Follow Here To Purchase Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century

Author: Philip McFarland

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield

ISBN: 9781442212268

Speak softly and carry a big stick.” – Teddy Roosevelt.

Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to.” – Mark Twain.

On the one hand, it’s gratifying that so many people today still remember who uttered the memorable quips above. After all, it’s been about a hundred years since both T.R. and Samuel Langhorne Clemens (known everywhere today as Mark Twain) were regular contributors to the daily diet of aphorism and example that helped inspire a budding nation. That their names live at all in this dumbed-down era of reality television and ever-shrinking attention spans is encouraging, I suppose.

On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that so many people only know Roosevelt or Twain through their oft-reprinted witticisms and inspirational quotes. Both men led lives of remarkable substance and fervor, and both contributed immensely to the character and culture of the United States – and in fact the world. To spend time reading the works of either man, or to plunge into their biographies, is to immerse yourself in a depth of thought and breadth of accomplishment that makes today’s public figures seem positively indolent.

Simply reading either man’s resume is a humbling experience. Industry seemed to be the defining quality of their personalities. Roosevelt, in fact, made the connection explicit in a rather famous speech in 1899 called “The Strenuous Life,” as the country teetered on the cusp of a new century:

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”

So, in that respect, these two rather formidable thinkers and do-ers would seem to be kindred spirits. But as Philip McFarland makes clear in his splendid new book Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century, each man harbored a secret contempt for the other, and a slow-burning disdain for each other’s politics and personalities. McFarland does a great job of focusing on those areas of overlap where both Roosevelt and Twain would naturally have kept bumping into each other, metaphorically:

Yet regardless of how the one viewed the other’s professions, there were enough similarities between Roosevelt and Clemens to cause friction anyway. Both were writers and public performers possessed of restless, perpetually youthful temperaments. Each grew a bit nettled when the spotlight wandered off him. And both had a wide circle of friends…keeping the one, if only inadvertently, aware of the other’s views and doings.”

McFarland focuses his book on six popularly discussed aspects of American life between 1890 and 1910, anatomizing his subjects’ respective takes on each of these “big picture” issues: War, The West, Race, Oil, Children, and Peace. The author clearly shows where Twain and Roosevelt agree, where they disagree, and most importantly, why they came to feel the way they did. McFarland resists the flip or easy characterizations of his subjects’ thinking, and his prodigious research imparts a credibility to both his cultural analysis (“No obvious way of ending Huckleberry Finn would have suggested itself”) and his biographical theorizing (“He [T.R.] did much else during his years in the White House to make America a fairer and better land, not all of it meeting with universal approval at the time.”). His discussion of race – and the apparent (to us, today) blatant racism of Roosevelt is handled with particular deftness and insight.

His brief analysis of Huck Finn, however, was for me the highlight of the book. McFarland draws on his own experience as a some-time high school English teacher, deftly exploring the minefield of Twain’s infamous use of the “N-word” throughout the text. His insights are far more helpful and level-headed than any of the well-intentioned (though often extreme) voices that regularly define this debate.

There is much to admire in this book, and even more to admire in the lives of these two still-somewhat-remembered cultural giants. Out of respect for Mr. McFarland, I’ll refrain from calling his book a “classic,” mindful of what Twain once said: “Classic: A book which people praise and don't read.” And it would be a shame not to read this highly informative book. So instead I’ll end with this literary insight from Teddy Roosevelt: “I am a part of everything that I have read.” After reading this engrossing book, you may well feel the same.

Follow Here To Purchase Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century