Chasing the Last Laugh. Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour. By Richard Zacks. Doubleday, 2016. Pp. 451. Hardcover $30.00. ISBN 978-0-3855-3644-8 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-3855-3645-5 (ebook)

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The following review appeared 2 May 2016 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Kevin Mac Donnell

The story of Mark Twain's round-the-world tour is familiar to Twainians: After driving his once successful publishing company into the ground, investing in a compositor that did indeed work but failed to reach the market ahead of the competition, and enduring the financial recession of 1893, Mark Twain hit bottom, regrouped, and soon embarked on a world tour that enabled him to honor his debts in full. Twain credited his capitalist friend Henry H. Rogers, saying later that Rogers "saved me from financial ruin. He it was who arranged with my creditors to allow me to roam the face of the earth for four years and persecute the nations thereof with lectures, promising that at the end of four years I would pay dollar for dollar" (p. 404).

It was a lively tour that began in Elmira in 1895 with his last lecture trip across America while nursing a carbuncle. Departing America at Vancouver, Canada, he was soon sitting quarantined off the coast of Hawaii on a cockroach-infested ship. Next, it was on to Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa before ending up in England, where he stayed for a time after the death of his daughter, Susy. That was followed by stays in Switzerland, Austria, and Sweden before returning to England at the end of 1899. He did not return home to America until 1900. Henry Rogers's efficient and imperious secretary, Katherine Harrison, had written Twain in January 1898 that his debts had been paid in full with $13,000 to spare, but truth be told, he paid off nearly $40,000 more of his debt by July 1898, although he may never have paid a $1,471.55 balance that he owed General Grant's widow or a balance on the ledgers of the Mount Morris Bank. In March of 1898, thinking he was debt-free, he was already chasing a new get-rich-quick scheme, so he may not have learned the lesson. True financial stability did not return until late in 1903 after he sold the Hartford home and signed a lucrative contract with Harper Brothers, only to lose his wife Olivia the next summer.

Along the way Twain endured audiences that included boisterous drunks and barking dogs, which certainly justifies the "raucous" in the title of this book, and Twain's fascination with African voices and his triumphant return to New York were certainly moments that qualify as "redemptive." Observations like these combined with Zacks's engaging writing style make this volume as enjoyable and readable as any previously published account of Mark Twain's world lecture tour, with the sole exception of Twain's own account, Following the Equator (1897), which was published in England as More Tramps Abroad with much additional text that had been excluded from the American edition. But the English edition still leaves out much of the detail that Zacks supplies here. Previous books have captured the details of the initial American leg of Twain's tour, like Gribben and Karanovich's Overland With Mark Twain (1992), or have narrated his time in Australia and New Zealand, like Shillingsburg's At Home Abroad (1988), or have celebrated his time in India, like Vaswani's Mark Twain in India (1943), Mutalik's Mark Twain in India (1978), or Strathcarron's The Indian Equator (2013). Other accounts, like Cooper's Around the World With Mark Twain (2000) and Rodney's Mark Twain Overseas (1993) cover the tour or retrace Twain's itinerary in a more general way, while some, like Watson's Wayward Tourist (2006) or the Darjeeling Windamere Hotel's Americans at Darjeeling (2015) consist of mere extracts from Twain's own writings. Zacks relies upon most but not all of these previously published accounts, but also mines the rich archives of the Mark Twain Papers for Twain's correspondence and notebook entries about the tour, and makes effective use of other sources like Scharnhorst's The Complete Interviews (2006) and Coleman Parson's useful articles about the tour that appeared in several different journals, to cite just two examples.

Zacks has a knack for telling a good story, and this is on display early on when he introduces Henry H. Rogers into the plot (pp. 10-12), and again when he describes the less than luxurious cockroach-infested life aboard ship (p. 110), or provides a vivid account of Twain's arrival in Calcutta (p. 242), or reveals Olivia Clemens's very real role as editor (p. 339). He can also turn a phrase, as when Mark Twain's "inner riverboat gambler" was in daily struggle with his "inner Joan of Arc" (p. 349). No account of what Zacks calls a "comedy tour" could leave out Twain's humor, and Zacks never lets a humorous moment slip away unnoticed, and conveys humor in his own writing as well. He cleverly invokes The Wizard of Oz (pp. 122-23), describes how Twain mistook a goat for a flea (p. 175), shows how Twain managed to sneak a blatant phallus joke into Following the Equator (p. 251), explains how Twain covered up for a drunken servant named Satan (p. 265)--whom he later had to fire when he got drunk again--and even includes a passage that did not make it into Following the Equator, in which Twain recalls (and reveals for the first time!) that the holy water from the River Jordan collected by the pious pilgrims of The Innocents Abroad had actually been surreptitiously dumped and replaced with regular drinking water by irritated crewman of the Quaker City (p. 341).

Zacks's bibliography reflects a variety of sources far beyond the scope of Twain scholarship that provide the broader context for all of the drama, humor, and pathos, that unfolds as the tour progresses, something not often present in previous published accounts. He begins his account with a good summary of Twain's life and the disastrous finances that made this lecture tour a necessity and ends his account with a finely detailed description of Twain's debts, their precise amounts, and when each creditor was finally paid. Along the way he continually expands the context as needed in order for the events taking place to be understood. His background on the Himalayan Railroad is excellent and his history of South African politics, Cecil Rhodes, the Boer War, and the prisoners Twain visited at Pretoria is a clearly written account of a sometimes confusing situation to those not familiar with African history. The thirty-two illustrations included in the book reflect this broader context as well. They are a balanced comingling of familiar images of Twain and some less familiar images of Twain, along with images of the other major players in this round-the-world drama and a variety of street scenes that help bring the story to life.

No account of this length and detail could completely escape any errors, and a few have crept in. Twain did not build his Hartford home in 1882 (p. 25); he had moved into the home in 1874 as construction was wrapping up. Zacks implies Twain never had his voice recorded (p. 81) and speculates why, but Twain's voice was recorded on several different occasions. His summary of the personalities of Susy, Jean, and Clara (pp. 96-97) is over-simplified at best and misleading at worst, and he repeats the doubtful claim that Jean tried to kill Kate Leary (p. 400), but these errors are minor. Zacks deserves the reader's gratitude for correcting some errors. He takes the time to explain some Indian titles and corrects Twain's erroneous description of gun salutes for royalty and other "grand folk." More important, he corrects the sometimes repeated error that Twain and Livy were guided around a Jain temple in Byculla by Mahatma Gandhi. The guide was actually Virchand Gandhi. No doubt Virchand was a swell fellow and a very good guide, but he was no Mahatma, as several Twain biographers have supposed. But most surprising of all, Zacks reveals that Mark Twain never paid off his debts in full, and backs that claim with an unpaid balance from Mount Morris bank for $14,370 in 1901 that does not seem to have ever been resolved. But even if Twain never paid off all of his debts, the tour accomplished his immediate goal, and a good deal more.

In The Innocents Abroad Mark Twain observed that "travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness" making it unfortunate that his travel books are not more often read and studied; they have never received the attention they deserve, and Following the Equator is the most deserving, even if Twain thought he had filled it with "lying cheerfulness" as he composed it in the dark aftermath of losing his daughter, Susy. Richard Zacks gives Mark Twain his due. It was indeed a raucous and redemptive journey, and even though Twain would experience more acclaim and appreciation in his last years--his 70th birthday dinner--his Oxford degree--the move into his grand final home at Stormfield--Zacks is justified when he concludes with a satisfying finale to his satisfying tale: "Twain had chased the last laugh and had caught it. Ovations awaited him during his final decade, but it would be pretty hard for anything to top these weeks of adulation when the American author came back home."