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Twain's Twilight Years

Author Samuel Longhorne Clemens, better known under his pen name, Mark Twain, is seen in an undated photo. Twain died April 21, 1910. (AP)

The work of Mark Twain that lives forever in the world’s mind is of steamboats and boys, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer and life on the Mississippi. 

The image of Mark Twain that lingers is older Twain. White hair. Wild brows. Big cigars. And lots of attitude. 

That Mark Twain was the most famous American, worldwide. 

Before he died, one hundred years ago this month – and, yes, when Haley’s Comet came by – Twain’s humor had darkened. His life had grown complicated. 

This Hour, On Point: the late work and late life of the great Mark Twain.


Laura Skandera Trombley, president of Pitzer College and a renowned Twain scholar. Her new book is “Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years.”  You can read an excerpt here. Her previous books on Twain include “Mark Twain in the Company of Women.” For more information on  Trombley’s work on Twain, go to www.lauratrombley.com.

Tom Quirk, professor of English at the University of Missouri. He’s author of “Mark Twain and Human Nature” and “Mark Twain: A Study of the Short Fiction.”

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  • Chris K.

    Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.
    - Notebook, 1898

    (from: http://www.twainquotes.com/Truth.html ;)

  • Ellen Dibble

    If you click the link “here” up top under Trombley you will find a box with not just one video link but a few, notably I think three of Twain himself. He died in 1909. First you see him coming around a corner and walking towards us and past us in front of his house. Then someone else comes into view around the same corner. Is it his “private” secretary of his late years, whom he disparaged sharply and tried to silence? Did he also make her walk behind him by a full house length, out of sight for posterity? That old SOB.
    No, it’s Twain himself coming round the corner again. Like our dog, rounding and rounding my childhood home, in that case cheerful and dutiful. Or me rounding a swimming pool for a video, in that case very mopey and bored, a command performance. That was the best the producer could come up with. Or rounding a tiny lake for a video by a would-be boyfriend. Deja-vu.
    See Twain too having tea with the two remaining daughters and hear him speak a short riff.

  • Gary

    Suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself.
    - Mark Twain, a Biography

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Great one Gary. I collect Twain quotes (among others). Feel free to lift more here:


  • Courtney

    Full of respect for Twain, most especially on account of his extremely enlightened perspective concerning animal experimentation:
    “I believe I am not interested to know whether vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn’t. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it. The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.”

  • Larry

    Twain was genius. Love his later work and so relevant today.

  • John Shanley

    Mr. Twain died in Redding, CT, not NY. Made the trip back from Bermuda so he could die at home.

  • Ellen Dibble

    It seems to me celebrity in itself would take the sting out of most genius. A guest is saying he supported “some causes,” which seems to counter to the juice in the man’s veins. He was the prototypical maverick, as I’ve absorbed him from his work, from Hal Halbrook’s presentations, from living near Hartford — and once you’re old and celebrated, you are a little bit of a puppet of the culture that created you. Am I right? Leaving out of it the difficulties of recreating yourself in old age, finding oneself in the straits he did find himself in.
    Age and fame. Not part of his basic disposition, though he had to go for fame.
    But didn’t he want to make his living by some printing press that ruined him, in return for his investment?

  • M.J. Young

    One hundred years after his passing, Twain remains as surprising, fresh, and sharp as ever; Case-In-Point, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic, Updated” from 1901. Here’s the first few verses to sample:

    “Mine eyes have seen the orgy of the launching of the Sword/
    He is searching out the hoardings where the stranger’s wealth is stored/
    He hath loosed his fateful lightnings, and with woe and death has scored/
    His lust is marching on.”

  • Steve T

    There is nothing in the world like a persuasive speech to fuddle the mental apparatus.
    – Mark Twain

    It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctively native American criminal class except Congress.
    – Mark Twain

    Looks like nothings changed in a hundred years.

    God bless you Hal Holbrook, I sorry for your loss.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Social Security and Medicare — how would Samuel Clemens have thought of that? Would it have tamed his sharper experiences?

  • Ellen Dibble

    “Late years” often turns one philosophical, because one is turning one’s experience over to the next generation. When one rounds the next bend, it may still be a battle you are going to win, and hope burns forever. But anyone as smart as he would try to pass the “exacerbation” on. A younger person would want to claim as big a piece of the battle as possible.
    It can make any writer a yawn. Actually, I am thinking of the break-up of the Beatles. To my opinion, they had entered the “late years” phase after about four years of fame. They became irrelevant. And when the old Twain thinks he is being most careful in handing over the Nature of Life, I would expect he would be too succinct, not handing over the full-throated story of that battle, because of nearing the end. But we do love his succinctness.

  • Ellen Dibble

    That’s exasperation, not exacerbation. Sorry.
    Also, up top I put Twain died in 1909 (from some link), but we certainly hear he died 4/21/1910.

  • Ellen Dibble

    Moral cowardice, as being fear of disapproval?
    Twain in an extraordinary seemed to achieve a certain immunity, but isn’t it better than bloody battle to try to shun? To make someone feel left out? How about our approach to Iran? Make them feel like outsiders? Make them realize they need us.

  • http://www.systemicide.org Austin Gardner-Smith

    I took a great class in college on Twain (The Political Philosophy of Mark Twain) and got to take a pretty deep dive into Twain’s later work. I really enjoyed it, and in some ways took it as a rebellion against the fact that many people seemed to read his works at face value – it was time for him to produce something that’s intent was less veiled, so to speak. I have a particular taste for the style of dark humor that dominates these later works but think that they often convey much more raw human emotion than crafted appearance.

  • Ellen Dibble

    American orneriness and irreverence (a word I hear just now) (skepticism) are so much a legacy of Twain. I read it under the covers, tightly sealed there with a flashlight, Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn. Age 12 or so. It’s the only way.

  • http://MarkTwainHouse.org Jacques Lamarre

    Dr. Trombley will be participating in “Mark Twain Considered,” a free lecture/discussion event on May 10th at 7:30 p.m. at The Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford. She will be joined by Michael Shelden (author of “Mark Twain: Man in White”) and Jerome Loving (author of “Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel Clemens”). We hope you can join us! MarkTwainHouse.org

  • http://www.filipinoboston.blogspot.com akilez

    Mark Twain cared about the Filipino people he created the American Anti-imperialist league and the rest is history. RIP Mr.Twain

  • http://www.bearlyreadbooks.com Betty Ann Sharp

    “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

  • Brett

    Something from Claymation and Mr. Clemens on Youtube:

  • Mary Lynn Cramer

    Mark Twain considered that his greatest masterpiece was “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.” Like Marx, he spent 25 years researching and writing this great work, and as with Marx, Americans do not recognize or understand the value and insight of this great literary work and gift. Twain’s “Joan of Arc” is a book that should be read by every 9 year old girl! If you missed it, it is not too late. Twain was a feminist in the real sense of that word: he lovingly respected women. I do not expect OnPoint to be aware of anything that is not part of the well beaten path of main stream media. Lastima, Mary Lynn

  • sean

    Mark Twain In Palestine

    Mark Twain, who visited Palestine in 1867, described it as:
    “ …[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse….A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action….We never saw a human being on the whole route….There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

  • Liz B.

    Mark Twain is an American icon. His honestly intelligent perception of the world is among the most refreshing and sobering works of literature.

  • roy merritt

    Some years ago my brother and I watched the broadcast of a television movie called “The Brief History Of A Campaign That Failed.” The story incorporated the previous tale with “The War Prayer”. Edward Herrman portrayed a man that several would be Confederates ambushed during the Civil War in Missouri thinking he was a Yankee. Realizing they had made a mistake the young men are no longer eager to engage in war, but instead wish to go home. Later the man they have murdered is a mysterious man who shows up at a church about to usher off some men to the Spanish-American war. He proceeds to give the war prayer shocking all about with the gravity of the prayer’s desires. To this day it is one of the most enlightening pieces I have ever seen broadcast.

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