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U.S. News

Business Books: Mark Twain's passion for speculation

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mark Twain is best known for novels such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and his witty commentary on late 19th Century and early 20th Century life.

Undated handout photograph of the cover of the book "Ignorance, Confidence and Filty-Rich Friends" released by publisher John Wiley & Sons in March, 2007. REUTERS/Handout.

But a new book about the “father of American literature” contends that his greater interest lay in the speculation, invention and money-making schemes that took him and his fortunes on a roller-coaster ride throughout his life.

In “Ignorance, Confidence and Filthy-Rich Friends,” author Peter Krass takes his readers on a tour of these business adventures and concludes that the man of letters was “motivated by a relentless desire to accumulate great wealth.”

According to Krass, Mark Twain was an inveterate gambler and speculator and even set aside work on his future masterpiece, Huckleberry Finn, to devote time to inventing a children’s trivia game that he thought would make money.

Among his other inventions was a clamp to prevent infants from kicking the sheets off their beds, which made a loss, and a self-adhesive scrapbook, which made a profit.

Publishing the memoirs of former President Ulysses Grant was a big business success, but subsequent books failed and his publishing business accumulated debt and ended in bankruptcy.

But perhaps his most consuming project was the Paige automatic typesetting machine, which was never successful and which, along with the publishing business, swallowed up his entire fortune.

“I have never felt so desperate in all of my life -- and good reason; for I haven’t got a penny to my name,” he wrote in a letter to Fred Hall, who ran his publishing house, Webster & Co.

ROBBER BARONS

Mark Twain was joint author of “The Gilded Age” in 1873, a satire that attacked corruption in business and politics, which Krass says would prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for Mark Twain, who he calls by his real name, Samuel Clemens.

“Yes, while Clemens was lampooning the period, he was also being drawn into the lavish lifestyle -- more so because he had been denied any luxury in his early life,” writes Krass, who is also the author of “Carnegie,” a biography of the tycoon Andrew Carnegie.

Eventually, it was Henry Rogers, one of the leaders in Standard Oil, who stepped in to set Twain’s business affairs on course. Twain finally embarked on a lecture tour, repaid his creditors, and regained solvency.

Born in 1835, Clemens worked as a printer, steamboat pilot, miner and newspaper editor before turning to writing as a means of making money.

“While Clemens expressed satisfaction with his writing and tended to crack himself up with his own humor, he measured his success by his personal production and income,” Krass writes.

Stanford University English professor Shelley Fisher Fishkin, who edits the “Oxford Historical Guide to Mark Twain” and is a Mark Twain expert, agrees with Krass’ premise, up to a point.

“It would be fair to say that he probably would not have necessarily decided to earn his living as a writer unless he had failed as a silver miner,” Fishkin said, but “he learned things from all of his experiences and adventures that came in handy when he wrote.”

“Ignorance, Confidence and Filthy-Rich Friends” was published by John Wiley & Sons Inc. in March.

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