'Man In White' Reveals Twain's Haunted Final Years

Mark Twain remains a beloved literary figure even a century after his death, but in his new book, Mark Twain: Man In White, Michael Shelden says the author's last years were extremely tumultuous — and widely misunderstood. Shelden explores Twain's emotional struggles and triumphs, and describes the complex relationships in the years before his death.

Excerpt: 'Mark Twain: Man In White'

Book cover 'Mark Twain: Man In White'

The party had a circuslike atmosphere, with the host presiding over various games and comic skits throughout the evening. Twain wanted his guests to be in high spirits when they were treated to the first magical notes from the Telharmonium. At one point he wandered off for a short time, and then suddenly reappeared at the top of the stairs with a young man whose arm was tied to his by a pink ribbon. In identical white suits, they descended the stairs slowly, each trying to match the steps of the other but not quite succeeding. As they entered the parlor, Twain announced that they were Siamese twins and were going to enlighten the guests by presenting a lecture on the evils of strong drink. While the older "brother" explained the dangers of liquor, the younger stood silently and took furtive drinks from a flask of rum.

As some of the guests may have known, P. T. Barnum's famous conjoined twins — Chang and Eng — used to have violent arguments with each other over religion and alcohol. So Mark and his twin pretended that the drinking habits of one affected the sobriety of the other. The more Mark denounced rum, the more intoxicated he became, staggering and hiccupping and slurring his words as his other half finished off the contents of the flask.

Twain was in rare form, playing his part effortlessly and behaving like a much younger man. "We are so much to each other, my brother and I," he explained, as he pretended to succumb slowly to the effects of alcohol, "that what nourishes him and what he drinks — ahem! — nourishes me. . . . It has often been a source of considerable annoyance to me, when going about the country lecturing on temperance, to find myself at the head of a procession . . . so drunk I couldn't see."

His guests laughed so hard that he was forced to end his mock lecture because he couldn't be heard above the noise. In a front-page story the next day, the New York Times began its report of the party by going along with Twain's joke, declaring, "The last thing that Mark Twain did in 1906 was to get drunk and deliver a lecture on temperance. . . . [He] took all the glory for the lecture to himself while he blamed his Siamese brother for the jag. Those who have never heard that Mr. Clemens has a Siamese brother, must be told that he only had such a relative for one night."

This "partially impromptu performance" was inspired by an idea that had been at the back of Twain's mind for years. In the 1890s he had written "Those Extraordinary Twins," which features conjoined brothers who are at odds over everything — one is a hard-drinking Democrat, the other a Whig champion of the Teetotalers' League. But his first treatment of such a farcical pairing goes all the way back to a short piece called "Personal Habits of the Siamese Twins," which was written in the late 1860s, when Chang and Eng were at the height of their fame.

Pretending to be an intimate friend of the famous pair, Twain claimed to know all their secrets. It was true that one brother was a temperance man and the other was not, but Twain added the outrageous charge that the two had been bitter enemies in the Civil War. "During the War they were strong partisans," he wrote, "and both fought gallantly all through the great struggle — Eng on the Union side and Chang on the Confederate. They took each other prisoners at Seven Oaks."

This was the sort of comedy that played particularly well in the boom-and-bust culture of the frontier, and though Twain was now a New York gentleman with a house on Fifth Avenue, nothing made him happier than indulging in some of the old inspired nonsense that had fueled his rise as a Western humorist. By deciding to dress the "twins" at his party in white, and by inventing dialogue for the skit as he went along, he seemed eager to prove that he could still breathe fresh life into an old concept.

His partner in the skit was a young friend named Witter Bynner — a wealthy, Harvard-educated poet and editor. Blessed with neither acting ability nor a great sense of humor, Bynner nevertheless made a good sidekick. All that he needed to do was drink and look serious, for the funniest thing about him was the sharp contrast his age and size made to his twin's. According to one observer, Mark looked much shorter and older beside his "brother," who was "very tall, very slight and had black hair."

Bynner was delighted to help out and never forgot his starring moment opposite the great author. He had nothing but good memories of Twain, who acted as his mentor for a time, and who enjoyed exposing the young man's tender ears to coarse language that included — the poet fondly recalled — some moments of "sublime profanity."

By the time Twain stepped forward to begin the Telharmonium's brief midnight demonstration, his guests were suitably primed to greet the new marvel with gasps of joy and admiration. One of the amazed reporters thought the sound from the device had "all the richness of a great orchestra." Many of the guests lingered long after the music ended, continuing to celebrate the occasion, but the newspapermen had to race off to file their stories for the morning papers. Twain was good copy, and everyone agreed that the author had given 1906 "a merry funeral." The proud host declared that he was pleased with the whole affair.

"Next to the day I was put in trousers," he said with no small degree of hyperbole, "this is the happiest occasion of my life."

Excerpted from Mark Twain: Man in White by Michael Shelden Copyright © 2010 by Michael Shelden. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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