REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Rebecca Roberts in Washington, filling in for Neal Conan.
Imagine an author so famous that just by removing his overcoat on a December day, he inspires this headline in the New York Herald: Resplendent in a white flannel suit, author creates a sensation.
The author, of course, was Mark Twain. The year was 1906, and Twain was beginning the last years of his life with a bang, apparently, crystallizing his celebrity and his image in the eyes of the public. And from then on, he was known by that image: the man in white.
Michael Shelden's new biography looks at Twain through the window of his waning years, in which he did not actually wane at all. The book is called "Mark Twain: Man In White: The Grand Adventure of his Final Years."
Michael Shelden will join us in a moment. Later, why the country's top intelligence officials believe al-Qaida will attempt an attack on the U.S. within the next six months, but first, Mark Twain.
If you have questions about the author and his final years, or if you have a favorite Mark Twain quotation you'd like to share, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Michael Shelden joins us now from member station WFIU at Indiana University in Bloomington. The book is called "Mark Twain: Man In White." Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, Michael Shelden.
Mr.�MICHAEL SHELDEN (Author, "Mark Twain: Man In White: The Grand Adventure of his Final Years"): Good to be with you.
ROBERTS: Let's start with where the book starts, that day in 1906 when Mark Twain took off his overcoat. It was actually right here in Washington, at the Library of Congress.
Mr.�SHELDEN: It was. It was a cold December day. He walked up those steps. He was headed to a rather dreary congressional committee meeting on copyright, but it was important to him because he wanted to make sure his books stayed in copyright.
He was putting the finishing touches on his life, and it was important that he speak out about continuing copyright. But he knew people wouldn't listen to him as much as they would be inspired by the sight of him. So that's the day he wore the white suit for the first time, and I mean white from head to toe. He had the advantage of that wonderful white mane of hair and a white moustache, but he also had the white tie, even down to the white shoes.
He was the most famous person not just in America but in the world, and he meant to parlay that fame into something he thought would last, he once said, until the year 2006. I think we've gone beyond that now.
ROBERTS: And why the white suit? What symbolism was caught up in that? You know he didn't you know he thought it through, right? He was certainly a master of symbols.
Mr.�SHELDEN: His wife had died very tragically a few years earlier. He had also lost a daughter. These funerals that were held for his family members and others were very sad affairs, and everyone wore black.
There's a photograph in my book of him sitting beside his older daughter, Clara. She's in black from head to toe. And he actually said if I'm going to be the next one to die, I don't want to go out in some sort of dreary shuffle. I want to go out with a bang. And he decided he was going to be, he said, gay in spirit. And so he put on the white suit as a statement, I believe, of what his intentions were for the rest of his life.
He knew, as a man who smoked 20 cigars a day, he probably didn't have a lot of years left. He used to complain about his tobacco heart. But he wanted to make a statement about his own belief in his fame and what he had accomplished. People have asked me what he thought of God, and I said that I thought he thought God was a lesser Mark Twain because he had such an inflated sense of his own importance, and he wasn't wrong. He was an incredible figure, and people knew it.
ROBERTS: That image of him putting on white to show that he was gay in spirit contrasts with the sort of conventional wisdom of Twain at the end of his life as a bitter cynic.
Mr.�SHELDEN: Yes, you know, he would write things in which he would complain about, well, the way that God had arranged the universe, about the way that men and women behaved. He was angry about a lot of things, but one of his daughters used to say he could be the lily of the valley one moment and a volcano the next.
He had a very volatile temper, and I think the harsher side of his personality in some of his later writings has distracted people from the fact that in this period, he was really terribly funny. He was a very amusing man, and he couldn't repress it. It would come out in all sorts of moments.
One day, a burglar tried to break into his house and was caught. And he went to the arraignment of the burglar dressed in a white suit. And he leaned over the man, and he said, you know, if you keep this up, one day you'll end up in the United States Senate.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.�SHELDEN: He just couldn't stop himself.
ROBERTS: You must have just been in stitches the whole time you were doing the research.
Mr.�SHELDEN: It was great fun. It's wonderful because here's a man really staging a show for all of our benefit. He goes to Oxford, gets an honorary degree. He's reported lost at sea, and when they find him at his New York townhouse, he says, well, I'm going to look into this report, and I'll get back to you about whether I'm dead or not. It was a play on his old thing about rumors of his death being exaggerated.
He was having the time of his life, and yet I think over the last hundred years, that's been forgotten, been obscured. Some of the funniest things he said come out of this period. He really was aware that this was his last chance to show people that he was worth remembering besides just in his works, that there was a personality that was also part of his performance.
ROBERTS: Well, that's this interesting question, is how much of it was just sort of letting whatever, you know, stopping whatever filter he might have had as a younger man, which was probably not as strong a filter as most other mere mortals, but and how much of it really was trying to leave a very strong impression on purpose before he died.
You mentioned that trip to get the Oxford honorary degree, and his daughter was panicked that he was going to embarrass himself and her and America in general. And you got the sense that he wasn't 100 percent in control. What was your sense?
Mr.�SHELDEN: He was a boy. He always said he was a boy at heart, and now he was a boy who was famous and had a lot of money. So he could behave on a grand level that most people just wouldn't find possible.
He loved his Oxford cap and gown so much that he embarrassed his poor daughter by wearing it to her wedding. She's looking very embarrassed in one of the wedding photographs as he stands behind her, proudly displaying this Oxford gown and his cap. He just you couldn't tell him don't do that. He would do it because for one thing, he thought why shouldn't I do it? And for another thing, it was very difficult to tell Mark Twain to do anything.
ROBERTS: Well, you know, the robe and cap was probably more appropriate attire than when he was actually in England getting the degree, and he was marching across the street in his bathrobe.
Mr.�SHELDEN: Yes, in fact, that was before he went to Oxford, he was in very fashionable Mayfair in London and discovered there was a Turkish bath across the street. So while all the proper Edwardian ladies and gentlemen were walking through the streets of Mayfair, they were startled to see this white-haired man in a bathrobe crossing the street, walking down a block or so to take his Turkish bath.
ROBERTS: We are talking about Mark Twain with Michael Shelden. His book is called "Mark Twain: Man In White: The Grand Adventure of his Final Years." And you can join us with your favorite Mark Twain stories or any questions about this period in the author's life. 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Or you can send us email, email@example.com.
Let's hear from Alex(ph) in Ann Arbor. Alex, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
ALEX (Caller): Hi, well, my you asked about favorite quotes, and my favorite quote of Mark Twain's would be: Faith is believing what you know ain't so.
Mr.�SHELDEN: Yes. And do you know that one of his friends was Bram Stoker, the author of "Dracula." And Bram Stoker made a point of paraphrasing that in "Dracula," in the novel, and Twain was very proud of the fact that he had been quoted, in a way, in "Dracula."
ALEX: No, I didn't know that, but I think that quote sort of sums up for a lot of skeptics and unbelievers that sort of irreverence that we tend to respect a lot from him.
Mr.�SHELDEN: Yes, he said: I'm never irreverent about anything except those things that are sacred to other people.
ROBERTS: Well, the question of Mark Twain's faith is an interesting one because he occasionally refers to himself as a Presbyterian, but then he is certainly fond of knocking religion in general and, as you say, calling into question God's arrangement of the universe. Where did you end up feeling faith played a role in his life?
Mr.�SHELDEN: Well, as I say, he had this kind of on-running battle with God, whom he insisted on seeing as a kind of colossal figure who was, at some level incompetent, according to Mark Twain. A woman came up to him one day and said: How God must love you. And as she walked away, he whispered under his breath: I guess she hasn't heard of our strange relations.
He was very much the sort of person who took every fight that he ever engaged in on that kind of one-to-one level. So he picked a fight with Mary Baker Eddy over the Christian Science movement. He picked fights with King Leopold of Belgium over the atrocities in Belgian Congo, knew none of these people personally, but the fight, in his mind, was very much one on one.
ROBERTS: The Mary Baker Eddy relationship, if you can call it that, it surprised me. I didn't know a whole lot about it before I read your book, but also, he really he saved some serious vitriol for her.
Mr.�SHELDEN: Oh, he did. He thought she was doing it for her own enrichment. Where that's true or not, who can say at this point, but it really, I don't think, was so much about her. It was about his own ambivalent feeling about spiritual healing.
He had a daughter, one of his daughters had epilepsy, and there was nothing at that time that could really be done about it. But he kept feeling that some sort of spiritual healing, some sort of thing could help poor Jean, his daughter with epilepsy. And I think because that didn't work with her, because there was never any improvement, he was looking for people to blame, and I think Mary Baker Eddy was a convenient target.
ROBERTS: We are talking about Mark Twain with Michael Shelden. His new book is called "Mark Twain: Man In White." If you have a favorite Mark Twain quotation, send us email, firstname.lastname@example.org. Give us a call, 800-989-8255.
Miriam(ph) in Nashville, Tennessee, sends us: A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.�SHELDEN: That's wonderful.
ROBERTS: Well, also interesting, given his relationship with banker Henry Rogers.
Mr.�SHELDEN: Well, Rogers was one of the richest men in America, I think probably the fourth or fifth richest. He was a Wall Street speculator, as well as the vice president of Standard Oil, but Mark Twain loved him. And he loved him because when he was at his lowest, having become bankrupt over his bad investments, he said I've been swindled out of more money than there is in the earth, Henry Rogers came to his rescue, helped him get back on his feet.
ROBERTS: We will continue more with our conversation with Michael Shelden in a moment. The book is called "Mark Twain: Man in White," and you can join us at 800-989-8255, or send us email, email@example.com. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts in Washington. Each chapter of Michael Shelden's new biography of Mark Twain's final years opens with a quotation, either by Twain or about him, and the lines reveal a lot about their subject, his struggle to come to terms with his own identity and his legacy.
One example: At 2:00 in the morning, I feel old and sinful, but at 8:00, when I'm shaving, I feel young and ready to hunt trouble. That's the opening to chapter eight of "Mark Twain: Man In White." You can also read about how Twain kicked off his second bachelorhood in an excerpt on our Web site. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Author Michael Shelden is with us. If you have questions about Mark Twain, his finals years, or if you have a favorite Twain quotation that you'd like to share, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Dan in Birmingham. Dan, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
DAN (Caller): Hello, thank you for having me. I've always loved Mark Twain. I was wondering if your guest could say something about how Twain seems to love the idea of the common man and the wisdom in the common man but yet at the same time the great prejudices and bigotries and stupidity of the common man, and can he say something about that dichotomy and how Twain dealt with it?
ROBERTS: Yeah, Michael Shelden?
Mr.�SHELDEN: Yeah, that is one element of his outlook. He used to say that he wasn't interested in writing for the elite. He said they drink wine. He said: I prefer water. He said thats what the masses have, that's what I want to appeal to.
But yet, as you say, he was very much aware of the fact there was a lot of prejudice, a lot of envy, a lot of hatred among people who perhaps didn't have enough education or wealth, and that kind of two-way street he encountered, you know, very early in his life.
When you're living on the frontier in little Hannibal, Missouri, right there on the banks of the Mississippi, it's a hardscrabble life, and he saw how people could be gracious and kind but also incredibly cruel and violent.
He saw slavery at its worst, and that's why I think his great book on Huckleberry Finn is so powerful, because that image of the raft floating down the great river with the boy and the runaway slave on it is that sense of what freedom is like and what's possible if people will just put aside their prejudices.
ROBERTS: Well, also, the period of his life that you concentrate on in this book, it's a long way from the banks of Hannibal, Missouri. You know, he was in a pretty rarified world.
Mr.�SHELDEN: It sure is. He's now on the banks of the Hudson. He's living in splendor in New York City. He builds a mansion out in the woods of Connecticut. He's living very high, but he feels he deserves it at this point, that a man who once tried to strike it rich in the gold fields of California and the silver mines of Nevada felt finally, at the end of his life, he was making the money he felt he deserved from his work, and that was only because he had finally bankrupted himself so many times and been rescued so many times, there wasn't much more damage her could do.
The Washington Post once said if you want to know what to invest in, avoid whatever Mark Twain is investing in.
ROBERTS: Well, what do you think that was about? I mean, he did it time and again, investing a lot of money in really stupid schemes.
Mr.�SHELDEN: It was - again, he was a boy. The only thing he ever invested in correctly was himself, but that was a wonderful investment. I mean, the creation of Mark Twain and of his works was something that would go on earning money years after his death. It's just that he could never settle down and accept that. He always thought there was that great bonanza, that big Comstock load around the corner that would make him rich beyond all imagination.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Donna in Glenmary, Tennessee. Donna, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
DONNA: Thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I live within 20 miles of Jamestown, Tennessee, which is not the birthplace but I believe the place of conception of Mark Twain, and I have always been a huge fan and have tried to read everything I can that he ever wrote.
One of my favorite things is "The War Prayer," and I wonder if I kind of take exception with the idea that he had this ongoing battle with God. I believe he had an ongoing battle with people and their perception of God, the way they use God for their own ends and to further their own means, and I wonder if you could speak to that.
Mr.�SHELDEN: Well, I think, you know, in Mark Twain's view the world could have been better arranged. Humanity could be better, God could be better, and Mark Twain thought he had solutions and sometimes would offer them.
But it's interesting you mention Jamestown, because that is where his family's roots were and where they began to think they were going to have great wealth, because his father bought up a lot of land around there, and that was always something in the back of Mark Twain's mind, that if someday those lands turned out to be very valuable, the family would be rich, and when they were finally dispersed and gone away, I think that's the beginning of the period when he began to think, well, I've created my own riches in books like "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn."
ROBERTS: Donna, thanks for your call. Let's hear from Brian in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Brian, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BRIAN (Caller): Thank you and good afternoon. My comment was, when he traveled to Europe there, he didn't really much appreciate the German language, although he did like the German people, and could you comment on that?
Mr.�SHELDEN: Sure. In fact, someone asked me recently if it was possible, they said their grandmother had always boasted that she had sat on Mark Twain's lap and he had spoken to her in German. And I said it's very possible because his German was actually pretty good. He could make fun of the language, but he also spoke it pretty well and spoke it well enough that when he lived in Vienna for about a year and a half, he began a lecture where Sigmund Freud was in the audience, and Freud later commented on the beginning of that lecture, which was delivered in German, that Twain's German was very good.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Troy in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Troy, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
TROY (Caller): Yeah, I had a favorite quote of mine, was he was commenting on giving up smoking and he said that everybody says smoking's hard to do. I don't think it is, I've done it a thousand times.
Mr.�SHELDEN: And when he was told he should stop smoking his 20 cigars a day, he cut it down to four, but he said: I don't care for death, but I do care for smoking.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr.�SHELDEN: So he kept going.
ROBERTS: And they were cheap cigars, right?
Mr.�SHELDEN: Oh, the worst. In fact, he would offer these and people would - after a party, he would offer his cigars and the butler at his home later noticed that all the cigars were just barely smoked out on the driveway because as soon as people could get out of the house, they'd throw these things away. They were stinky and powerful and he loved them.
ROBERTS: That leads to an email from John in Milwaukee, who ways: Did Samuel Clemens have a substance abuse problem?
Mr.�SHELDEN: No. He did like his whiskey. He would drink whiskey, and occasionally, just like anybody who probably drinks, he drank a little too much, but really his great addiction were his cigars and his pipes, and it isn't an exaggeration to say that he could smoke 20 cigars a day. He would start in the morning and go to sleep at night with a cigar in his ashtray by his bed.
ROBERTS: Which leads me to a question about names. Our emailer just used Samuel Clemens. You use Mark Twain throughout the book. Why did you decide to use the pen name, not the given name?
Mr.�SHELDEN: Well, that's really how everyone knows him, and there are all sorts of games you can play about Clemens the man, Twain the writer, but for these last years that persona had really become so much a part of him that even close friends would call him Mark. Henry Rogers, for example, was constantly referring to him as Mark.
The man and the legend really had become one at that time, and I sort of felt it was convenient for the reader just to stick with one name.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Robert in Salt Lake City. Robert, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
ROBERT (Caller): Hi. Just in regards to that name, I want to share a family story that's been passed down from our great-great-grandfather, who owned a paddlewheel steamboat on the Mississippi. And the story goes in his early life, Samuel Clemens at that point was writing an essay and said, I need a good pen name, and I guess one of the hands on the boat, as they would sound or test the depth of the river by throwing the weight overboard, and as they would do that they would call out mark, and then it was, whatever the depth was, twain.
So he said, hey, that has a ring to it. And that's the story in the family. I don't know if that's accurate or not, but I'm taking it as truth.
Mr.�SHELDEN: It's not only accurate, it's something that he cared a lot about, that that depth of 12 feet, that's what the mark twain was, was a moment in the steamboat's progress up the river where they had entered safe water.
So he used to say as an old steamboat pilot, when he heard the deckhand call up, he said on the still night air, mark twain, it was a moment that would comfort him because he would feel that he was out of the way of snags and other obstructions in the river.
ROBERTS: Robert, thanks for your call. Let's hear from Bob in Jacksonville. Bob, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BOB (Caller): Thank you. I remember reading, years ago, in either Life magazine or Look magazine, excerpts from a third novel that included Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn and Jim, where they took a wagon train west. Can you shed any light on that?
Mr.�SHELDEN: Yes, there were a couple of books written after "Huck Finn" - none of them ever really took off - in which Huck and Jim and also Tom figure, out among the Indians out West, up in a balloon, all sorts of adventures. They all lack that really great, serious power underneath, some of the comic effects that you have in "Huckleberry Finn," because that novel was the attempt to try to deal with the lingering problems of the Civil War and come to terms with things that Twain had seen as a boy that he didn't understand then, but understood much better when he was a man in his 40's trying to come to terms of what he'd seen in his youth.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Lydia in Minneapolis. Lydia, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
LYDIA (Caller): Hey, wonderful conversation, and it was really fun to find out the source of Mark Twain's pen name. I did not know that beautiful fact. I love "The War Prayer." Somebody stole my thunder on that. But I wanted to ask what you knew about the book that was published, I believe, 50 years after Twain's death due to its controversy, "Letters from Planet Earth" or Letters to Planet Earth." I understand it was considered too controversial and shocking, and his family - or Twain himself, I don't know for sure - didn't want "Letters from Planet Earth" published. What's the story on that?
Prof. SHELDEN: It's called "Letters from the Earth," and it was suppressed for many years, suppressed by his own daughter, who thought the views on God and man, sex, a lot of views on women - he thought, for example, that the women should be allowed to pretty liberal with their sexual favors. He said men are pretty hopeless at sex after 50, but a woman is still competent, as he said, and should be allowed the privilege of that.
He had a very open mind about things like adultery and sexual behavior, and his daughter thought this would ruin his reputation as the, you know, as the poet of childhood and as the man who wrote about young people. But I think a lot of people prefer some of those previously suppressed writings. They show Mark Twain on the loose. He's stirring up trouble, as he love to do. You know, when he would give lectures, the lectures would be advertised as the trouble begins at 8:00, and I think he liked that since the trouble was always lurking if you stayed with him long enough.
ROBERTS: My guest is Michael Shelden. His book is called "Mark Twain: Man in White: The Grand Adventure of His Final Years." And you can join us at 800-989-8255, or send us email: email@example.com. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. His relationship with his daughter, Clara, was - well, it was complicated.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. SHELDEN: She was a diva. She was - she wanted a career on the stage as a singer. She took herself seriously as a classical musician. She played the piano. And she was always embarrassed to be Mark Twain's daughter. People expected her to be funny like him. They always wanted to talk to her about him rather than her. So there was a kind of simmering resentment that went on there. Twain understood that, but he was really powerless. How could he change his fame? How could he change who he was? And there was really - he felt nothing he could do about it except be tolerant.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Bernie in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bernie, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
BERNIE (Caller): Thank you. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg out of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in the late 1800s always wore a white linen suit. I don't know that they're related directly with Mark Twain. But the - I guess the question I was going to ask was had these guys ever had any sort of contact, and was their penchant for wearing white anything similar?
Prof. SHELDEN: That's a good question. You know, Twain was fascinated by health food and invested in another company that went bankrupt that produced a kind of health drink. But the whole idea of wearing white, lots of people would wear white, of course, in the summer months. But it was that idea of wearing white all the year round - and not just wearing white, but doing the whole bit: the white tie, he would even have a creamy white moonstone pin for his tie, white cufflinks. He really was out to make this statement, and it does go back to this concept of himself as the showman.
And, of course, if I may, the thing that most surprised me in writing this book was this grand effect he created at the very end, where he says, as many people know, I came in with Halley's Comet - Halley's Comet, as some people say - and I'm going to go out with it.
And sure enough, in 1835, it was in the sky, and people know this. And in 1910, it did come around again. But what I wondered - because he was so specific about it - was it in the sky, visible the night or the day he died, April 21st, 1910? We're coming up on 100th anniversary. I discovered that Harvard College Observatory was tracking it with their telescope.
And on the morning of April 21st, the scientist there walked outside into Cambridge, Massachusetts, looked up at the sky and made their observations of the tail of the comet visible for the first time with the naked eye. That gave a little tingle in my spine.
ROBERTS: Let's hear from Linda in St. Charles, Missouri. Linda, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
LINDA (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. You know, Mark Twain, I think slavery really bothered him - oh, you know, the Huck Finn thing and everything. And I he was quite an activist in the Congo, and I don't think that's a fact really well known about him. He really protested against the Belgian king. And I wondered if you could comment on that, roughly.
Prof. SHELDEN: Yes. He was, in fact, in part, given his Oxford degree because Lord Curzon - who was the chancellor of Oxford at that time -sympathized with his attempt to expose the Belgian leader, King Leopold, as just a monster who was doing awful things to the people of the Belgian Congo. And Curzon - who had been viceroy of India - thought that the British did the whole colonial thing a little bit better. You can debate that, but there were a lot of people in England, specifically, who sympathized with Mark Twain's willingness to champion the rights of common people in a colony like the Congo and say to a large European power: What you're doing is not just wrong. It's evil.
ROBERTS: I think we have time for one final favorite Mark Twain quotation. This is John in Gainesville, Florida. John, what's your favorite?
JOHN (Caller): Hey. A great show as always. My mom introduced me to "Huck Finn" when I was 12 years old. That was over 50 years ago. And I still got quotes - One is: it is better to regret the things you did than the things you didnt do.
ROBERTS: That's a great place to end. John, thank you so much for your call. And Michael Shelden, thank you so much for joining us. I appreciate you being here.
Prof. SHELDEN: You're welcome.
ROBERTS: Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and a professor of English at Indiana State University. The book is "Mark Twain: Man in White." And you can read an excerpt about how Twain said goodbye to the year 1906 in style at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Coming up, intelligence officials tell us to expect an attempted al-Qaida attack on the U.S. by July. We'll talk with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about the latest threat assessment. Stay with us. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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