Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Twain's Folly (Part Two)

A great deal has been written about the failure of Webster and Company, not the least by Twain himself. In his autobiography he throws the blame entirely at the feet of his wife's nephew, Charles Webster — the "Webster" of Webster and Co. — with a good deal of splashover onto his nephew's attorney, a fellow by the name of Whitford. He absolves himself with a typical bit of Twainian aw-shucksiness:
"I couldn't understand the contract — I never could understand any contract — and I asked my brother-in-law, General Langdon, a trained business man, to understand it for me. He read it and said it was all right. So we signed it and sealed it."
In truth, Twain was a notoriously bad business man. While he made a fortune from his writing, he also blew a fortune on a series of disastrously bad investments, and in many respects the decision to launch his own publishing company was merely the final nail in the coffin. While Webster and Co. did make a nice profit on Huckleberry Finn, and a huge profit on Ulysses Grant's memoirs, they subsequently completely botched the launch of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and in no time at all Twain was right back to the place where he apparently felt comfortable: complaining about being swindled by his publisher. When Webster and Co. finally went bankrupt in 1894, Twain, at age 58, was broken financially. He made the decision at that point to liquidate the company, indulged in a little legal sleight-of-hand to protect his copyrights and the family home from his creditors, and then launched himself into thirteen-month lecture tour to raise cash. In the next years he wrote two Pudd'nhead Wilson novels, a series of wretched and now largely forgotten Tom Sawyer sequels, and by 1898 had managed pay off all his creditors and reboot his life, although he'd picked up a bitter streak that apparently stayed with him until the end.

Looking at this whole story from a writer's perspective, though, I have to identify this as a clear case of the Polymath's Problem. Webster and Co. was successful — while Twain was running it. But while he was running the business, he was not writing, and when he gave up day-to-day control of the publishing business and went back to writing, that's when things went out of control.

Being a good writer and running a successful business are two very different talents, and both of them are life-consuming. In the end, even Twain had to choose: be one, or be the other.

To be continued...