The Panic of 1893 began with European banks worrying about a coup and wheat crop failure in Argentina. Within a very short period of time, the panic had spread to the United States, and a severe depression began. Stock prices collapsed, more than 500 U.S. banks closed, farms were abandoned, and more than 15,000 businesses failed. The effects didn’t occur overnight, but they happened fairly rapidly.
One of the businesses that eventually failed was the Charles Webster publishing firm. It was owned by Mark Twain. Twain desperately sought to keep the business afloat, while at the same time investing heavily in a linotype machine that would have brought a fortune had it worked. It didn’t. Twain and his family lost nearly everything and he was left heavily in debt, a debt his wife insisted that he pay.
As popular historian recounts in Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour, Twain did the only thing he knew to do, the thing he had come to intensely dislike. He went on the lecture circuit. In fact, he went on the global lecture circuit.
The itinerary took Twain, his wife Livy, and their daughter Clara (two other daughters stayed in New York) first across the northern United States to Seattle, and by boat to the Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), India, South Africa, and then England. The trip took close to a full year: Twain spoke hundreds of times, occasionally to half-filled auditoriums but more often to houses so packed that extra engagements had to be scheduled.
The tour was a moneymaking event, to be sure, but it became something of a triumph for Twain the writer and speaker and Twain the man.
The tour has always been covered in other biographies, but not to the detail Zacks includes. And the story is in both the overview and the details – the overlay of late 19th century imperialism, the British Raj in India reaching its apogee, the stark realities of race in South Africa, the responses of the audiences, the specific stories Twain told at each of the performances, how the newspapers covered him and his stories, what played well, and what didn’t.
This could get tedious, but in Zacks’ hands it becomes rich and illuminating. He tells a wonderful story, pulling from the correspondence of Twain, the family, friends and relatives, and robber baron H.H. Rogers, who did more than anyone else (including Twain) to extricate the author from his legal and financial ordeals.
Zacks is the author of a number popular histories, including History Laid Bare (1995); An Underground Education (1999); The Pirate Hunter (2003); The Pirate Coast (2006); and Island of Vice (2012). He’s also been a freelance journalist, writing for such publications as The Atlantic and ESPN.
Chasing the Last Laugh is a fascinating account of a major American author who stared financial (and social) ruin in the face, and ultimately didn’t blink. And managed to entertain a lot of people along the way.
Top photograph: The frontispiece of Following the Equator, the book Twain wrote after he concluded his around-the-world speaking tour.