September 20, 2017
Twain to the EndOn this day in 1910 Mark Twain died at the age of seventy-four. Despite an undercurrent of disasters and dark thoughts, Twain swept along through his last years as the Mississippi to the sea: guests to his seventieth birthday banquet took home his foot-high bust, New York City pedestrians and English royalty lined up to meet him, thousands filed past his casket to see him in his last white suit.
The white suits began in 1906 -- a secretary's diary gives us the precise date of being told by "the King" to order five of them -- and they suggest more than a chuckle or another self-promotion. Twain liked to scrub his white hair every morning, and talk about dirt. His "Connecticut Yankee" hopes to bring social reform to King Arthur's England by introducing soap. His "Greeting from the Nineteenth Century to the Twentieth Century," published in the New York Herald at the end of 1900, urged the preach-and-plunder Age to come clean of "her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her the soap and a towel, but hide the looking-glass."
Twain's last decade was full of zeal. "The jeremiad strain in his voice" (Hamlin Hill, in his Mark Twain: God's Fool) could be heard in articles and dinner speeches on anything from pork-barrel politics to the age of sexual consent to his "Gospel of Self," entitled What is Man? Some readers complained that a platform built on humor was being used to soapbox. William Dean Howells wrote that he hated to see his friend "eating so many dinners and writing so few books." One letter from Twain's wife, Olivia, brought the point home, begins with gently enough -- "Youth darling, have you forgotten your promise to me?" -- but ends ominously: You always dwell on the evil until those who live beside you are crushed to the earth and you seem almost like a monomaniac."
Most biographers stress Olivia's hysterical tendencies, though they sympathize with anyone caught in the whirlwind of Twain's posturing and expostulating. During Olivia's protracted "neurasthenic" collapse over her last years, Twain was not allowed to visit her for months at a time. Similar conditions and shadows fall on his relationship with his two daughters throughout this last decade. The letters, diaries and anecdotes show Twain shaking his head in grief, guilt and puzzlement.
Nearer the end, the dinner-speech invitations were declined -- "Won't go to any banquet not even the Last Supper," he wrote the Simplified Spelling Board -- but Twain kept busy. He dictated his autobiography, loosely-speaking, to his official biographer. He formed the Mark Twain Company to market not only the cigar but, as envisioned by his business manager, "whiskey, shirt, corset, hair-restorer, etc. etc." He left a wake of lawsuits wherever he went, one of them against the business manager for being in cahoots with the secretary who, Twain decided after seven years, was "a liar, a forger, a thief, a hypocrite, a drunkard, a sneak, a humbug, a traitor, a conspirator, a filthy-minded and salacious slut pining for seduction and always getting disappointed, poor child." With a series of casually-met young girls, he formed not just social alliances but a club -- the Angel Fish, each of them getting a pin. To the end, says biographer Justin Kaplan, Twain was "an enigma and prodigy to himself" and the world.
One of Twain's last self-portraits was his famous "Begum of Bengal" speech, delivered in 1907 in Liverpool, as he was about to embark for home. With his newly-awarded Oxford degree as his prize cargo, Twain likens himself to "a stately Indiaman, plowing the great seas under a cloud of canvas and laden with the kindest words that have ever been vouchsafed to any wandering alien in this world." Many Twain scholars rank the speech as among his best performances; some reflect with ambivalence upon the final "cloud of canvas" compared to the early, starlit raft.
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