Chasing the Last Laugh

I realize that my United States citizenship may be revoked for saying this, but I am not a fan of Mark Twain’s work.* I am, however, eternally fascinated by Mark Twain’s career, which was a roiling broth of ambition, depression, and innovation. Consequently, I was much happier to read Richard Zacks’ newest book, Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour , than to read Twain himself.


In 1896, Mark Twain was sixty years old, the beloved author of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and the United State’s highest paid writer. He was also on the verge of financial disaster, most of which he had brought on himself through a combination of cock-eyed optimism and impatience with details. Determined to keep a larger percentage of the proceeds from the sale of his books, he had founded his own publishing company, which proved to be a cash drain rather than a source of income. He poured money into James Paige’s innovative typesetting machine, which was eclipsed by the Merganthaler Linotype in the nineteenth century’s version of the technological duel between Beta and VHS–and encouraged others to do the same. He signed documents he didn’t understand. He filed for bankruptcy, but continued to be pursued by creditors who refused to believe the luxury-loving author had nothing. Finally, Twain saw only one solution: to go back on the public speaking circuit, which he had happily left twenty-five years before.

In Chasing the Last Laugh, Zacks turns the circumstances that led Twain to undertake a year-long tour of the English-speaking world and the tour itself into a combination of high drama, black comedy, and occasional tragedy. The result is a lively and insightful study of the claims of celebrity, the value of controlling the public narrative, and the mercurial figure of Twain himself.

*Those of you who are sharp-eyed may remember that I also recently expressed my lack of enthusiasm for Ernest Hemingway. In case anyone is getting the impression that I am uniformly “agin” male American authors from the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, I would like to point out that I am a big fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald (the short stories) and Dashiell Hammett. (Choosing two off the top of my head. )

Most of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.


  1. Iris Seefeldt on May 24, 2016 at 6:03 pm

    So here is my take on Mark Twain. Aside from Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, what I read was, Innocence Abroad. This I can relate to as I traveled much. the German segment made me laugh and definitely understand the confusion on the part of English speaking readers. Still in all it was a good travel guide into the absurd. You have to give him credit on that point.
    I will catch up with your recommendation soon.
    Thank you, Iris

    • pamela on May 24, 2016 at 7:06 pm

      Iris: It’s good to have someone make the case in Twain’s defense. He doesn’t make me laugh, but that’s probably my failing, not his his. One of my favorite authors, Gene Stratton Porter (neither as important or as well-regarded as Twain) says that it takes something to the effect that it takes someone very wise to be so foolish. (I’ll track down the exact quotation later.)

  2. Iris Seefeldt on May 24, 2016 at 6:50 pm

    There is commentary every where. So I am glad you broached this topic. It will help others to rethink an Author they may not have heard about or even contemplated reading.

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