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The following review appeared 25 July 2016 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Exactly when John Hay and Mark Twain first met seems lost to history and Twain's own comments are somewhat contradictory. They certainly met in December of 1870, just a few months after John Hay joined the staff of the New York Tribune. Twain wrote a letter to Whitelaw Reid of the Tribune that month asking to be remembered to John Hay, but had they met previously? Twain says in his autobiography (which Hay had encouraged him to write in 1875) that they met in 1867, and when Hay died in 1905, Twain recalled that they'd been friends for thirty-eight years, reconfirming the 1867 date. But Twain also noted that their friendship dated back to when Reid and Hay were working together at the Tribune. Reid joined the staff in 1868, but Hay was not hired until 1870, and other than Twain's later recollections there is no evidence of an earlier meeting, and only a few months of time when they were in the same place at the same time between 1867 and 1870 (see note 3 to Twain letter UCCL 02793 at MTP Online for more details). Whenever and however they first met, they became cordial friends, respectful of each other's success from very similar humble beginnings. During the next three and half decades they apparently exchanged only a handful of letters, and their face-to-face meetings were sporadic--a dignified Hay sitting next to his humorist friend at Twain's 67th birthday celebration in 1902 being the best known. But their friendship and mutual respect endured to the end of Hay's life--despite Mrs. Hay's distinct dislike of Twain.
Born just three years and fifty miles apart, both were products of antebellum Mississippi River culture, even though Hay grew up on the Illinois side of the river, where slave-traders and slave-catchers infested the forests growing in the free soil that beckoned the enslaved black people on the opposite shore. Their lives followed very different paths at times. Sam Clemens promised $400 of his future wages to pay a steamboat pilot to teach him the river during the same years Hay was busy obtaining a degree from Brown University, paid for in full by a generous uncle. When Twain was sitting out the Civil War in rough-and-tumble Nevada and cutting his journalistic teeth while acting as personal secretary to his brother Orion, Hay was working as one of President Abraham Lincoln's two private secretaries. They would later differ in their views on race, social issues, politics, and foreign policy, but there were similarities too. Both men married very wealthy women, and both rose to the very pinnacle of their chosen professions. It was this last shared trait that was the unbreakable bond between them.
After serving Lincoln during the Civil War, Hay served at diplomatic posts in Paris, Vienna, and Madrid, becoming Assistant Secretary of State in 1878 after working at the Tribune, then Ambassador to Great Britain, and eventually Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt. He co-authored a ten-volume biography of Lincoln in 1890, ten years after he had arranged for a small proof printing of Mark Twain's ribald classic, 1601. His independent wealth allowed him to indulge a passion for collecting art, but it also made it possible for him to serve in government out of a sense of civic duty. He was a man of impeccable dress and manners, cultured, and wise in the ways of politics. His career during the last ten years of his life (1895-1905) when American imperialism was rapidly on the rise is the focus of Mark Zwonitzer's study of both men. As Zwonitzer explains, his study began with John Hay alone. But as he wrote about England and the United States dangerously rattling sabers over a border dispute in Venezuela; the United States behaving badly in the Philippines, Hawaii, and Cuba; and the machinations to make the Panama Canal a reality, Mark Twain kept popping up. As a result, his study quickly expanded into parallel studies of both men, tracing how their lives, their mutual friends, and even their inner thoughts evolved and sometimes intersected. The inclusion of Mark Twain also had an added bonus of giving Zwonitzer a convenient and effective way to highlight different points of view on every issue that confronted either man during those years.
By choosing two men whose thoughtful views on imperialism sometimes collided, and presenting much of his story with alternating chapters on each man (and alternating within some chapters further along in the story), Zwonitzer examines how their lives threaded along both sides (and sometimes through) the warp and weave of American imperialism as it was woven into a sometimes complex pattern that seems commonplace today but was new to the fabric of American politics at the time. Zwontizer's experience working on an editorial project ten years ago with (then) Senator Joe Biden led to his realization that American imperialism had set winds in motion in American foreign policy that are still howling a century later. This background also uniquely qualifies him to write on this subject, and he gets inside the heads of the main players, analyzing their motivations and thought processes with a clarity that only somebody experienced in American politics could muster.
The chronological approach makes it easier than it would be otherwise to sort through some confusing political battles and convoluted international relationships, but it is still a lengthy and sometimes complex account. For that reason Zwonitzer's very readable writing style is a saving grace, and a talent for turning a phrase keeps things moving along. For example, when he describes President McKinley rejecting someone's suggestion that he ask for the Pope's help in making peace with Spain he says "the good Methodist workhorse spit the bit" (262). Describing amputations that took place after a gruesome battle in Cuba he called it a "bloody restaging of the old Civil War limb toss Hay had witnessed thirty-five years earlier" (289). He describes African-American soldiers in Cuba who had saved white supremacist Teddy Roosevelt's "Anglo-Saxon ass" (291). After the crisis over Venezuela was over and war averted, American politicians are portrayed as "still aquiver with frustration at the bellum interruptus" (168). Truth be told, political wonks will read this book regardless, but these apt descriptive phrases and bulls-eye humor combine to make this hefty book much more approachable than the general reader might suppose if judging this book by its cover.
The biographical literature on Mark Twain habitually pairs Mark Twain with his friends and colleagues. In fact, a game of fill-in-the-blank could be based upon all the books that begin with the words Mark Twain and _________, with a long list of correct answers that would include William Dean Howells, Bret Harte, Joe Twichell, William James, Dan De Quille, Elisha Bliss, General Grant, George W. Cable, Henry H. Rogers, Orion Clemens, Teddy Roosevelt, and William Shakespeare--not to mention the many places where Twain lived or visited. Some of these books flesh out the details of close friendships based on plentiful correspondence and frequent encounters, while others trace more distant relationships. While this book falls into the latter category, Zwonitzer's effective use of original sources and his ability to illuminate the inner lives of his main players gives it more of the feel of the former.
Hay was often a reluctant public servant. A letter he wrote to President Garfield on Christmas Day 1880, declining an offer to be his private secretary sums up the attitude he held most of his life, even when he accepted later positions: "To do a thing well a man must take some pleasure in it, . . . the contact with the greed and selfishness of office-seekers and bulldog Congressmen, is unspeakably repulsive to me. . . . The constant contact with envy, meanness, ignorance, and the swinish selfishness which ignorance breeds, needs a stronger heart and a more obedient nervous system than I can boast" (300). These misgivings notwithstanding, Hay was of like mind with others of his social class. His views on race were paternalistic, and he shared the widespread belief that only men of means and good breeding--white men--were capable of governing, and those of other races were destined to be the governed. It may surprise some Twainians to know that Twain was sometimes a reluctant anti-imperialist. We think of Twain as an outspoken critic of imperialism, but he was often hesitant to speak out, especially while abroad. However, when he arrived back in America in October 1900 he finally declared himself an anti-imperialist when asked by a newspaper reporter. He admitted he'd been a "red hot" imperialist five years before (408) but neglected to mention that he'd doubled his $18,000 investment in Federal Steel just one year before when that firm won a huge government contract for the manufacture of heavy ammunition, beating out a major competitor, Carnegie Steel, owned by Twain's friend Andrew Carnegie.
Besides Carnegie, many other friends and acquaintances of Mark Twain appear in these pages, and most of them shared friendships or more formal relationships with John Hay, including Henry Cabot Lodge, Henry Adams, Whitelaw Reid, Poultney Bigelow, and Teddy Roosevelt. Some, like Roosevelt and Reid, would earn Twain's private condemnation, but they frequently shared tables at dinners, ran into each other at clubs and other social events, and were cordial in public. Twain and Hay both shared a disdain for Roosevelt's juvenile antics, and Teddy's racism and war-mongering tendencies seemed to know no bounds. As police commissioner of New York City Roosevelt had contemplated an invasion of Canada (77). As acting secretary of the navy, Roosevelt wrote a friend "I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one" (228). Some of Roosevelt's racist comments are almost too vulgar to repeat, but even Teddy didn't go so far as to embrace the dream of Senator John Morgan of Alabama, a former Grand Dragon in the Ku Klux Klan who envisioned shipping one million African-Americans to Hawaii and the Philippines, where he was certain they belonged (362-363). While Twain and Hay are always center stage, the other characters in this drama invade and inform the scenes from stage-left and stage-right, creating entertainment one moment and consternation the next.
These 550 pages of text are not flawless, but the errors of fact regarding Twain are minor: the Paige compositor is incorrectly called a printing press on one page (11) but correctly identified on another (26). Twain is described as a "riverboat" pilot rather than a steamboat pilot (83), and Clara is said to have told her father that she was pregnant (546); but that's a matter of speculation that can never be resolved. Zwonitzer provides a good accounting of his methodology and sources (551-553) and a good bibliography. He makes no references to the well-known scholarship of Jim Zwick, but because he is much more focused on the personalities and politics of imperialism rather than Twain's writings, this might be excused by some, but it is still a serious oversight. Most troubling is the absence of endnotes or footnotes. Zwonitzer's numerous quotes and references to specific events and dates seem to beg for footnotes, and this reviewer suspects that the text probably began with extensive footnotes that were removed by the publisher to save space. If so, that was a bad decision; this book deserves its full textual apparatus intact.
Zwonitzer's prologue includes an apropos quote from a speech by Hay that likely explains why he continued to serve his country despite his oft-stated distrust and distaste for politics: "No man, no party, can fight with any chance of final success against a cosmic tendency; no cleverness, no popularity, avails against the spirit of the age" (xv-xvi). Hay could not fight what he saw as the arc of history, but he could find ways to bend it at times for good. Had Twain heard Hay's speech, he might have paused from raging against the imperialist arc of history and responded with a rejoiner: "Against the assault of Laughter, nothing can stand." This is the record of the reaction of two great men to their own times more than it is a story of the relationship of those two men. Those expecting the delineation of a close personal friendship like those between Twain and Twichell, or Twain and Howells, will not find that in this book, but they will have this book to thank for bringing to life the kinship and inner lives of two men who each served their country in different ways during some pivotal moments in American history that feel dreadfully familiar and dangerously contemporary.