In a scene from Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, “The Gilded Age,” a hard-up,
Pollyannaish type named Colonel Beriah Sellers launches into a
blustering sales pitch. He’s concocted a little something he calls
Beriah Sellers’ Infallible Imperial Oriental Optic Liniment and
Salvation for Sore Eyes, and he’s ready to bring his baby to market.
It’s missing a crucial ingredient, but who cares? He’d rather imagine
the fabulous wealth to come as his wonder potion floods the world,
securing “God only knows how many millions and millions.”

Twain’s biting portrait of post–Civil War speculation and greed,
co-written with Charles Dudley Warner, gave a name to a bloated American
era. But Twain wasn’t above the contrivances of capitalism, even as he
skewered them. He, too, was drawn in by more than his fair share of
cure-alls, gadgets, swindles, and flimflam artists. From nonage to
dotage, in dire straits or in the pink, he was always a capricious
entrepreneur, counting the zeroes on an imaginary balance sheet. A new
book by Alan Pell Crawford, “How Not to Get Rich: The Financial
Misadventures of Mark Twain
,” makes an object lesson of Twain’s
pecuniary gullibility. It places Twain amid the mania of the later
nineteenth century, when surging industry existed alongside literal
flashes in the pan, life-altering inventions alongside mere novelties.
As Crawford writes, “The tantalizing prospect of great wealth bedeviled
Mark Twain for much of his life.”

The trouble started early: Twain’s father had acquired tens of thousands
of acres in Tennessee, an investment that would provide for his
children, he promised, if they could resist selling until the time was
right. “We were always going to be rich—next year,” Twain wrote. The
dollar signs in his eyes made him a precocious schemer. In 1856, when he
was still a teen-ager, he read about life in the Amazon, becoming
convinced that coca leaves, which the Incas chewed for energy, had
“miraculous powers.” Sensing easy money in the coca trade, he set off on
an impulsive trip to Brazil, getting as far as New Orleans, where he
discovered that no ships were bound for the Amazon “that century.”

About five years later, Twain decamped to Nevada, where he and a friend
squatted in a forest, hoping to claim its timber rights. It was a shrewd
enough plan until Twain started a fire, and everything they’d pretended
to own went up in a “blinding tempest of flame.” He and another partner
soon turned their attentions to speculating, but after stumbling on a
vein rich in silver and gold they waited so long to begin mining it that
their claim expired. They’d been busy dreaming of their future homes,
down to the color of the horses. Twain’s luck was better in Virginia
City, Nevada, which was enjoying a boom time when Twain arrived there,
in 1863. Writing for the Territorial Enterprise, he curried favor with
wealthy speculators by talking up their mines in the paper. In turn,
they lavished him with lucrative stock certificates, and soon he’d
netted enough to quit for San Francisco, where he “infested the opera”
like “a born beau,” as he put it—until a crash rendered his stocks
worthless. “Once more, native imbecility had carried the day,” and he
had no choice but to move to a shack in a deserted town called Jackass
Hill.

There was a silver lining to Twain’s penury: it encouraged him to write.
A fellow Jackassian told him the story that became “The Celebrated
Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” his first book, which was published
in 1867. He wrote “simply to advertise myself,” he told his mother, and
both Crawford and Twain’s biographer, Justin Kaplan, reinforce that
cynicism. “Twain’s goal was to make money and then make even more
money,” Crawford writes. “Writing books was just a means to an end.”
Kaplan sees the author “rationalizing literary production  . . .  to turn out
so many gold bars stamped ‘Mark Twain.’ ” Even so, Twain gained an easy
foothold as a humorist, and in time the income from his books, newspaper
pieces, and public appearances was more than enough to sustain him. He
married rich, which helped things, and moved to elegant Hartford,
Connecticut, where the Elmira Advertiser called his house a
“brick-kiln gone crazy,” the outside “ginger-breaded” with woodwork the
way a baker might ornament “the top and side of a fruit loaf.” Whenever
he was flush, Twain, “brimful of vanity,” had to flaunt it. “It seems to
me that whatever I touch turns to gold,” he wrote.

Twain had a soft spot, or blind spot, for inventors, whom he regarded as
“true poets.” In his brother Orion, who’d developed a “modest little
drilling machine,” he recognized “the patrician blood of intellect.”
Wanting a little of that blood on his own hands, he invested five
thousand dollars in something called the Vaporizer, which hardly seemed
the work of a poet: it was “an engine or a furnace or something of the
kind which would get out 99 per cent of all the steam that was in a
pound of coal.” It didn’t; it was a piece of junk built by a
whiskey-breathed charlatan, and Twain never saw a dime from it. Another
steam-pulley company promised to “revolutionize everything,” but
instead, Twain recalled, “pulled thirty-two thousand dollars out of my
pocket in sixteen months, then went to pieces.” Undeterred, Twain threw
his weight behind Kaolotype, an engraving process that would “utterly
annihilate sweep out of existence one of the minor industries of
civilization, take its place.” (He could be wrong, he conceded, “but I
am not able to see how I can be.”) In a few years, Twain plowed some
forty-two thousand dollars into the company—roughly nine hundred and
fifty-three thousand dollars today—putting the inventor and a manager on
salary and funding a workshop in downtown Manhattan. Ever the dupe, he
later learned that Kaolotype was a ruse: its “inventor” had passed off
existing technology as his own.

The dawn of the twentieth century would see Twain pouring tens of
thousands of dollars into a German powdered food supplement derived,
Crawford writes, “from waste products fed to pigs.” An instant convert,
Twain oversaw the company’s ill-fated expansion into the United Kingdom
and America, much as his character Sellers had hoped to do with his
Optic Liniment. But before that came the crowning blunder of his
investment career, the Paige Compositor, a five-thousand-pound
typesetting machine that worked, when it worked properly, six times
faster than a laborer could. Seeing it in operation sent Twain into
raptures: “All the other wonderful inventions of the human brain sink
pretty nearly into commonplaces contrasted with this awful mechanical
miracle.” He sank something to the tune of six million in today’s
dollars into the contraption. But it was beset by mechanical problems,
and a competitor, the Linotype, caught on first. An exasperated Twain
blamed the compositor’s daunting keyboard, which accommodated
“dipthongs, fractions, other rubbish which heavily loads up its
machinery.”

When he wasn’t backing other inventors’ fiascos, Twain was happy to
produce his own. A chance encounter with Horace Greeley, who was wearing
“the most extraordinary set of trowsers,” spurred Twain to dream up a
button-on elastic strap to help pants “hang more gracefully.” He never
manufactured it, but he did make Mark Twain’s Self-Pasting Scrapbook, a
“great humanizing and civilizing invention” born of his desire to
preserve newspaper clippings about himself. He conceived the “baby-bed
clamp” (to keep infants from kicking off their sheets), the “spiral pin”
(permitting women to keep their hats on in gusty weather), and the
“portable calendar” (your guess is as good as mine). In 1883, he
distracted himself from writing “Huckleberry Finn” by creating Mark
Twain’s Fact and Date Game, an “indoor historical” diversion for which
he prepared reams of detailed memos. When it finally reached shelves, in
1891, one customer described it as “a cross between an income tax form
and a table of logarithms.”

These ventures paled beside his publishing concern, Charles L. Webster
Company, which had been buoyed by the success of “Huck Finn” and Ulysses
S. Grant’s memoirs. But Twain lacked editorial nous. He larded his list
with such titles as “One Hundred Ways of Cooking Eggs” and “The Flowing
Bowl: What and When to Drink.” When the firm banked on a biography of
Pope Leo XIII, Twain’s friend William Dean Howells was jazzed—“it would
have a currency bounded only by the number of Catholics in Christendom.”
After the book bombed, he saw their rookie mistake: “We did not consider
how often Catholics could not read.”

It’s tempting, in all this, to see Twain as a man blinded by avarice,
unable to content himself with a comfortable life. The Gilded Age gave
him a zero-sum mentality, obliging him to seek his fortune only because
some other guy would rake it in if he didn’t. But there’s a more
charitable lens with which to view his schemes—in times of unfettered
expansion and rapacity, standing still can seem like a real risk. His
era bears more than a passing resemblance to our own, with its angel
investors and dubious “innovators,” but Crawford is careful not to force
the comparison. And Twain, beneath his braggadocio, was possessed of an
innocence that today’s entrepreneurs can only fake: a faith in
technology as the mechanism for progress.

The era’s boom-and-bust cycles shaped Twain’s literature as much as his
life. Both he and his characters run on a picaresque impulse: try
something crazy, fail at it, laugh about it, move along. Echoing through
Crawford’s book, Twain’s words remind us how completely he’d
internalized a certain American vernacular, the zippy, breathless syntax
of the early industrial age, stuffed with bombast and wonderment. It
survives today in infomercials, pyramid schemes, and back-page
classifieds, desperate language for desperate people. William Gaddis
once said that America’s novelists “all came out of Mark Twain’s vest
pocket.” Fittingly, that pocket was lined with crumpled stock
certificates and feverish back-of-the-envelope calculations, the raw
material for so much comedy and tragedy.

LEAVE A REPLY