Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour
by Richard Zacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I want to read some Twain so i can appreciate his title as America's greatest humorist. I thought this was a good place to start as it works his quotes within the context of his times. For that, i got just what I wanted.
Twain was as bad as an investor as he was talented as a writer. He put his money into a typesetting machine that looked to revolutionize printing. It didn't. (It was impossible to fix in comparison to its competitor). This along with some of other bad business decisions put Twain $2million in debt (in terms of modern money).
To get out of debt (and to flee America) Twain plotted out a World speaking tour. This would raise money as well spark ideas for a new book. In essence, Twain may be one of the first comedians to go on a stand-up tour or the first spoken word artist to draw large audiences.
It's a fascinating story. Of course, to get Twain's thoughts on everything, but I find the 1890s an interesting time, and Twain travels through Australia, India, and Africa. We get Twain's takes on these countries and the colorful sights and animals. He falls in love with India, and shares his thoughts on fakirs sleeping on beds of nails, human-powered taxis, and cows in the streets (and people bathing in the same river as the cows and drinking from it). He rides the Darjeeling Express- the world's dangerous railroad- certainly maybe the biggest adventure one could have at that time, hoping that the brakes work. He begins to question Imperialism, as the Boer War goes on, and the US occupies the Philippines.
Twain has become accustomed to living a certain way, and his pride won't let him be see act a pauper. He teams up with HH Rogers, a millionaire who helped found Standard Oil. Rogers allows Twain to make the tour and at least keep up the appearance of living the good life, meanwhile keeping the collectors at bay a little while longer.
Twain's wife comes from money, and largely is his conscience. Twain's performances are brilliant, but he hates the idea of having to do them, and the travel is particularly grueling.
It's a fascinating book, and Zacks uses plenty of reference material (diaries of those involved, newspapers of the day, etc) and really captures Twain's humor well, as well as the context.
Twain's daughter Susy (who did not travel along with her father) dies of spinal meningitis at age 24 near the end of the tour. The Twains are heartbroken by this, and sees it as a punishment. Twain's humor becomes darker, more atheistic and the family feels a lot of guilt.
As the tour ends, Twain is thinking of other ways to make money, mostly unsuccessful. He attempts an ill-advised public (New York newspaper) charity offering asking people to send him money to relieve his debt. This is mocked, and quickly dropped; Twain trying to play it off as a joke. Twain writes a ribald version of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and suggests selling a very limited number of copies at a great cost (Sometimes Twain reeled himself back in from the tasteless and sometimes his wife did). Twain does make a significant amount of money from inside trading tips from Rogers on stock (legal then).
The story ends on a relatively good note. Twain's wife has a family relative whose terrible mining investment turns into a too-good-to-be-true deal that turns out to be true (Zacks's words). Between this, the tour, and help from Rogers including negotiating better publishing deals, Twain's fortune is restored and he returns to America a hero.
Always loved for his books, now respected as someone who paid back all of his debts. Twain had been viewed closely in the sensationalist "Rich man loses everything" way, and was constantly in the press, assumed the worst- (leading to the slightly misquoted "Reports of my death..." line).
For me, i think this book would have worked better at half the size. As it stands, it's a week-to-week description of the tour, including audience counts and public reception at every stop. I think it would have worked better as a lighter book. Still, some may want the level of detail, and it is the most minor of quibbles. I recommend for fans of Twain, people looking for an accessible intro into Twain. Also, recommended for the colorful travelography of the 1890s. If you choose not to pick it up, consider viewing Zacks's appearance on C-Spans Book TV. This really is a fascinating story, and recommended.View all my reviews