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The central notion of this book - the friendship of Sam Clemens and John Hay - doesn’t hold up that well. They are more acquaintances than friends, and they move in different social circles. But the book succeeds brilliantly anyway. It’s a good story well told, an outstanding example of narrative nonfiction.
It covers a critical period in the lives of both men. Sam Clemens has gone bankrupt and goes on a round-the-world lecture tour to restore his finances. His daughter Susy dies, and then his wife Livy; his daughter Jean has epileptic seizures. An initial proponent of war with Spain, he becomes radicalized by the horrific way freedom fighters in the Philippines are treated after the US wins "possession" of the islands.
John Hay, one of Lincoln’s secretaries during the Civil War, later served McKinley as ambassador to the UK and then Secretary of State. When McKinley is assassinated at the beginning of his second term, Hay stays on at State under Theodore Roosevelt. (TR, an ambitious, blustering, and shallow imperialist warmonger, doesn’t come off well in this book.) Hay oversees the resolution of a Canadian border controversy and the acquisition of territory from Colombia - territory that became the future state of Panama - to build a canal across the isthmus. (The US sent gunboats to discourage Colombia from trying to suppress the rebellion in Panama.)
Zwonitzer has a great eye for detail, and his narrative is vivid and entertaining. And Joe Barrett gives a fantastic performance. It should be an entertaining read for fans of Mark Twain, Teddy Roosevelt, John Hay, and anyone interested in this less-well-known (by me) period of American history.