the Last Laugh
Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-
World Comedy Tour
nolead begins By Richard Zacks
464 pp. $30
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Reviewed by Paul Davis
nolead ends When I was a teenager, I read Mark Twain's Following the Equator, and I reread it a few years back. Richard Zacks' Chasing the Last Laugh essentially covers the same material the master himself wrote about in his 1897 book - greatly augmented by Zacks' excellent research.
From Equator, we get Twain's opinions on colonialism, imperialism, class warfare, British arrogance, and decimation of native peoples. Zacks adds passages from Twain's letters and notebooks, as well as photos and other material at the Mark Twain Project at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Clifton Waller Barrett Collection at the University of Virginia. There is also a local connection: Zacks was advised on 1890s bankruptcy law by University of Pennsylvania professor David A. Skeel.
The result is an interesting, often funny book about a traumatic and fascinating time in Twain's life. Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) was the highest-paid writer in America in 1894, but he was also a terrible investor. He lost most of his fortune from his books on inventions and investments that didn't work out. His wife, an heiress, was horrified. She insisted Twain pay back his investors. So, at age 59, he traveled across America and embarked on a world public speaking tour, which had never been done before.
Zacks tells us that during Twain's yearlong journey, he performed 122 nights in 71 cities in Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, and North America. He also spent 98 nights at sea on steamships and was sick from coughs, colds, boils, and stomach illness.
Twain enjoyed his exotic travels, but he was also privately furious that debt forced him to play the clown. "Once audiences see you stand on your head," he remarked, "they expect you to stay in that position." Yet this famous grouch did make audiences laugh. Following the Equator is studded with quips: "I believe a salaried taster has to taste everything before the prince ventures it - an ancient and judicious custom in the east, and thinned out the tasters a good deal, for of course it is the cook that puts the poison in. If I were an Indian prince I would not go to the expense of a taster, I would eat with the cook."
It was on this world tour that an American newspaper reported Twain had died in London, to which Twain famously replied, "The report of my death was an exaggeration."
Thanks to his tour, Twain paid off his debts and died a wealthy man on April 21, 1910.