Interview with Philip McFarland, author of Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century

Publisher: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers

Publish Date: July 16, 2012

Order From:  Amazon / Barnes & Noble

Synopsis: For most of a decade Mark Twain lived in Europe, returning at last to America and a joyous welcome on an October night in 1900. Ten years later, in the spring of 1910, he returned once more, only days before his death, carried down the gangway as reporters on the New York piers waited, yet again, to welcome him home a final time. In those two decades last of the nineteenth and first of the twentieth our modern nation was formed. Men whose names have become legendary Rockefeller, Carnegie, Edison, Wright, Ford exemplified the great changes taking place in America at the time. But only one name rivaled Mark Twain s in the love of his countrymen. Theodore Roosevelt dominated the politics of the era just as the author of Huckleberry Finn dominated its culture. The celebrities were well acquainted, and in public neither spoke ill of the other. But Roosevelt once commented in private that he would like to skin Mark Twain alive, and the humorist recorded his own opinion (although not for public consumption until later) that Roosevelt was far and away the worst President we have ever had. Philip McFarland s Mark Twain and the Colonel describes the prickly relationship between these beloved figures by focusing on two tumultuous decades of abiding relevance, decades to which no Americans were more responsive than Colonel Roosevelt of San Juan Hill and the humorist Mark Twain.

Interview: Q. How did you come up with the idea for MARK TWAIN AND THE COLONEL?

The book is about two astonishing people, among the most admired in American history, and I wanted to get both of their names into the title.  The subtitle contains their real names--Samuel L. Clemens and Theodore Roosevelt--and a reference to the times they shared:  "and the Arrival of a New Century."  "Mark Twain" is the most famous pseudonym in American literature, and the Colonel was the title above all others that President Roosevelt preferred to be called by, the title he was proudest of.  He earned it on San Juan Hill in Cuba, as a hero in the Spanish-American War.

Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?

The story is extraordinarily rich and wide-ranging, involving a number of messages (if I understand the term):  about imperial America, about continental America and racial America and corporate America, and about other aspects of America in the years when our modern nation was being formed, late in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth centuries. Becoming familiar with the United States of those crucial decades helped me (and I hope will help readers) understand much more clearly how persistent have been the issues and problems that currently preoccupy us, concerning great disparities in wealth, concerning immigration, concerning the powers of the federal government, concerning racial and labor struggles, concerning vast technological changes that have led us to cling more firmly to family values--among many other issues then that persist into our own time.

Q. If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your book?

I don't think I would.  I spent five years researching, planning, and writing MARK TWAIN AND THE COLONEL, revising with great care.  Of course there's always a gap between the ideal you imagine and the reality that emerges, but the book seems just about as good as my human and necessarily limited abilities could have made it.  (But I'd correct the typo on p. 156, 7 lines down: "of which" for "in which.")

Q. What was the hardest part of writing your book?

Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt were both enormously prolific writers, and both lived such extraordinary lives that many others have been drawn to them as individuals.  So volumes abound that examine various aspects of those lives separately, in addition to the volumes written by the subjects themselves, in essays and speeches, book-length works, and letters by the thousands.  The hardest part was absorbing all that published material and assimilating it into a coherent narrative that brought the two towering figures accurately and fairly to life.  That was what I was trying to do at any rate.  The reader must be left to
judge the extent to which I succeeded.

Q. Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?

An enormous amount, simply staggering.  I watch the nightly news entirely differently now from how I used to.  The issues that emerge week after week and that seem so fresh and pressing and in need of immediate resolution are revealed through the research and writing for MARK TWAIN AND THE COLONEL to have been ongoing problems in American life for at least a hundred years.  To cite one example:  should Congress legislate to make the wealthy wealthier, so that their prosperity trickles down on those below, or should it legislate to make the masses more prosperous, so that their spending benefits all above them?  Precisely that question, in almost those words was expressed by William Jennings Bryan (he says "leaks" for "trickles") in his celebrated Cross of Gold speech in Chicago in 1896.

Q. Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?

I've always enjoyed language, and grew up as the youngest in a very verbal family.  English classes in grammar school and high school were favorites, even to the extent of my enjoying diagramming sentences. Schoolmates at an early age seemed impressed by how I wrote, and asked me to help them with their writing.  It was one of the few things I excelled at as a child, and, in addition, something I could do alone, which suited a shy nature.  Reading and writing:  I did them both with enough frequency and fervor as to get pretty good at them.

Q. Who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?

If I'm honest, it might just be Jane Austen.  Her incomparable wit, her penetration and understanding, the believability of her characters, the freshness in each rereading of her novels.  I never cease to marvel at how much truth about life she conveys.  History can't do it; no other form of writing can let us know what it would have been like to be alive back then, back in the past, with late eighteenth- or early nineteenth-century friends, with Regency family to exasperate or gratify, with high hopes for the present day (now long-dead) and events of a ball or a picnic come back to life and looked forward to:  all of that dailiness of life that gets obliterated so soon with the passage of time, except in the pages of the great novels.

Q. Tell us your latest news.

Right now I'm just resting, and doing what I can to let people know, with my little squeak in a world full of noise already, that I've written and published a book that I'm pleased with and hope others will be too.

Q. Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?

Only that I'm grateful for this chance to talk with them, and to share a bit of the enthusiasm I feel about the lives of two such extraordinary people as Clemens and Roosevelt,who helped shape modern America and who looked on their times from such different viewpoints.  Fortunately, they had something colorful to say on just about every issue that mattered in the fascinating two decades during which their lives overlapped.  MARK TWAIN AND THE COLONEL seeks to convey some of their zest and insight.

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