The key thing to know about Stephen Foster is that he died destitute in a Bowery flophouse. That’s it. Foster was better known as a beloved songsmith of twee, sentimental ditties about aww-shucks crackers living down by the river in their time of honored citizenship and that kind of thing. Think of him as a nineteenth-century forerunner of CCR who never had the opportunity to sell out to Walgreen’s. Just because his songs sucked (TL;DR: they did so quite vigorously) doesn’t mean that he wasn’t his generation’s most celebrated crafter of tunes. Never mind, though: he died destitute in that flophouse. Contendahs: he coulda been one. In fact, he was one. Not a fucking lot of good it did him, but my God, Brando, the boy tried.
This is the crucial thing to know about Stephen Foster. In pre-Soviet America, Wheel of Fortune played HIM! He lost that game. That oily Chicago sleazeball and the Stepford Wife bottle blonde at the big board gave it to him good and hard. In the end, the Big F took it right up the ass.
Don’t you worry your Yankee doodle dandy head, though. American popular culture considers Stephen Foster-grade sad-ending stories a serious buzzkill, an affront to fun stuff and all else that Crystal Harris and that censorious bitch of a retired gymnastics instructor in Reno hold dear. These Debbie Downer stories send the wrong messages, including the possibility that maybe a safety net is a better idea than letting those who failed to apply enough grit splatter all over the sidewalk, to be cleaned up shortly by the nearest squad from the fire department. This, horrifically, would be socialism. We already have a version of socialism, of course, and since the elderly turn out at elections, it’s too politically sacrosanct for even a shifty, fuck-the-little-people scion of old money like Jeb Bush to directly attack, but we’re great at pretending that things like Social Security and Medicare aren’t big government, because that would kill every Fox and Friends Boomer’s four-decade erection over his own rugged individualism.
Instead, we pick other Gilded Age celebrities to lionize as models, ones who managed not to die as epic financial failures, but merely to live in that fashion. Hence Mark Twain. The up-by-the-bootstraps types fucking love them some Sammy Mark. Twain’s writing allows today’s armchair pioneers an excuse to eulogize the lost self-reliance and adventurousness of a nation grown soft. It encourages useless eaters who have literally grown soft, like Rush Limbaugh, to entertain the conceit that they’d really enjoy that Proud Mary lifestyle if only it were still an option, never mind that the option they’ve chosen to exercise in their own lives is to get out of Cape Girardeau and get into prescription opiates.
That’s the appeal of Twain the writer. For the truly hardcore Twainspotter, there’s also the legend of Twain the man and all the plucky shit he did to pull himself up out of poverty and debt. Few of the people who praise Twain and his obscenely wealthy contemporaries like Andrew Carnegie for their grit and success can be bothered to put in a good word for the visionaries, engineering geniuses, and sheer grunt labor that built Hoover Dam or the Taconic State Parkway. These projects, you see, were big government. Similarly, the coolies who physically built the Transcontinental Railroad, only to be rewarded for their blood, sweat, tears, and bereavement over friends killed on the job with some of the coarsest, most vicious bigotry ever to consume native-born Americans, were poor Chinamen, so they don’t really count, either. To these admirers of great men, Cornelius Vanderbilt was one cool dude, but there’s nothing particularly admirable about John Henry, and there’s certainly nothing admirable at all about his sub-Stakhanovite colleagues who did not martyr themselves in service to capital. When the Go Galts admire Twain’s short tenure as a riverboat pilot, they do so only in the context of his later becoming famous and successful as a former riverboat pilot. If he had been merely Samuel Clemens the riverboat pilot, they wouldn’t give a damn about him.
What really gives the Rick Santelli crowd wood over Twain is that he went on an international book tour while sickly and aging for the speaking fees in order to pay off his quite substantial debt. This debt was over a hundred thousand dollars at a time when streetcar fares, often payable to exactly the sort of trusts that got Teddy Roosevelt majorly woke, were something like a nickel. Homeskillet was in deep. What can be conveniently ignored, if one is of a mind to ignore every relevant context other than the Protestant work ethic (just as our betters do for us in their social control literature), is that Twain would not have been able to command speaking fees worth his travel expenses had he not already been an internationally famous author. He was a hot commodity. You and I aren’t.
There are some other obvious questions that should be asked about this fiasco. Why did Twain get himself a hundred grand into the hole? It turns out that this was the result of a failed investment in R&D on a state-of-the-art printing technology. So why did his creditors think that throwing so much money his way was a good idea? Did they do due diligence, or did they consider due diligence a bullshit killjoy holdover from the Era of Good Feeling? (The parallel I’m drawing to lending standards after the repeal of Glass-Steagall, etc., is intentional.) Why did Twain get taken in by this goody-two-shoes idea that it was a matter of honor to repay these creditors in full, especially when he had lost most of this money on exactly the sort of high-risk R&D project that, if it had been successful, would have produced world-class returns?
The guy sounds like a sentimental doofus and a financial hot mess. Twain’s speaking tour may be an interesting or inspiring story, but what the hell is admirable about it or, worse, worth emulating in our own lives? The story of the Donner Party is gripping for similar but obviously exaggerated reasons. Those sorry bastards put up with hardships straight out of hell. The most useful lesson to be learned from the Donner Party is to avoid taking a wagon train across a barely passable, Indian-besieged desert and from there into the path of an endless succession of alpine blizzards right at the start of winter. By the way, the Donner Party were reckless by the standards of their day, too; they were the ones who complained that the well-vetted Oregon Trail sounded le long and le hard. Mark Twain was about as financially prudent as the Donner Party were logistically prudent. Shouldn’t his lesson to us be about avoiding crazy-ass levels of personal debt? He wasn’t as stupid and bizarre about it as Michael Jackson was in the furnishing of the Neverland Ranch, but still, a normal, prudent yeoman ought to look at Twain and think, shit, Dumbo, you done fucked up, boy.
The great plucky vigor of this speaking tour makes Mark Twain sound like a true rugged individualist, a man who stood on his own two feet for the aggrandizement of his own balls. That’s a cool story, because he sure wasn’t always like that. Decades before this famous rock-the-debt speaking tour, he had a socioeconomic meltdown in San Francisco in which he was fired from his job as a newspaper columnist, rendered penniless, and then caught up in a notorious brawl that forced him to go on the run from the law.
Here’s where it gets fun. One of the other parties to the brawl encouraged Twain to take refuge in a cabin that his brother owned in Calaveras County. Suicidally desperate, Twain took him up on the offer. He spent 88 days—barely shy of three full months—freestuffin’ it at the country house. He was the Kato Kaelin of his age. In the course of his time as a houseguest, he had a nearly violent meltdown in front of his hosts. Even so, he was allowed to stick around. They were on Jackass Hill, after all, and somebody had to make the spot live up to its name. The cause for this wild screaming fit was rich: Twain had told them that they ought to sing for others as a sort of mitzvah, so his buddies came upstairs and started serenading him, and he responded by damning them at the top of his lungs or some shit. Capital Public Radio, which regaled me with this tale, is too fucking milquetoast to broadcast the salt of the tongue that never loses its saltiness, but I assume Twain did unto his hosts as the Romans did unto Carthage.
I was awfully unfair to Kato Kaelin above. Not all houseguests are like that. Twain wasn’t so much Kato as O. J., less McGrilled chicken sandwich deal, more give me back my fucking stuff. He was a destitute fugitive who crashed with friends for months at a time, yelled bloody murder at his hosts over trifling annoyances that he had explicitly encouraged them to visit upon him, and then, as a result of his stint as a houseguest, had to write that horribly daft-sounding story about that frog. Calaveras County has goddamn Frog Days or some-such on account of that bullshit. Sammy Mark. Damn, son.
I have to hand it to him: the fellow is still good for a morning schadenfreude pick-me-up narrated by one of the local-yokel townie historians. It’s a lot better than being scolded by Devin Yamanaka’s reductio ad absurdum of the NPR house voice every afternoon. But nobody should conclude from Mark Twain’s survivor bias that he’s anything but an object lesson in what not to do with one’s own life. If you do shit like that, you won’t have Twain’s luck; you’ll have Stephen Foster’s luck. Most of us, in fact, have had, currently have, and will continue to have Stephen Foster’s luck.
Damned if that isn’t one of the most un-American things I’ve ever written here. We really are that foolish and gullible as a polity. We deserve every bad thing that can happen to a society for being so deranged. We absolutely do not deserve John Steinbeck to advise us to come out of the darkness of exceptionalistic delusion about our own prospects and into the light of self-awareness, because frankly, we have less insight into our own condition as a people than some florid psychotics have into theirs, but we got Steinbeck nonetheless, and he remains somewhere in the back reaches of our national spirit, just in case we give a shit about that kind of thing. If nothing else, the guy did better with his life than most recent Stanford dropouts of note.
In the end, then, there is some cosmic mercy drifting down upon us like the dewfall. It’s just our reaction isn’t one of gratitude, but one of eww you just got me wet. Explore the spiritual ramifications of this recalcitrance in the comments if you must, because I can’t even right now, but if anything about it bodes well, I’m John Sutter, and hey there, mister, you look like you’d be interested in investing in that yonder claim up Coloma way.