October 16, 2012

A Rare Nonfiction Read: "Mark Twain and the Colonel" by Philip McFarland

Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemons, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of the New Century
by Philip McFarland
Rowman & Littlefield (2012)
456 pages
ISBN 1442212268

As a genre hound, I don't tend to read nonfiction all that often. When I do, it needs to be on a topic I find of some particular interest. In the case of this book, it came down to the name Mark Twain. And it was seeing that name on this book's cover that piqued my interest enough to review my first nonfiction book in a good long while.

The book highlights the lives and lessons of both Samuel Clemons (aka Mark Twain) and Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt. It's not quite a biography of either man, rather using each man and those closest to them to view the shift from the nineteenth century to the next. While McFarland highlights these two legendary men as they bear witness to the twentieth century, I couldn't help but wonder if a book of this sort could be accomplished for modern times. Unfortunately, the coming of the twenty-first century would have likely been viewed through the lens of President Bill Clinton and some beloved wordsmith of our age--though a suitable counterpart to Mark Twain does not spring to mind.

Another interesting note is that Clemons and Roosevelt rarely had any direct interactions, though each man was imminently aware of the talents--and temerity--of the other. But, in some sense, they wound up being good counter-balances in this book, as aspects of America's maturity was wrought out. What really stood out for me, however, was the accessibility of the book for a dullard like me. While I appreciate history, I find it hard to digest at times thanks to the scarring effects of a high school education, as it relates to history lessons. While Mark Twain and the Colonel can feel a bit textbookish at times, with bone dry passages and some repetition of facts and events, a humanizing effect on both men is well achieved. Considering how much both of these historical figures have been mythologized (deified and vilified in equal strokes, I'm sure), adding the frailties and shortcomings of each man--not to mention the candid ruminations on each other--gives this book the kind of verisimilitude it needs.

I did find myself gravitating more towards the Twain passages more than the Roosevelt, though I came to appreciate just how fascinating a character he really is in the annals of American history. Canadian history, even in politics, seems to lack the kind of bombastic and grandiose figures like these two men. Oh, we've got them, but I wonder if they could provide the kind of fodder that Twain and Roosevelt do.

I'm not sure if this is the kind of book I'd recommend for someone looking for a straight-up biography of either man, but there's an interesting intersection of philosophies from both men relating to America's emergence during such tumultuous times, with the specter of a new century ready to pass them by. For history buffs though, I think there is likely something new, at least in the approach if not in the material. If the book has accomplished anything, it's prompted this twentieth century boy to go look for a copy of "Huck" and "Finn."


  1. This sounds pretty interesting. And, no I can't think of a contemporary to Mark Twain either. Although, there are several writers today that I love.

  2. This looks like a really interesting read. I've read biographies of both men separately, but I'm curious to see their different perspectives applied in the same book.

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