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Fame Came at a Considerable Cost: The Relationship of Mark Twain and John Hay

The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism

By Mark Zwonitzer

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

583 pages, $35

By Thomas J. Reigstad

Robert Hirst, editor of the Mark Twain Project, once said that as soon as he opens a book on Twain, he flips to the index to see if John Milton Hay is cited. More often than not, Hay is not mentioned.

The index of Mark Zwonitzer’s “The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism” has plenty of Hay references. The problem is that the book does not acknowledge sources.

Although the origin of Twain’s close friendship with Hay is murky – it probably dates to 1867 – it lasted until Hay’s death at 65 in 1904. Zwonitzer tells what Twain and Hay were up to during the tumultuous 1895-1905 decade in American history. That period features Hay’s rebirth as a valued counsel to presidents and Twain’s recovery financially and as a writer. Their parallel lives are chronologically told in alternating chapters.

Twain and Hay stayed in touch, but their paths seldom crossed in the late 19th century, even when they lived in the same city, London. In fact, the book offers fewer than 20 pages’ worth of direct contact between the two celebrities. The bulk of “The Statesman and the Storyteller” focuses on Hay’s return to distinguished public service, ultimately as secretary of state to William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt; Twain’s struggle to dig himself out of bankruptcy; and the nation’s flexing of imperialist muscle in Cuba, South America, the Hawaiian Islands, China, Alaska and the Philippines.

Various political missteps in the United States’ march toward empire building are detailed in readable prose. Hay’s delicate negotiating and Twain’s slowly evolving anti-imperialism counter the hawkish sentiments of Roosevelt, McKinley and other American titans such as Henry Cabot Lodge and Whitelaw Reid.

It would be a thoroughly absorbing tale if the author’s insights could be trusted.

The most glaring indicator of a credibility problem is the book’s utter lack of citation. Zwonitzer fails to document a single claim he makes.

Another indicator involves a Buffalo-related anecdote. Zwonitzer asserts that early in 1871, during Twain’s last months living and working in Buffalo, Twain tried to persuade Hay to invest as a partner in a Buffalo newspaper. Zwonitzer states specifically that Twain offered a “fifty-fifty” co-ownership deal to Hay.

As with all his assertions, Zwonitzer provides no documentation for this claim. A check with the Mark Twain Project about the accuracy of the “fifty-fifty” factoid revealed that they do not even know the whereabouts, much less the details, of the Twain-to-Hay letter with the partnership offer.

If Zwonitzer plays loosely in this minor matter, can the rest of his story, with abundant details of biography and political maneuvering, be believed? It is incredible, really, that author and publisher would attempt to produce a “well-researched” book without any substantiation. There are absolutely no footnotes or endnotes.

Furthermore, Zwonitzer’s bibliography is sketchy. He omits and, presumably, failed to consult an invaluable resource: Jim Zwick’s groundbreaking “Mark Twain’s Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War” (1992). Zwick first revealed how Twain spoke out in 1902 against the U.S. military’s waterboarding (they called it “water cure”) of rebels. By ignoring Zwick’s book, Zwonitzer also fails to acknowledge that as early as 1868, Twain opposed imperialism, and in 1873 was already against annexing the Hawaiian Islands.

Zwonitzer also somehow overlooks Philip McFarland’s recent study of Twain and Roosevelt, “Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century” (2012), an important book that documents Twain’s growing anti-imperialist sentiments late in his life.

Nevertheless, the unsung John Hay deserves notice. He spent most of the 1860s as Abraham Lincoln’s private secretary, was an Army colonel attached to the White House at age 27 and then served as a government envoy in Paris, Vienna and Madrid. In fall 1870, he started as an editorial writer and night editor of the New York Tribune, where Twain met with him in December 1870.

The career arcs of Hay and Twain are stunningly similar. They were born within three years of each other in frontier Missouri towns. They both married into extreme wealth and spent some time as journalists. They enjoyed close mutual literary friends in Bret Harte and David Gray (whom Zwonitzer neglects) of the Buffalo Daily Courier.

In 1899, Twain wrote a playful letter to Hay in Washington, D.C., the first time they had communicated in a decade. Twain was an expatriate, struggling with his health and trying to re-energize his writing career in England and Austria. As U.S. soldiers continued to mow down Philippine rebels and the British army battled the Boers in South Africa, Twain gradually resumed his political footing, ultimately joining the Anti-Imperialist League.

Finally, in New York City in 1902, Hay and Twain reunited, for the first time in many years, at a Metropolitan Club dinner honoring Twain on his 68th birthday. At that event, the literary lion and the secretary of state sat next to each other at the head table. In his speech, Twain commented on the unlikelihood of two small-town Missourians rising to such prominence and praised the United States as a great country, rich with opportunity.

Hay’s remarkable diplomacy engineered an Alaska-Great Britain settlement in America’s favor, helped negotiate the Paris peace treaty, and began work on the Panama Canal. Right up to 12 hours before his death in office in 1905, Hay was still signing official papers and dictating letters.

Meanwhile, Twain’s anti-imperialism rhetoric was heating up. He met with the war-mongering Roosevelt (declaring him “insane”) and wrote two private pieces condemning U.S. policy abroad. When Hay died, Twain released a statement about this sad end to their 38-year friendship.

Zwonitzer tells a cautionary tale about the cost of fame.

Ideally, “The Statesman and the Storyteller” would inspire readers to look up Twain’s anti-imperialism writings that were forgotten for most of the 20th century, many of them unpublished, some suppressed by Twain’s literary executor after his death.

Readers might also want to delve more deeply into Hay’s life. John Taliaferro’s new biography, “All the Great Prizes,” a good choice, was released too late for Zwonitzer to refer to.

Unfortunately, curious readers will be disappointed by the complete absence of any attribution.

Thomas J. Reigstad is an emeritus professor of English at SUNY Buffalo State and the author of “Scribblin’ for a Livin’: Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo” (Prometheus 2013).