of its modern age.
Mark Twain and The Colonel is available from Amazon for a list price of $28.