Book Review Thursday: Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour


So much has been written about Samuel Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain.  One might assume there couldn’t possibly be one more book written about one of America’s most beloved characters.  Author Richard Zacks, however, has managed to do just that in his latest book.

Zacks brought the story to life through Twain’s never published notebooks and correspondence, bringing a unique perspective to a somewhat “dark period” in the author’s life.  Mark Twain was a highly successful humorist and author, but as a businessman he failed in 1894 after investing in an ill-conceived invention which never quite lived up to its potential.

As a result his publishing company went under; buried in debt, he declared bankruptcy.  His wife Olivia (Livy), a coal heiress, was heartsick at the possibility of their good name being sullied.  Twain promised Livy he would pay back every penny despite the fact there was no legal responsibility to do so once he filed for bankruptcy.  But, how to do that?

Twain, at this point in his life, really hated the idea of performing, yet it seemed the only way to make headway against the mountains of debt.  He was fifty-nine years of age but set out to make good on his word by embarking on an around-the-world comedy tour.  After traveling throughout the American West he and Livy and daughter Clara set sail for places like Australia, New Zealand, India and South Africa where he entertained sold-out audiences.

The book tells the story of their travels and adventures (and let’s face it with Mark Twain, some misadventures), including a wild ride down a Himalayan mountain, while interspersing it with excerpts from Twain’s unpublished letters and diary entries.  Zacks also fills the narrative with background details which provide a historical backdrop to the Gilded Age and what would soon be the end of the Victorian era.  If you’re a fan of Mark Twain you will enjoy the chance to read some of this previously unpublished material.

Despite illness (coughing and carbuncles were his bane) and setbacks along the way the Clemens family finally made it back to England, only to soon learn that their oldest child Susy was dying.  The family, devastated by her loss, waited a few more years before returning home.  It took some time for Twain to recover from her loss; Livy seemed never to have overcome it.

The newspapers announced to the world that Mark Twain had failed, but cheered him on nevertheless as he made his world tour.  Curiously, after his daughter’s death, newspapers began publishing obituary-like stories about how he was despondent and near death.  Notably, this is where the infamous Twain quote “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated” arose, although what he actually said was “The report of my death was an exaggeration”.  In the telling and retelling the quote had morphed into the former.

This episode of Twain’s life – literally chasing the last laugh since he would not ever tour again – eventually paid off by allowing him to accumulate enough funds through re-negotiated book contracts and the proceeds of his comedy tour to allow Samuel Clemens to keep his promise to his beloved Livy.  Of course, not long afterwards he was chasing yet another “investment opportunity”.  Such was life with one of America’s most beloved and fascinating characters.  A deeply-researched and well-written account well worth your time to read.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

  © Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2016.

Leave a Comment