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Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century.

Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century. By Philip McFarland. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012. ISBN 978-1442212268. Pp. 520. $28.00.

In November of 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt commenced an uproar when he decided to eliminate the phrase "In God We Trust" from a new issue of the ten-dollar and twenty-dollar gold coins. The coins' designer, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, had informed Roosevelt that the motto was unnecessary, and moreover that it was an "inartistic intrusion" upon the beauty of his design. This justification was widely ridiculed--especially by those who supported the restoration of the motto.

But in a dictation for his autobiography one month later, Mark Twain gave different reasons for dismissing Roosevelts thin excuse: "That is just like the president.... He is very much in the habit of furnishing a poor reason for his acts while there is an excellent reason staring him in the face.... The motto stated a lie. If this nation has ever trusted in God, that time has long gone by.... It is not proper to brag and boast that America is a Christian country when we all know that certainly five-sixths of our population could not enter in at the narrow gate." (Twain knew his Bible well, as this allusion to Jesus' Sermon on the Mount illustrates.) Several months later, in a speech at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, Twain made his sentiments public: "There is not a nation in the world which ever put its faith in God. It is a statement made on insufficient evidence. In the unimportant cases of life, perhaps, we do trust in God--that is, if we rule out the gamblers and burglars, and plumbers, for of course they do not believe in God." If America is a Christian country, Twain stated in the privacy of his study, "then so is hell ... [it's] the only really prominent Christian community in any of the worlds."

I've grown fond of Twain's statement about America's "Christian" proclamations about itself: "a statement made on insufficient evidence," he demurred. Mark Twain's musings on the anti-Christian flavor of empire, as stated in these two snippets, come at the tail-end of his nearly decade-long crusade against America's quest to attain colonies and rise to the ranks of world imperial power. After a nearly ten-year stay in Europe, Twain returned to the United States in October of 1900, just at the dawn of the so-called "American Century." Even at that time, there was talk about America becoming an elite power among nations, and many of America's leaders believed that the pathway to that status depended heavily upon establishing colonial enclaves in locations formerly owned by the Spanish empire. Early on, Twain was in favor of such a plan; but as the Spanish-American War developed into what appeared to be a wanton slaughter and power-grab (symbolized by the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898), Twain became disenchanted with the romance of empire. He referred to the U.S. presence in what is now the state of Hawaii as the "disease of civilization." And for Twain, nobody represented these evil intentions and subversive interventions more than the youngest president ever sworn into office (by way of McKinley's assassination in September of 1901): Teddy Roosevelt.

Together, Roosevelt and Twain were probably the most famous Americans alive in the first decade of the twentieth century--if not the most famous citizens of the entire world. They had no deep relationship, but they did meet on a number of occasions, including once at the White House and once at Yale University when they both received honorary degrees. They also both attended meetings of the Lotos Club, a gentlemen's group in New York City, and may have met and conversed on those occasions. Publically they recoiled from provocative criticism of each other (usually, that is); but privately each vented some vitriolic rage toward the other for a variety of reasons. As such, Roosevelt and Twain had much in common, but much to argue about. Their ongoing feud was symptomatic of the swirling culture in which they found themselves.

And yet until just the past few years, there has not been a great deal of scholarly coverage of their relationship--a relationship that might tell us much about the American world they inhabited together as its chief icons, roughly the mid-1890s through the death of Mark Twain in 1910. In Mark Twain and the Colonel, Philip McFarland attempts to bring them together in a coherent and accessible format, and to a very large extent he succeeds. McFarland is a very good writer of prose and a deeply informed cultural biographer who knows the sources and draws well upon them to produce lively and readable narratives. My familiarity with McFarland's work dates back to two excellent, earlier biographies. Hawthorne in Concord (2007) is a delightful read about one of America's more hidden authorial presences; in its pages, Hawthorne is brought to robust life about as well as he ever has been. Loves of Harriet Beecher Stowe (2008) tells the story of the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin through the lens of her engagement with her father Lyman, her husband Calvin Stowe, and her famous brother Henry Ward Beecher. As with his volume on Hawthorne, McFarland charms us into a more intimate portrait of Hattie Stowe than we usually get. Both books display McFarland's excellent ear for the primary sources and his impressive familiarity with nineteenth-century American culture and literary history. But most of all, both books reveal a deeply personal side to these two famous authors: their lives and loves, joys and burdens, their peculiarities and genius; in short, their deeply embodied existences.

Similarly, Mark Twain and the Colonel is also strongest when it shows us the more hidden and personal sides of these two iconic Americans. There are some strained aspects, however. To begin, one wonders why McFarland tries so hard to meld the two massive personalities together as this book does, because some problems arise with the organization. The book is made up of six sections that cover major themes: in order, McFarland attends to war, the west, race, oil, children, and peace. Obviously, whole books have been written about such themes with regard to each of the figures. To take a major example: both Roosevelt and Twain have had large bodies of scholarship arise around their engagements with race and their views of, for instance, African Americans and Asians. McFarland does distill much of this material down to a readable and often engaging format; the sections are roughly chronological, with much overlapping. But often, this method of jumping back and forth becomes a bit tedious from one section to the next, and there is often some repetition of incident or character, making it a rather odd experience to read the book from cover to cover.

However, within the individual sections, and in the brief handful of chapters that comprise each of the six large sections, there is a good deal of memorable story-telling and analysis. I personally enjoy this sort of volume, but it's hard to categorize due to the fact that much of what's presented here is very familiar to scholars in the field. One example might be the section on Booker T. Washington, and the ruckus that arose when Roosevelt dined with him at the White House. Many details of this particular anecdote were unfamiliar to me, but in this book it is used as an incident to illustrate what all scholars of the period know inside and out: the deeply disturbing prejudices at work in the culture of the period, and the racist responses that even U.S. senators were capable of spewing forth to chastise the presidents decision to eat dinner with a black man. That should be old hat for most readers of history, not to mention specialists. Similarly, Twain scholars will be quite familiar with the basic information here on Twain's anti-imperialism, his travels abroad, his fondness for his family life, or his struggles with grief over his dead daughter Susy and his wife Livy.

One other idiosyncratic habit also gives pause. Twain scholars will notice right away that McFarland refers to his subject in two distinct ways: Mark Twain and Clemens, bringing to mind the divided self model posited by numerous scholars, most famously Justin Kaplan in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography. McFarland employs the distinction, evidently, to discern the public Twain and the private Clemens (as if that were possible); but this well-worn strategy makes it sound like he is discussing two people, not one. For me, the strategy (still a point of debate among experts) gets annoying by the end of chapter one, because such attempts inevitably muddy the already muddy waters: it simply gets in the way of discerning the great author and personality. I'll leave it to the Roosevelt historians to hash out the coverage of Teddy, but I assume their conclusions will be about the same. Great bedside companion, but Roosevelt experts have (mostly) been there and done that before.

Thus, to be more global, one might admire a volume like this one--as I do--and yet still ask the logical question: for whom is the book intended? This kind of study is like what sports fans sometimes call a "tweener": meaning, an athlete (most often in football or basketball) who falls between the ideal height and weight and skill set for two different positions (is he a linebacker or a defensive end? Is he a shooting guard or a small forward?). Mark Twain and the Colonel is a good read for scholars, but does not represent much of a significant gain in terms of new or earthshaking insight, research-wise. It's perhaps better to think of the book as intended for the general, historically inclined and intellectually vigorous reader who is not already steeped in the biographies already available. But it's long. And it provides extensive notes and impressive detail, in keeping with standard scholarly practice. So I wonder how many general readers will make it completely through this study, or desire as much historical and cultural evidence as McFarland often presents. As such, it truly is a "tweener": a great book to have and refer to for someone like me, but perhaps one that is unable to completely satisfy the reading habits--or needs--of either constituency.

For me, the best parts are those infrequent moments when both actors share the stage. Though the title purports to tell us something of the relations of these two personalities, in the end they rarely were in the same room together, and the book is more of a double-biography with one on stage and the other in the break room, with McFarland straining to show their ostensible similarities. When they do come together--as in my opening rendition of the squabble over the motto inscribed on our money (but overlooked here in McFarland)--there can be some interesting fireworks. These two titans, as colorful and polarizing as almost any Americans before or since, often went at it over public policy or symbolic and religious belief. They were opposites in terms of birth, family, geography, education, and belief. But maybe the biggest surprise is McFarland's brilliant ability to show, in the end, just how much they really did have in common. It is a revelation that allows us to see, a century later, the importance of listening carefully to both sides of an argument--and of recognizing our need to hear both those warring parties.

Mark Twain and the Colonel is very good at illustrating the similarities and differences of these two giants, and it's good at suggesting the oppositional premise of the American project. It also reminds us that some of our most controversial issues (such as military adventuring in faraway lands) go back a pretty long time. As we prepare to think about our own futures regarding further adventuring, these historical roots are all good things to know.

Harold K. Bush

Saint Louis University
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Author:Bush, Harold K.
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2014
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