Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years

Image of Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years
Release Date: 
January 25, 2010
Random House
Reviewed by: 

“I am only human, although I regret it.”
—Mark Twain

American society today bears only a fractional resemblance to the environment that surrounded Samuel Clemens during the height of his notoriety. Today, celebrities of all stripes must be in almost constant PR mode if they are to entertain any hopes of longevity; they often go from public darling to phantom in hours, apparitions of afterthought in a society hungry for the next big thing. By contrast, for his time, Mark Twain was perhaps our nation’s first ever textbook-definition rock star. Mark Twain: Man In White is a sonorous, colorful, and strikingly delightful account of Twain’s final years of life on and off the public stage.

Author Michael Shelden gives a genuinely impressive, vivid account of one of our most beloved literary figures. Through his prose we walk with Twain’s better angels and sympathize as he struggles with his darker demons. Shelden presents a life that breathes through his words, providing depth and character to the central subject as well as those around him. As a posthumous citizen of the Show Me state, Twain would revel in Shelden’s account, rife as it is with plenty of showing.

Mr. Shelden has researched his subject—and accounted by and for him—splendidly, presenting his account based upon Twain’s journals, a vast collection of personal letters, newspaper stories (Twain was literally followed everywhere by reporters, so great was his notoriety), unpublished sources, and Twain’s dictated biography.

Any reader wanting a volume analyzing Twain’s work should look elsewhere—from cover to cover, Mark Twain: Man In White is almost a fly-on-the-wall perspective of what it might have been like to be a member of an elite inner circle in Twain’s life. We are invited to parties and speaking engagements, taken on several journeys overseas to Bermuda and England, and given a veritable all-access pass to many of the events, personal and professional, in the waning years of the writer’s life.

Particularly endearing are the forays into the personal lives he shared with his daughters. It is clear that Twain dearly loved his daughters and agonized over the losses of two other women in his younger days. His formidable shadow was something the oldest child, Clara, strove her entire life to step out from, and Twain couldn’t resist the temptation to make a game of sparring wits with her. Both Clara and Jean are given balanced treatment against the backdrop of their father’s life. Clara appealed to his artistic interests, yet even in her spats with him was always protective; Jean, prone to serious epileptic seizures, was so good with the English language Twain himself declared “if not for her affliction, she would have been a writer.”

Twain reveled in and cherished his relationships with the younger set he almost magnetically drew around him—his “Angelfish”—the cadre of adolescent girls whom he felt most at ease and connected with. Shelden’s treatment of the subject, unfortunately brow-raising by today’s mores, is not the least bit guarded; he seems to delight in showing us the sheer wonder and value Twain placed in his association with youth.

Twain’s enduring legacy remains his humor. Many a compendium are filled with his wit and wisdom, but this book is not for quote mavens. Assuredly there are plenty of statements and quoted material as gleaned in detail by Shelden, but each exists within the full context of Twain’s life at that moment, providing richness to the author’s narrative that a snippet alone could never convey.

Mark Twain: Man In White is a moving, inspiring portrait of an American icon. Michael Shelden has harnessed the energy of the man in all his boyish charm, and weaved it among his words, page after delicious page. This reviewer had anticipated some dry recitation and anecdotal vignettes about Twain, but found nothing of the sort within—a tremendously enjoyable, immersive read.