Ignorance, Confidence, and Filthy Rich Friends, by Peter Krass
(New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007)
I know that I was not the only student who was shocked and, to some extent, disappointed to learn that the literary genius that was Mark Twain was also a man obsessed with money, speculating, and business ventures (I am careful not to say ‘business’ because Clemens certainly didn’t enjoy the business of business.) It was initially difficult to accept this fact because it seemed incongruous with my image of a great writer- an individual whose life was dedicated to focusing his energies into his writing. Nonetheless, the truth remains that Mark Twain, or rather Sam Clemens, was more than just a great writer; he was a man wholly dedicated to acquiring vast wealth. It was an obsession of his, an obsession that lasted his entire life, even after coming to the brink of losing everything. In Ignorance, Confidence, and Filthy Rich Friends, Peter Krass provides us with a portrait of Sam Clemens’ life as a business speculator, entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and inventor.
Krass’ book is organized chronologically, beginning with Clemens’ childhood and placing an emphasis on the fact that Clemens’ father, much like Clemens, was obsessed with the pursuit of wealth, acquiring considerable amounts of land that he was sure would one day bring his children prosperity. However, John Marshall Clemens’ visions of grandeur were never realized and he was eventually driven to bankruptcy, resulting in his family having to cope with living in near poverty. The actions of Clemens’ father and the reality of poverty in his childhood had a serious impact on young Sam Clemens, who was determined never to end up like his father and never to have to place the burden of poverty on his own family. Nonetheless, Clemens couldn’t escape the fact that he had inherited from his father the same zealous drive to pursue wealth and riches.
To some degree, one cannot blame Sam Clemens for cultivating such a fervent desire to pursue wealth. After all, he was born into the age of the Industrial Revolution, the entire country was swept up in a tumultuous economic boom, and he witnessed the successes of many other individuals, ordinary folks like himself. As the book provides an insight into, Clemens was present at the onset of a great many events, from the gold and silver rush in the western frontier, to the rise of the railroad industry and the invention and subsequent mass production of new technologies, such as the typewriter and the phonograph. Clemens was determined to capitalize on all of these events and his determination was fostered by an unfailing belief in the fact that he could, and would, eventually succeed in striking it rich. While Clemens did meet with some success in certain areas, such success was often short-lived and he more often than not met with failure and disappointment.
Krass’ book succeeds in providing a fairly thorough overview of Clemens’ money-making pursuits. In fact, I felt he was a little bit too thorough at times, often going into factual detail with exact figures and calculations pertaining to such things as stocks, loans, and business agreements. Regardless, his writing was very straightforward and even displayed evidence of an attempt at humor at certain points. My favorite sections of the book though were the interjections entitled “Quirky Habits and Brazen Philosophy”, present at the end of every chapter. In these sections, Krass sheds some light on a variety of random and oftentimes humorous facets of Mark Twain’s personality and philosophy, always being sure to provide ample testimony from Twain himself. For example, in one such section, entitled “How to Live a Long, Successful Life”, Krass includes a transcript of a speech that Twain delivered on his 70th birthday to friends joining him to celebrate at a fancy New York City steakhouse. Twain’s speech begins with the declaration, “I have achieved my seventy years in the usual way: by sticking strictly to a scheme of life which would kill anybody else.”
I absolutely do not recommend adding this book to our class syllabus because it is by no means about Mark Twain, it is about the money-crazed Sam Clemens (Krass is careful to always refer to Sam Clemens by his proper name in this book.) Nonetheless, for those that are interested in the business ventures of Sam Clemens, by all means read this book, for Krass does an excellent job providing a chronological overview of Clemens’ exploits. I chose to read this book simply because I felt the need to embrace the grim reality that Sam Clemens was more than just a great writer. However, I can take solace in the fact that writing was the one thing that Clemens was truly good at! In fact, by the end of the 19th century, when Clemens was brought to the brink of bankruptcy during the depression that reigned during those years, it was his books and copyrights that ended up saving the day, allowing him to once again enjoy a steady flow of income. As Peter Krass so poignantly puts it, Clemens “fully realized his intellectual capital was priceless.” (206)