Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.
In a scene from Mark Twain’s 1873 novel, “The Gilded Age,” a hard-up, Pollyannaish type named Colonel Beriah Sellers launches into a blustering sales pitch. He’s concocted a little something he calls Beriah Sellers’ Infallible Imperial Oriental Optic Liniment and Salvation for Sore Eyes, and he’s ready to bring his baby to market. It’s missing a crucial ingredient, but who cares? He’d rather imagine the fabulous wealth to come as his wonder potion floods the world, securing “God only knows how many millions and millions.”
Twain’s biting portrait of post–Civil War speculation and greed, co-written with Charles Dudley Warner, gave a name to a bloated American era. But Twain wasn’t above the contrivances of capitalism, even as he skewered them. He, too, was drawn in by more than his fair share of cure-alls, gadgets, swindles, and flimflam artists. From nonage to dotage, in dire straits or in the pink, he was always a capricious entrepreneur, counting the zeroes on an imaginary balance sheet. A new book by Alan Pell Crawford, “How Not to Get Rich: The Financial Misadventures of Mark Twain,” makes an object lesson of Twain’s pecuniary gullibility. It places Twain amid the mania of the later nineteenth century, when surging industry existed alongside literal flashes in the pan, life-altering inventions alongside mere novelties. As Crawford writes, “The tantalizing prospect of great wealth bedeviled Mark Twain for much of his life.”
Main Street holds an unusual place in my bookish heart: it is one of those novels that I love, but rarely recommend. It is dull. But listen—its dullness is part of its charm. As its title suggests, it is a novel about dullness, about being trapped, about a woman—the educated progressive Carol Kennicott—whose ambitions are suffocated by the middlebrow small town to which she moves with her husband, a doctor. It is the audacious story of how her arrogance gets in her way; more audaciously, it asks whether her arrogance, in the face of the sheer small-minded bigotry she encounters in Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, is not completely unwarranted. Nearly a century later, Sinclair Lewis’s 1920 novel Main Street remains a vital reminder of the long road every social reformer has to walk, especially in a community where they know everyone. It is a testament to how every step of social progress is derided as deluded and impossible until it is commonplace.
It's easy to send thoughts and prayers and move on if you're not among those whose lives were altered by the storms. But natural disasters continue to destroy lives long after the damage is done. In his new book Ghosts of the Tsunami, author Richard Lloyd Parry considers the aftermath of the 2011 Japanese tsunami, which took thousands of lives, and which haunts its survivors to this day. It's a wrenching chronicle of a disaster that, six years later, still seems incomprehensible.