The friendship between Mark Twain and Secretary of State John Hay is strained by the horrors of the Spanish-American War in this compelling dual biography.
In The Statesman and the Storyteller, documentarian Mark Zwonitzer presents a compelling dual biography of writer Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and statesman John Hay (who served as secretary of state under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt). Covering the last ten years of their lives, Zwonitzer provides an intimate look into the friendship—and rivalry—of these influential men, as well as an elucidating portrait of the United States on the verge of emerging as a world power.
It was the era of the Spanish-American War, a controversial conflict in which the United States would eventually wrest control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. In what many consider one of the most shameful periods in American history, Filipinos who believed they had been promised independence were instead violently subdued in a brutal war. The United States also used its growing military and political might to grab the entirety of the Hawaiian Islands and a large section of Panama.
As secretary of state during this time, Hay, though a charitable man, was deeply complicit in these misdeeds. Clemens, a staunch critic of his country’s imperialistic actions, was forced by his own financial and family needs to temper his remarks. Nearing the end of their long and remarkable lives, both men found themselves struggling to maintain their personal integrity while remaining celebrated public figures.
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.