There’s an old joke that goes: “How do you make a small fortune in publishing? Start out with a large fortune.”
There couldn’t be a more apropos summation of literary icon Mark Twain’s business acumen or lack thereof as chronicled by local author Alan Pell Crawford in his new book, “How Not to Get Rich: the Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain.”
Though partly written as a light-hearted spoof of vapid, how-to-succeed business books, the biography assembles for the first time a fairly new picture of Twain as a frustrated businessman with a virtually endless capacity for going back for punishment after being knocked down again and again.
“Nobody has written about this, and it’s fascinating. You can read endless scholarly works on his writing, but the business stuff is as funny as anything in his writing,” says Crawford, also the author of the colonial crime history “Unwise Passions” and a Jefferson biography, “Twilight at Monticello.”
Widely celebrated as the first American man of letters, Twain, whose real name was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, was seemingly more interested in becoming a titan of business than in being a self-described writer of “literature of a low order.”
“His passion on some level was not writing. It was a means to an end,” Crawford says. “His passion is becoming the next Rockefeller or Vanderbilt or something and he’s terrible at it. … Just because you’re smart at one thing doesn’t mean you’re going to be smart at something else.”
It’s almost a wonder Twain found time to write, bouncing as he did between a variety of ill-fated, get-rich-quick schemes including gold mining — a multimillion-dollar claim slipped through his fingers after he failed to put in the minimal work needed to prove ownership — and publishing an authorized biography of the pope, before finding out that no one really wanted to read it.
A man from a modest background who married into wealth, he was a profligate spendthrift who lived a high-society lifestyle that would shame a Kardashian. He longed to be a venture capitalist and, though the literary Twain may have been a cynic, Clemens the man was a gullible mark for a slickster with a good business pitch.
Quips Crawford: “There’s a guy who wrote a very good book on Twain who was asked, ‘If you could ask Mark Twain one question, what would it be? And he said, ‘Mr. Clemens, would you invest in my startup?’”
“He’s an enthusiast,” explains Crawford. “He gets very enthusiastic about some invention or something that’s going to feed the world or revolutionize industry. It’s just one thing after another where his enthusiasm runs away with him.”
A visionary who rivaled P.T. Barnum as the 19th century’s most brilliant self-marketer, Twain, however, simply didn’t excel at managing people or budgets. For example, after pouring his wealth into the development of an innovative new typesetting machine, he lacked the wherewithal to light a fire under the device’s fastidious inventor, who spent years tearing apart and refining his creation while competitors beat him to market.
Readers may find Twain’s missteps maddening at points, Crawford allows, but “I like the fact that he’s irrepressible and that his sense of possibility is so enormous. He’s never sensible and to me personally, I find that endearing rather than depressing. But some people, they just want to shake him. He goes back and forth between this manic enthusiasm and then he comes crashing back down. That’s part of what made him so wonderful.
“Just when you think he’s seen the error of his ways, then he’s back two days later, saying, ‘Boy, have I got the big deal for you!’” S
Alan Pell Crawford will sign books at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St., on Oct. 17 at 6 p.m.