Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour
By Richard Zacks
450 pages, $30
By Thomas J. Reigstad
By the middle of 1895, Mark Twain was a broken man. He was nearly 60 years old, his personal finances were in a shambles and he was physically ailing. So it was, that on the morning of July 15, 1895, Twain slouched into Buffalo for a two-hour train layover en route from Elmira to Cleveland.
This brief stop was the last time he ever visited our city, where he once lived as a newlywed, a first-time father and a newspaper owner and managing editor. His old Buffalo friend Charles M. Underhill collected Twain, his wife, Olivia, and daughter Clara by carriage at the Exchange Street station.
Underhill whisked the women off for a quick visit with his wife, Emma, at their 849 Delaware Ave. home. Along the way, if Twain had asked to see his Buffalo Express building at 14 East Swan St., he would have been disappointed to learn that it was recently demolished. Instead he would have seen at that site the structural steel work being completed on the basement and ground floor for the new Ellicott Square Building under construction.
The carriage undoubtedly passed the splendid home at 472 Delaware, evoking bittersweet memories of the mansion given to Twain and Olivia as part of their wedding gift 25 years earlier. Now it was inhabited by the Samuel S. Spauldings, whose daughter Charlotte later married Langdon Albright, the son of Olivia’s first cousin. Even then, there were three degrees of separation in Buffalo.
After dropping off Twain’s wife and daughter, Underhill continued north on Delaware. Twain had read about the spectacular marble and granite Blocher Memorial, with its lifelike figures under glass, unveiled in 1888 in Forest Lawn, and wanted to see it, hoping to write an article about it.
According to Underhill, “the monument did not stir him,” and Twain dismissed it as a possible subject for a story. On the carriage ride from the cemetery back to Underhill’s house, a dejected Twain confided that “he hadn’t anything more to write about, that he had got to the end.”
An hour or so later, Twain and family returned to Buffalo’s train station and proceeded to Cleveland. From there, they boarded the steamer North Land and crossed the Great Lakes to embark on a yearlong lecture tour across the northern U.S. and around the world.
This fantastic 1895 to 1896 trip not only eventually restored Twain’s health and fortunes but also re-energized him with no lack of writing material. In fact, the extensive 1897 book-length account of his travels, “Following the Equator,” weighed in at four pounds of writing material.
“Chasing the Last Laugh” by Richard Zacks chronicles Twain’s whirlwind round-the-world lecture tour in a compelling and entertaining manner.
Twain’s transformative world trek was not an instant cure-all. An array of physical ailments, including a nagging leg carbuncle, a painful boil on his armpit, chest colds and hoarseness, plagued him as he circled the globe. And despite high expectations, his lecturing income barely covered travel expenses. It took Twain three years to settle his debts.
The first leg of Twain’s 1895 tour included speaking engagements westward across the U.S. – 22 cities in 38 days – in Ohio, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Montana, Washington and Oregon. Sometimes he netted only $75 a performance.
The fun for Twain began with the ship ride from British Columbia to Hawaii. Zacks writes that Twain loved long sea voyages “with the abandon of a Carnival Cruise tourist.” Twain danced, played hearts and euchre with his wife and daughter, read, and smoked 10-20 cigars a day on deck. His business manager had bought 500 cigars in preparing for the trip.
After losing out on a guaranteed income of $500 in ticket sales because a cholera quarantine forced him to stay on board in Honolulu’s harbor, Twain and company steamed on across the Pacific to Australia at 200 miles a day.
On September 16, 1895, he docked at Sydney. Here and throughout the land down under, Twain scored a series of big paydays and drew waves of laughter for his meandering delivery of excerpts from “Roughing It.” He even wrote a playful poem about the platypus, which further delighted audiences.
A four-day voyage to New Zealand continued the “victory lap for the humorist of the century.” He lectured there, mastering his comedic pause on the platform, to adoring fans 20 times in five weeks. During his stay, Twain kept a lid on his outrage at the decimation of indigenous peoples and the brutal punishment of criminals. Sometimes Olivia actually covered his mouth when a New Zealand reporter asked a controversial question.
Despite Twain’s global triumphs on stage, the tour had its downsides. Mail received from his daughters Susy and Jean, who remained home in the States, was 2 months old. Susy’s rueful letters expressed regret at staying behind with her close friend Louise Brownell. She promised never to leave her parents’ side once they were reunited, which was not scheduled until the tour ended in England in fall 1896.
Being half a world apart and reading unhappy letters from the missing girls dampened the respective 50th and 60th birthday celebrations by Olivia and Twain in New Zealand in November 1895. Twain also was bedridden, “pondering, and fighting off flies, canaries, and carbuncles.” Three cages of noisy canaries near his hotel room were not his only unpleasant encounter with distracting birds. He later complained about crows making a racket outside his window at another hotel.
The crowning glory of Twain’s world lecture tour was the time spent in exotic India. He lectured only 18 times in his two months there, because of hoarseness and a bronchial cough, but he fell in love with the place.
Once he arrived in Bombay in January 1896, Twain wrote letters and filled his private notebooks with enthusiastic accounts of kibitzing with the world’s wealthiest men – princes, Swami Sri and one maharajah whose collection included a set of twin gold cannons. Twain wrote of women covered in gaudy jewelry and of masses of people jockeying for seats on trains.
Wearing a white pith helmet, he rode an elephant, comparing the experience to the motion of a ship. Twain, Olivia and Clara logged 4,000 railroad miles during their India visit. He did more sightseeing than lecturing. Twain wore pajamas, a new fashion invention, for the first time.
He was mesmerized by India’s sights. He witnessed public cremations by the Ganges River, observed the indescribable sacred cows, and traveled to the edge of the Himalayas in Tibet. Everywhere Twain went in India, he was worshipped as a celebrity.
In late March, the family set sail for South Africa, an exhausting two-month trek. He arrived in a land of political turmoil. The British government was fighting the Boers. Despite that, Twain performed 30 lectures in 15 cities during his two months in Africa. In mid-July, he left for a two-week voyage to England, worn out from the “slavery” of lecturing.
Twain’s plan to lecture in England, write a book while there about his world lecture tour and finally pay off his debts exploded when word came in August that Susy was sick. It is heartbreaking and inspiring to read the closing chapters of “Chasing the Last Laugh.”
Susy died at the age of 24 in Elmira while Olivia and Clara were still in the mid-Atlantic making a frenzied, futile effort to get home in time. Twain, alone in England, took the tragic news as if he were struck by a sword, and blamed himself for Susy’s death.
From October 1896 to May 1897, Twain worked on his travel book while secluded in a small room in London, observing strict mourning rituals. Zacks suggests that Twain and his wife, ignoring their wedding anniversary and Christmas, contemplated suicide in dark moments.
Nevertheless, Twain persevered. “Following the Equator” was published to some acclaim in late 1897.
Still, Twain remained abroad in Switzerland and Vienna. Finally, in 1900, after five years “in exile,” Mark Twain returned triumphantly to the United States.
Twain had traveled the world and become an international star. He had survived bankruptcy, illness, personal tragedy and writer’s block.
The Mark Twain who had paused in Buffalo in mid-1895 – demoralized and out of gas as a writer, poised to begin a laborious round-the-globe comedy tour – rallied and discovered plenty about himself and the world he traversed to refuel his remarkable writing engine.
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).