By Don Radebaugh — Halley’s Comet is visible in the sky about every 75 years, the approximate duration of Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ amazing life. The fact that the famous Comet coincided with the coming and going of Clemens — AKA Mark Twain — seems to suggest he was worthy of some good old-fashioned divine intervention.
In the first twist, Halley’s Comet would not have been in the sky at all had Twain been born on time; but he was born two-months prematurely, which aligned him with the direct passing of the great Comet. When Twain’s final days were near, Twain knew the end was coming. He also knew Halley’s Comet would soon be again blazing in the sky.
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt, Now here are these two unaccountable freaks. They came in together; they must go out together.”
When Twain took his final breath, with his only surviving daughter at his bedside — he had already endured the death of three of his children and his beloved wife Olivia — the bright glow of Halley’s Comet could be made out on the horizon.
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
Twain’s entrance and exit is fascinating enough; but it’s what happened in between that could fill volumes, much the way Twain the writer did most of his life. As fascinating as his books are, his life story is even more so. A Mississippi River Steamboat Captain, worldwide adventurer and natural-born storyteller, Twain was the most famous author of his time, and arguably since. By the time he went on his world lecture tour to restore his wealth in 1895, he was already well-known the world over, his books transcribed in several different foreign languages to accommodate his readers across the globe.
On the success of some of his most famous books — Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Life on the Mississippi, Innocents Abroad, and more — he turned himself into the wealthiest author on earth. Unfortunately, Twain was a horribly inept business man and made one bad financial move after another, squandering his wealth to the point of bankruptcy. Deeply in debt, Twain not only burned through his own wealth, he squandered Olivia’s family wealth too. While he paced the floors at night contemplating his next move — he had already considered suicide a time or two in his earlier days — he accepted an invitation to go on a worldwide lecture tour. While he claimed to hate lecturing, he also knew he was good at it, having already done it early on in his career to complement his writing. In debt, in poor health and extremely reluctant to go back on the road, it became a last resort to repay his creditors.
By the time he reached the Pacific, however, after 23 performances in 22 American and Canadian cities, he was feeling great. From Vancouver, British Columbia in 1895, he wrote the San Francisco Examiner.
“Lecturing is gymnastics, chest-expander, medicine, mind healer, blues destroyer, all in one. I am twice as well as I was when I started out. I have gained nine pounds in twenty eight days, and expect to weigh six hundred before January. I haven’t had a blue day in all the twenty-eight. My wife and daughter are accumulating health and strength and flesh nearly as fast as I am. When we reach home two years hence, we think we can exhibit as freaks.”
And so it was that Mark Twain, Olivia and his daughter Clara set sail for performances in Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Europe and more. By the time his yearlong tour was complete, he had earned enough money to pay most of his debt, meeting his financial obligations head on. Eventually, he paid off all his debt and restored a sizable portion of his wealth. #Magnanimous. #Integrity.
It wasn’t just Mark Twain the author on stage; he turned it into a comedy routine, complete with skits and sketches that only he could deliver based on the incredible life that only he lived. There was something else that came out of Twain’s lecture tour. His unique style, completely peculiar to himself, gave rise to the industry of stand-up comedy that continues to flourish today. He was literally the first worldwide successful stand-up comedian, and arguably the finest since.
But as Twain described, for every comedy there is a tragedy and not more apparent when his beloved daughter Susy caught spinal meningitis while he was away on tour and died in their Connecticut home. Twain blamed himself for her death…for leaving her at home while he traveled the world to pay off his misdeeds. Twain also suffered the loss of his wife in 1904. And just four months before his death in 1910, his daughter Jean died in his bathtub on Christmas Eve, drowning after an epileptic seizure. The Clemens’ had also suffered the loss of their first-born, a son who died at just 19 months. Clemens blamed himself for that one too.
“A man’s experiences in life are a book. There was never yet an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility. Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.”
Through it all, the unmistakable life force that was Mark Twain, continued to rally until the very end. Never exempting himself from the nonstop foolishness of the human race, he not only considered himself an American, but The American. And no human since has told the American story more effectively than Mark Twain.
“Go to heaven for the climate; hell for the company.”
Editor Notes: This is just the first installment of several upcoming features on the life and times of Mark Twain. I’ve only scratched the surface…just a morsel to wet your appetite. We’ll tour his boyhood hometown of Hannibal, Missouri and so much more. Stay tuned, and thanks for visiting HistoryMysteryMan.com.
SamClemens.net available for purchase.