This was a sometimes difficult book for me to firmly get a grip on, mainly because something deep inside of me felt the pairing of Samuel L. Clemens (Mark Twain) and Theodore Roosevelt in a book was odd, indeed.
Roosevelt, although considered by historians as one of America’s greatest presidents, for most of his life was a bombastic, bellicose war mongering imperialist. This was somewhat tempered by his progressive stand as President to protect wilderness areas, and curb the power of large corporations (called "trusts"). He also passed laws such as The Meat Inspection Act in 1906 and The Pure Food and Drug Act. The Meat Inspection Act of 1906 banned misleading labels and preservatives that contained harmful chemicals. The Pure Food and Drug Act banned food and drugs that were impure or falsely labeled from being made, sold, and shipped.
Still, he was someone who killed hundreds of animals for sport, where Clemens was appalled that anyone would kill just for killing’s sake, and not for the meat. Roosevelt also reveled in the Spanish American War, where he became a national hero for his exploits at San Juan Hill in Cuba. He later referred to that war, which cost Spain its last two colonies in the New World, Puerto Rico and Cuba, as well as the Philippines—as a “splendid little war.”
Clemens, on the other hand, wanted no part of the Civil War, although he was highly sought after by both north and south because of his prized skill as a pilot on the Mississippi River. He sat the entire war out on the west coast, where his writing career began in earnest.
What both men have in common, however, and the reason why McFarland married the two in his book, is that both were perhaps the most well-known and influential people during this crucial time in America history.
In the last decade of the 19th Century, and the first decade of the 20th century, our modern nation was formed. Writes McFarland, ”An agrarian union of states from before the Civil War had given way to a postbellum industrialized nation. In 1893, the frontier was pronounced closed. In 1896, the Supreme Court decreed in effect, that relations between the two races, black and white, were to be kept socially separated—a decision that stood until 1954; remnants of that iniquity litter our lives still. In 1898, we fought a war that transformed the nation abruptly into a world power and made Roosevelt a national hero at age thirty-nine. In 1901, that hero was elevated to President of the United States.”
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became the youngest President ever, after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901, only a short time into his second term.
Mark Twain and The Colonel alternates between the lives lived by Clemens and that of Roosevelt, giving the reader an in-depth portrait of the ups and downs of both men’s careers and personal life.
As always, when reading a book about this time in human history, one is once again stuck by just how delicate life was back then. McFarland’s book is filled with great physical suffering and untimely deaths. No one, young or old, was spared.
Modern medicine, as we know it today, was barely in its infancy, and money and being well born hardly protected anyone from a sudden, painful attack of something that could kill them, or at the very least, make them wish they were already dead.
At the end of their highly eventful lives, Clemens was noted for wandering the streets, wherever he was, in all kinds of weather, in an all-white suit, with a huge flock of white hair, and his trademark bushy mustache, glad to be recognized as the international literary lion he had become.
Roosevelt, on the other hand, came to deeply regret his lifelong cheerleading of the so-called “art of war,” as he witnessed the wanton slaughter of human life brought on by the carnage of World War One.
No splendid little war here.
This slaughter was brought home in a deeply personal way when
his son, Quentin, a daring pilot with the American forces in France, was shot down behind German lines in 1918. Quentin was his youngest son and probably his favorite. It is said the death of his son distressed him so much that Roosevelt never recovered from his loss. Another of his sons, Ted, was also wounded in that conflict.
Roosevelt died a year later in 1919, at the then old age of 60, profoundly chastened.
“The Old Lion is dead,” is what his son Archie telegraphed his siblings upon hearing of the death of his father.