The twenty-year span from 1890-1910 was a time of great upheaval in the history of the United States. Philip McFarland examines this time period while focusing on the lives of two of its most famous figures in his book Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century. Krystal Thomas recently questioned McFarland regarding this work.
McFarland had been planning to write a book on Mark Twain when he ran across the author’s unpublished opinion from 1906 that then President Theodore Roosevelt was “far and away the worst president we have ever had.” This surprising statement intrigued McFarland and spurred five years of research to discover why Clemens felt that way about someone who is now generally regarded as one of the greatest presidents. McFarland shared that he “used the amazing resources of the Boston Athenaeum primarily, including their splendid interlibrary loan service" for much of his research. Because so much has already been printed about these two people, most of McFarland’s work revolved around assimilating the information he found.
McFarland determined that the best way to organize his work was to “examine America as it was in 1890 to 1910, when Clemens’s life and Roosevelt’s most often overlapped.” This led him to examine various aspects of the nation at that time as well, focusing on some of the most important issues facing America at that time. Some of these issues continue to be problematic, such as oil. Oil is one area in which Samuel Clemens and Theodore Roosevelt did not see eye to eye. McFarland points out that Roosevelt “sought to limit the monopolistic power of Standard Oil and other such trusts,” while one of Mark Twain’s closest friends was a vice president of Standard Oil.
Mark Twain did not have the greatest opinion of Roosevelt as a public figure for several reasons, which the book explores further. McFarland concludes that Mark Twain was more of a 19th century figure and Theodore Roosevelt was more of a 20th century figure. In a way, these two iconic figures are emblematic of their particular centuries. As McFarland mentions, “Clemens’s best writings are about mid-19th century agrarian America,” while some of Roosevelt’s greatest contributions came from his awareness of the direction in which the United States was moving as it became a world power.
Krystal asked about imperialism, which was a hot topic at that time. McFarland explains that imperialism was very important in the Gilded Age, mainly because of America’s “astonishingly easy victory” over Spain in the Spanish-American War. For the first time America owned a colony, making observers like Mark Twain equate the nation’s behavior with that of a European empire. Although this was something that bothered Clemens, many Americans were pleased with the direction that Theodore Roosevelt seemed to be taking the nation.
McFarland feels that our modern society could learn a lot from examining not only these two historical figures, but also the time in which they lived. Much like today, the Gilded Age struggled with problems of “great disparities in wealth.” Other key parallels include immigration problems, questions about the size of the government and presidential power, as well as debates over public lands. According to McFarland, many of the issues facing the nation today have been “part of the American experience" since that time of great transition, when "an agrarian Union became an industrialized, corporate, powerful nation."
In her last question, Krystal asked McFarland which of these two men was his favorite, and his response is printed in its entirety below:
“Both of these giants can be exasperating, but both Clemens and Roosevelt lived their lives with such vigor and range and zest as to be far more often inspiring in their different ways. Both were intensely human, both wonderfully articulate, and both were interested in everything that was going on. Two different ways of approaching life, the one aggressively in the arena, the other wryly observing; and each life has served vastly to enrich my own. I’m forever grateful to have been in their company over these last five years.”
In Mark Twain and the Colonel: Samuel L. Clemens, Theodore Roosevelt, and the Arrival of a New Century, Philip McFarland presents a detailed account of the Gilded Age, the understanding of which could be useful for anyone today.