book cover imageHow Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain
by Alan Pell Crawford.
Houghton Mifflin, 2017.
Hardcover, 240 pages, $27.

How Not to Get Rich: I could write a book on that subject! Happily, Alan Pell Crawford, author mostly recently of the thoughtful and elegiac Twilight at Monticello: The Final Years of Thomas Jefferson, has beaten me to it.

The financial misadventures of Samuel Clemens, or Mark Twain, make for terrifically amusing reading. After all, if we can’t laugh at the misfortunes of others, what can we laugh at? Twain, with that rat’s-nest hair and absurd mustache and wrinkled aphorisms about the criminality of Congress, is the most recognizable nineteenth-century American literary man, and the extent to which he was always chasing, and mostly missing, the main chance is a salutary reminder that writers gotta eat, too, and avarice does not preclude genius.

A child of the border-state shabby gentility, Mark Twain (let’s dispense with the birth name right away) grew up hearing about the family’s vast landholdings in Tennessee, which, his father John was sure, could be instantly converted into a fortune … when the time was right. In the meantime, John Clemens labored to build a perpetual motion machine (before he died young, falling into perpetual repose) and brother Orion conned and sweated over the construction of a flying machine.

While workingas a typesetter in Orion’s print shop in Keokuk, Iowa, Twain hit upon his first get-rich-quick scheme. After reading Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, 1851–1852 by William Herndon (not Lincoln’s law partner), Twain decided to “corner the world’s cocaine trade,” writes Crawford. Chewing coca plants made workers docile yet capable of Stakhanovite production; surely industrialists would pay a mint for a steady supply of this workforce-enhancing narcotic.

Alas, upon arriving in New Orleans in April 1857, eager to embark on a sea voyage to the Brazilian port of Para and make his first million, Twain discovered that no ship had ever traveled from New Orleans to Para. His timing was way off, else, as Crawford writes, “he might be known today as the El Chapo out of Keokuk or as a proto-Pablo Escobar.”

How Not to Get Rich doubles as a playful but sharp-witted send-up of airport-kiosk business advice books. For instance, in discussing Twain’s bargaining with a Mississippi steamboat pilot over a possible apprenticeship, Crawford writes, “the two soon entered into negotiations—or as Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project have us say, they were Getting to Yes.”

The Civil War, specifically the Union blockade, threw pilot Twain out of work. He went home to Hannibal, Missouri, and camped with the Marion [County] Rangers for a few weeks, which means—Thought Police take note—Mark Twain fought (sic) for the Confederacy. Ban the books! Tear down the statues! (If only we erected statuary to literary men rather than dead politicians and generals. Then again, I’m still waiting for the dunces to demolish the Ignatius Reilly bronze in New Orleans, once they realize that John Kennedy Toole’s book title contains the word Confederacy.)

War was not in Twain’s line. He “learned more about retreating,” he said of his days carrying a gun in Missouri, “than the man that invented retreating.” So off he skedaddled to Nevada, where Orion Clemens was secretary of the territory. “Orion made his brother his secretary—the secretary to the secretary, that is,” writes Crawford. “That’s the way government did things back then. Today, of course, we are more efficient.”

The life of a government functionary held little charm, and even less likelihood of riches, so Twain headed for the silver mines and taught himself to prospect. His plan was to lay claim to a rich vein and let better miners bring forth the precious metals—as Crawford notes, “many of us believe telling others what to do is our true core competency”—but this, too, came a cropper.

So he fell into the writing racket as a newspaperman in Virginia City, Nevada, accepting shares in mines in exchange for favorable press. “Twain learned valuable lessons in what we call branding and marketing,” says Crawford, whose tongue is never all that far from his cheek. “He learned the value of promoting a product, especially when it was worthless, and how to do so persuasively, with cunning.”

This stood him in good stead when he launched a lucrative sideline as a lecturer, a standup comedian who endeavored, he said, to “persecute the public for their lasting benefit & my profit.”

While on board the ship carrying a gaggle of well-off Americans to Europe and the Holy Land—the trip which begat Innocents Abroad, the book that made him famous—Twain met Charley Langdon, scion of the wealthiest family in Elmira, New York. Charley showed him a miniature of his sister Livy. And like ambitious but purse-poor boys throughout American history, Twain fell in love with a rich girl. They married. With “I do,” Mark Twain got rich quick.

Livy’s father gave his new son-in-law a Buffalo mansion, complete with cook and coachman, and a one-third share in the Buffalo Daily Express. “Mr. Langdon,” Twain said upon receiving this dowry, “Whenever you are in Buffalo, if it’stwice a year, come right here. Bring your bag and stay overnight if you want to. It shan’t cost you a cent.”

But like many fools since, the young couple soon left Buffalo, staying just eighteen months. They moved to Hartford, spending summers in Elmira, where Twain wrote in an octagonal study, and out poured some of the finest stories ever written by an American. (Twain’s study is preserved today on thehandsome campus of Elmira College. The manuscript of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is displayed in the Mark Twain Room of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library. Why not take your next literary vacation in Upstate New York?)

Elmira was the site of one of Twain’s great inspirations: a monument to Adam, the first man, lest he be forgotten. Twain composed a petition to Congress, signed by Elmira’s leading citizens, proposing to atone for “6,000 years of unappreciation” by erecting in Elmira a “permanent and suitable monument” to “the common father of mankind.” A couple of local bankers, envisioning a cataract of tourists, pledged support, and this “insane oddity,” as Twain later called it, was only headed off thanks to the good sense of Twain’s congressman, who, fearing that his colleagues might take him seriously and sanction this hoax, declined to present the petition to Congress.

Discontent, restlessness, dissatisfaction: these are among the most unattractive American qualities, and Twain had them in spades. Creating Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and naming an era (The Gilded Age, from his novel cowritten with Charles Dudley Warner: the Warner chapters are dutiful, the Twain chapters are electric) wasn’t enough. Twain may as well have sung that old Motown chestnut: Money: That’s what I want! He never ceased its pursuit.

“An avid collector of newspaper clippings about himself, Twain evidently seethed with annoyance whenever the clippings were torn or smudged or otherwise defaced,” says Crawford, and so in 1873 he invented a self-pasting scrapbook, from which he made perhaps $50,000, the equivalent of a million-plus today. Less astutely, he refused a chance to get in on the ground floor of Alexander Graham Bell’s National Bell Telephone Company. Ouch.

Trawling for dollars, Twain served as a director of the Hartford Accident Insurance Company, which went belly-up, but not before he set an insurmountably high bar for charmingly wry corporate shilling:

“Certainly there is no nobler field for human effort than the insurance line of business—especially accident insurance. Ever since I have been a director in an accident-insurance company I have felt that I am a better man. Life has seemed more precious. Accidents have assumed a kindlier aspect. Distressing special providences have lost half their horror. I look upon a cripple now with affectionate interest—as an advertisement.”

The losses just kept on coming. He invested in a steam vaporizer, an engraving process, and the Mark Twain pocket watch: flopperoos all. He invented a hopelessly complicated board game, a perpetual calendar, a baby-bed clamp, and a spiral pin “to keep ladies’ hats from blowing off their heads in windy weather.” Each swing was a whiff.

Oh, and yes, while he was chasing these silly dreams down dead-end streets he was also tossing off The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Of all his business ventures, Twain is best remembered today for kindly poaching Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs from the Century Company, which had offered the debt-ridden and soon-to-be-dying ex-president a rotten deal. Twain’s publication of the memoirs enriched the Widow Grant by nearly half a million dollars and himself by a cool $200,000.

Flush with cash, basking in the sweet smell of success, Twain marveled that “It seems that whatever I touch turns to gold”—the remark of a man whom the gods are about to destroy. He next touched a five-thousand-pound typesetting machine, the Paige Compositor, which, boasted Twain, “does not get drunk” and “does not join the Printer’s Union.” For years the inventor Paige would put the touch on Twain, who would lose, says Crawford, the equivalent today of $4 million on this sober and non-union goldmine manque. (Twain sought to persuade Andrew Carnegie—who was later to help bankroll the Anti-Imperialist League of which Twain was oneof many literary members—to invest in Paige’s machine. He pushed the old saw about eggs and baskets on the industrialist. Carnegie set him straight: “That’s a mistake. Put all your eggs in one basket—and watch that basket.”)

Twain’s publishing company was also hitting the skids, as buyers proved strangely resistant to such titles as The Biography of Ephraim McDowell, M.D., One Hundred Ways of Cooking Eggs, and The Speech of Monkeys, in Two Parts.

Readers and their tastes: who can predict ’em?

His book business went bankrupt. The Paige Compositor gave up the ghost. Newspaper headlines in the spring of 1894 blared, “Mark Twain Loses All.” Whereupon he remounted the dais and embarked on a worldwide lecture tour; by 1898 he had retired his considerable debts.

So he thanked his lucky stars, took pride in his conscientious retirement of his IOUs, and vowed never again to make a sucker bet, right? Wrong. Twain proceeded to lose $25,000, or half a million in today’s dollars, investing in Plasmon, a nasty-sounding “powdered food supplement derived from waste products fed to pigs.” Fortunately, however, the revenue from his books, as well as canny investments made for Twain by his friend, the corporate tycoon H. H. Rogers, made him a rich, if splenetic, old man.

Twain famously prefaced The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the warning that “persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished,” but he did draw a lesson from a lifetime of chasing that elusive almighty buck. “To succeed in business,” a wiser but unchastened Twain told an audience, “avoid my example.”

Alan Pell Crawford follows the cardinal rule of any Twain chronicler—liberally quote your infinitely quotable subject—but this tale is told so deftly, with such a sure and light and yet serious touch, that it is worthy of the old wit himself.

No one who has ever tried to feed a family by dint of his pen can throw stones at Mark Twain. We may fault him for dreaming big—small, intimate, human-scale things disappear when men Dream Big—but we can forgive a man a multitude of sins for giving us Huck and Jim.  

Bill Kauffman is the author of eleven books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette and Ain’t My America, as well as the screenplay for the feature film Copperhead.