American politics revealed through the lives of two indelible figures.
Documentary film producer and writer Zwonitzer (co-author: Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music, 2002) plies his considerable talent at storytelling in this vivid dual biography of statesman John Hay (1838-1905) and 19th-century America’s most famous writer, Mark Twain (1835-1910). The author’s choice of these two men seems somewhat arbitrary: although both grew up in “remote and brutish Mississippi River towns,” their relationship “was not one of great intimacy and was even a tad distant.” After they met in the 1860s, they rarely saw one another. Temperamentally, Zwonitzer notes, they were “very different sorts of men.” Hay was refined and diplomatic and had married into significant wealth. Twain, volatile and impetuous, was dogged by debt. They differed politically, too: Hay, who had been Lincoln’s secretary, was “a Republican in the original party sense: a defender of government by educated and accomplished white men”; Twain “was a small-d-democrat and skeptical that anybody in power would long remain interested in the common good.” From 1895 to 1905, Hay was involved most directly in the country’s transformation as ambassador to England and secretary of state under William McKinley and, after McKinley’s assassination, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1898, America engaged in war with Spain over Cuba; Spain capitulated after a few weeks, ceding the Philippines to the U.S. The annexation of Hawaii soon followed. Hay’s negotiations with British and European leaders put him in the center of world affairs. But “Hay needed no office in order to wield influence,” his friend Henry Adams commented. “For him, influence lay about the streets, waiting for him to stoop to it.” Because Twain’s waning years are well-known—tireless efforts to earn money, sadness over the deaths of two daughters and his wife—Hay emerges as the fresher figure in Zwonitzer’s pages.
A brisk and entertaining historical narrative.