We arrived late for this author’s measured reading of his well received historical narrative of the interplay of two great turn of the century friends and players in American international policy – John Hay who was an aide close to Lincoln who became Secretary of State under McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt for eight years from 1898 to 1905 and his friend Mark Twain who was overseas for much of the same period lecturing to pay off his debts, and perhaps from his new global perspective fell out with Hay over his and President Roosevelt’s interventionism abroad, particularly in the Philippines, arguing against it with very little effect on the continuing stream of overt and covert actions in this line taken over the last two centuries, but still the disagreement formed a very contemporary link for author Mark Zwonitzer to tie his book about the two together, The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism, published recently by the distinguished Southern rooted and Workman owned Algonquin Books, whose publisher Elisabeth Scharlatt was there in person chatting to Mark’s wife and fellow author Geri Hirshey whose own biography of Helen Gurley Brown will be issued by Farrah Straus this summer, when later Mark sat signing books for buyers such as Cherry Provost, whose insurance company husband achieved the remarkable literary research project of reading an entire year of the Congressional Record, often calling to his wife “Cherry, come here and listen to this!” but who unfortunately died before he had time to write it up in his own book in the modern manner, her interest now awakened by her longtime role of 15 years the head of the Book Reading Series at the National Arts Club, and by Mark’s reading and his question session afterwards where he told stories to the almost full dining hall attendance which included many specialists in the related historical context as well as interested readers who raised various points concerning the role played by Hay in this period, including a memory of the “concentration camps” run by the US in the Philippines takesover, who were told that Hay was unusual as a politician because unlike Roosevelt whose preserved house speaks only for his focused interest in politics Hay was a poet who pursued a serious interest in the arts, and in fact ended up being ashamed of his role in stealing the land for the Panama Canal from the Panamanians by arranging for the US to pay off the gang of French investors who had commandeered it, which according to Mark after his careful immersion in the handwritten correspondence and memoranda of the period is only a standard example of a basic pattern of American imperialism which starts with good intentions to bring democracy to other lands and typically winds up falling victim to someone who takes over the game and turns it ugly, as in the case of the Philippines or the more contemporary example of Iraq after the arrival of Bremer.
In our final event of the season Gary Shapiro brings us Mark Zwonitzer who will talk about his book, The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain and the Rise of American Imperialism on Tuesday, June 21st at 8PM. It is a dual biography of the last decade of a pair of friends, Mark Twain and John Hay that brings the US on the verge of a world power. The nation’s foreign policy at that time is relevant to the global politics of today.
Mark Zwonitzer is a documentary film producer, director and writer.
Documentarian Zwonitzer examines the split in an otherwise warm acquaintance between John Hay—an aide to Abraham Lincoln before becoming his secretary of state—and Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), in this puzzlingly conceived account. The relationship between the two cooled around 1900 over America’s imperialist war in the Philippines, which Hay, as senior American statesman, helped direct for presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. Clemens concluded that the U.S. had gone too far in trying to defeat the Philippine rebels and went public with his criticism. Unfortunately, that’s weak scaffolding for a book, and as winningly as Zwonitzer unfolds the tale, it’s really a parallel biography of two men whose lives scarcely interacted in significant ways. Given Zwonitzer’s interest in the Spanish-American War, his focus should have been on Hay, who has recently been the subject of John Taliaferro’s fine biography All the Great Prizes. Clemens, while brilliantly described, seems an afterthought and incidental to the main action. What Zwonitzer accomplishes is adding novelistic color to his rendering of both men in their years of friendship. Zwonitzer makes all of his subjects here spring alive, and the book is a delightful read, even if the central conceit doesn’t fully work. Agent: Philippa Brophy, Sterling Lord Literistic.
Hardcover: 608 pages
Publisher: Algonquin Books (April 26, 2016)