John Hay and Samuel Clemens were both rising writers when they met in the late 1860s. Hay, a poet, was one of two private secretaries to Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. Clemens, under the pen name Mark Twain, was known for his short stories and comic lectures. Both had grown up in small towns on the Mississippi River, and they admired each other’s work. Although never close friends (Hay’s wife disapproved of Clemens), in the late 1890s, the changing role of the U.S. in the world brought them back toward each other, on opposing sides.
In his absorbing The Statesman and the Storyteller, Mark Zwonitzer weaves their personal and public stories together as he explores the different responses of two very public figures to the complicated events of their time. Hay was a Republican in the original party sense: a strong believer in capitalism, wary of a shift of money to the working class and immigrants. Clemens considered himself a small-d democrat who was skeptical about government power and was an advocate for fairness in social, political and commercial matters. What continued to bind them were “unbreakable threads of affection and common experience” based on “a gut understanding of just how hard the other was running from desolate beginnings, and an admiration for how far the other man had traveled.”
During the period covered in the book, Clemens is deeply in debt and undertakes a world lecture tour to help right his financial ship, while Hay serves in the McKinley administration as ambassador to Great Britain. The supporting cast includes Clemens’ beloved wife, Livy, so important to her husband’s career that no manuscript ever left their home “without her signing off on every word and phrasing”; Hay’s best friend, Henry Adams, who knew all the influential political figures of the day; and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, a major booster of America’s drive to become an imperial power.
This book is so well written I did not want it to end. With exhaustive research and superlative descriptive skills, Zwonitzer is able to capture mood and tone, bringing his prolific and often-profiled subjects to life and leading the reader to consistently feel present in the moment.