Interviews

Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Comeback Comedy Tour

In the moment — 1895 and in the twilight of his career — Mark Twain was a legend, but he was also flat broke.

The publishing company that he conceived as a vehicle to control his publishing destiny had left him deeply in debt, and the embarrassment was public. Newspapers covered the news with headlines like “Mark Twain’s Company in Trouble” and “Failure of Mark Twain.”

Twain’s best novels were a generation behind him. Readers had moved on to more sophisticated writers like Thomas Hardy and pulpier ones like H.G. Wells, so writing another Tom Sawyer wasn’t a viable option. The best way out of the mess, Twain’s lecture agent told him, was to go on a worldwide lecture tour.

In Chasing the Last Laugh, author Richard Zacks picks up Mark Twain at this awkward juncture and follows him through the year-long trip that would revive his career and mollify his creditors. Zacks sat down with Signature to talk about the book.

SIGNATURE: You start with Mark Twain already in his sixties. How much of what we know him for today had already happened by this point?

RICHARD ZACKS: He had already written Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, but he was at a very weird point in his life. His books weren’t selling as well, and he was trying to chase literary fame by writing books like Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. He lost so much money — $175,000, which would be in the millions today — on the Paige typesetter. That was a disaster. He had started his own publishing company because he was dissatisfied with his own royalties, but the company did so badly that he couldn’t pay himself any royalties.

SIG: What was the trade publishing business like at that time?

RZ: There were two components. There were retail stores that were considered fancy like Scribner’s, and there were door-to-door salesmen. Twain was sold door-to-door, and there was kind of a stigma. He moved in these high-end circles and wrote for The Atlantic, but his books were sold door-to-door, and he was embarrassed by that. He kept trying to become more of a bookstore author, and it didn’t work that well for him until after he came back from this trip an international literary hero.

SIG: What was the business plan for this world tour — that he would sell tickets? Or books?

RZ: He sold tickets. His backlist was barely making any money. He wasn’t as big a deal as a speaker before that trip as people make out today. He had done three or four tours, with one in England, but he had never attempted anything on this scale. He hated performing on stage. He got so nervous beforehand that he would work himself into something like a fit, and then he would go out and kill it.

SIG: Was this more like a one-man play or more like stand-up comedy?

RZ: It’s closer to stand-up comedy. He would do a ninety minute show with seven or so stories in it. Six out of the seven stories would be funny, and he would put one poignant story in there to change the mood. His wife talked him into putting in the story of Huck and Jim on the raft when Huck has to decide whether to turn in the runaway slave or save him, and it became the hit of his show. People would get that story — helping your friend even though your friend is an outcast — in New Zealand, in Australia, in India.

SIG: These were spoken-word short stories rather than stories from his life.

RZ: Right. Well. [Laughs.] He and his writing started to blend after a while. He didn’t know what was true. It wasn’t jokes or one-liners or vaudeville. One of the stories was about when he was a child and snuck into his father’s office and didn’t know that his father, who was the local coroner, had put a corpse in his office. It’s this incredibly funny story about a kid playing hooky from school and gradually starts to figure out that the person he thinks is sleeping in the office is a dead body. He tells it with a lot of humor.

SIG: Was he going to a new city every few days during this tour, or did he have time to take in the places he was visiting?

RZ: He did 122 performances over the course of about 365 days, so he was working hard. He was in seventy-one different cities over the course of a year at a time when travel was much harder than it is today.

SIG: Were these tours something a lot of people did at the time, or was this kind of a novel idea?

RZ: No author had ever gone around the world on a speaking tour like this before. Other people had gone on tours. P.T. Barnum had sent Tom Thumb around the world about twenty years before this, and Ulysses S. Grant had gone around the world after his presidency, but no author had done anything like this.

SIG: How did he book international venues without telephones?

RZ: It wasn’t easy. He had two lecture agents who did everything for him, and they did a lot of it by telegraph. The telephone was just starting to come in around that time. He had one doing the American tour and another who booked Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa — and traveled with him the whole way.

SIG: Was the white suit and the mustache and the accent kind of a getup for Mark Twain — like a costume?

RZ: It’s interesting. He wasn’t doing the white suit yet; that actually came a couple of years later. He was wearing a black English suit on this tour — very serious looking. He was desperate to get respect. He was the funniest man in America, and his wife and family wanted him to be a high literary author. His big look on the tour was his hair. Every reviewer wrote about this big, bushy mop of hair that he had.

SIG: What authors were his contemporaries — Dickens?

RZ: Dickens was earlier. It was more like Henry James, Edith Wharton, William Dean Howells.

SIG: Was your research based mostly on things Mark Twain wrote and the various newspaper accounts of the trip?

RZ: I got lucky. Berkeley is doing this incredibly thorough archive of his material and his autobiographies and his notebooks. Fortunately for me, they’re only up to 1891 and this trip occurred in 1895 and ’86, and no one had seen a lot of this notebook material.

SIG: I talked to Ben Griffin last year when Vol. 3 of the autobiography came out, and it’s almost incomprehensible how much material Mark Twain left.

Island of ViceRZ: There were times when I wanted to shoot myself. It was just too much. [Laughs.] My book before this was Teddy Roosevelt [Island of Vice], and he wrote something like 250,000 letters in his lifetime. Roosevelt wrote a lot more than that. He wrote thirty-sevenbooks! Those guys spent so many of their waking hours writing.

SIG: Did Mark Twain’s world tour happen pretty close in time to Island of Vice?

RZ: Yes. May 1895 was when Teddy Roosevelt became police commissioner in New York, and May 1895 was when Twain was about to start his lecture tour. Twain hated Roosevelt; Twain thought he had an uncontrollable ego.

SIG: Was Twain out of debt by the time the receipts were counted from this tour?

RZ: The tour paid down about a quarter or a third of his debts. Then he went back to his traditional strengths. The book that he wrote from the trip — Following the Equator — is what really helped to get him out of debt.