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Twain's epic tour Chasing the Last Laugh'

April 20, 2016
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Book tells story of Mark Twain's 1896 round-the-world tour

'The lack of money is the root of all evil.' Mark Twain

Mark Twain is one of the most beloved figures in the history of American letters in the history of America, period. His combination of homespun charm and lightning wit made him the preeminent humorist of his day. His storytelling brilliance was unmatched in his day and one could argue remains unmatched to this day. He was also a larger-than-life character, with an heiress for a wife and an almost uncanny affinity for bad business deals.

You couldn't make up Mark Twain.

Twain's popularity has led to plenty of biographical ink being spilled in an effort to articulate his sardonic wisdom and wide-ranging adventures. But relatively little has been said about the era covered in 'Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain's Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour' (Doubleday, $30). Author Richard Zacks goes deep on an underexplored chunk of Twain's career.

In 1896, Mark Twain's circumstances were less than ideal. His publishing house was spiraling downward. A series of terrible investments was capped by Twain's involvement with a typesetting company that nearly proved ruinous. Thanks to some maneuvering (with an assist from fellow investor and friend, the Standard Oil tycoon H.H. Rogers), Twain avoided utter destitution, but he was left with significant debts and few ways in which to settle them.

What came next was something unprecedented. In an effort to raise the money to pay off his creditors, Twain agreed go on tour. He would travel around the globe, performing a show built around his 'greatest hits' in terms of his stories. In essence, he was a stand-up comedian, telling funny stories in theaters and opera houses all over the world.

As he (and his wife and two of his daughters) circumnavigated the globe, Twain kept lengthy notes with regards to his observations of the world around him. As the trip progressed, he honed and perfected his performance it seemed that Twain's tales resonated with audiences everywhere. He struggled against obstacles such as illness (no surprise 60 is awfully old to be dealing with the rigors of 1896 travel), but ultimately embraced the experience.

When you think about it, there's something remarkable about the idea of Mark Twain slowly drawling his way through some of his best stories while standing on a stage in India or South Africa. The fact that such a tour was financially viable is kind of astonishing in a time when it took a week or more to cross the Atlantic. Such massive popularity was practically unheard of, yet Twain sold out performance after performance in which he told people stories that they likely already knew.

Seriously remarkable.

Zacks is a gifted storyteller in his own right, which is as it should be; a master storyteller such as Mark Twain deserves nothing less. He brings that world to vivid life and finds the nuances in Twain's interpersonal interactions. Those relationships with his wife, with his daughters, with his friends are a huge part of the book, allowing us to learn about Twain in his own words.

And through it all, Twain is the man you hope he would be, an indomitable spirit who is brilliant and wise and oh yeah just happens to be acknowledged as the funniest man in the world.

Really, what 'Chasing the Last Laugh' captures is the spirit of Mark Twain. Through thorough investigation of Twain's notes as well as the letters he exchanged with his two daughters who remained home Zacks has recreated a small piece of an important and fascinating life. It's a beautifully researched work.

This book services Twain fans of any degree there's plenty here for the hardcore, but the story is so quintessentially Twain that it works even if you've only a passing familiarity with his work. It's an intimate look at an incredible experience, with ample helpings of the humor that made its subject so great.

Mark Twain is one of the greats; 'Chasing the Last Laugh' is a funny and revealing reminder of just how great he was.

'Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.' Mark Twain

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