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Mark Twain: Author, investor, inventor

Cover of "Ignorance, Confidence, and Filthy Rich Friends: The Business Adventures of Mark Twain, Chronic Speculator and Entrepreneur" by Peter Krass

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

KAI RYSSDAL: Samuel Langhorn Clemens is probably better known as Mark Twain. Famous writer and humorist. Author of classics like "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer." Renowned observer of the human condition. Also a tireless business man. He made a pile of money inventing and investing. Lost plenty, too. Peter Krass's book about Twain's adventures as an entrepreneur is called "Ignorance, Confidence and Filthy-Rich Friends." He says it's clear where Twain's heart really was.

PETER KRASS: Business came first. There's really no doubt about it. When he was growing up he worked in the grocery store, he worked at a book store. And then, of course, he became a typesetter. And he didn't sign his first book contract until 1868 when he was at the age of 32 — well into his business career.

RYSSDAL: What was that business career? I mean, you know, you mentioned a lot of things. There must have been a couple of highlights that he regarded as his work.

KRASS: Foremost, inventor. As soon as he had made a little money publishing a couple successful books, he got into inventing in 1871 the Mark Twain elastic strap which held up your pants. That didn't do too much. But then the next year he invented what he called the world's only rational scrap book. Which may not seem like much today, but it was actually a pretty good invention. Strips of glue already on the pages. You didn't destroy what you were keeping. And it made him tens of thousands of dollars.

RYSSDAL: Must of had some failures though too, huh?

KRASS: Oh, absolutely. So now he's getting a little cocky, right. And he was always smitten with technology. That's the other thing to keep in mind. When the phonograph came out he had to have one right away. When the typewriter came out he had to have one right away. So now there's this new typesetting machine invented by James Page. Has 18,000 moving parts and Clemens falls in love with it, or I should say Mark Twain falls in love with this typesetter. And over the next 12 years he invests literally hundreds of thousands of dollars into it. And it ends up failing.

RYSSDAL: Do I have it right that he started up a publishing house, too, sort of to keep things going along that line?

KRASS: He did. And in fact, Twain, I hate to say it, was a bit of a greedy man. And he wanted to make money not only as an author, but also as a publisher. So in 1884 he founds a publishing firm that he names after his nephew-in-law. And his first big score is his own book, which is "Huckleberry Finn," but the very next year he convinces General Grant to publish his memoirs with them.

RYSSDAL: Which is, if I remember right, one of the biggest-selling memoirs of all time.

KRASS: It is. He promised Grant 70 percent of the profits, which sounds like he's just giving it away. But, ultimately, the book earned Grant and his family over $8 million in today's money. And Twain pocketed almost $4 million.

RYSSDAL: So here you have a guy who's an icon of American literature, but a great part of his personality while he was alive was devoted to business and to making money. Did you get the sense that he was conflicted about that, within himself?

KRASS: He certainly was somewhat conflicted. When he went to sign his first book deal in 1872, he says in a letter to his mother, "I'm not gonna do it unless there's a good deal of money in it." And he also takes a somewhat self-deprecating attitude again toward his choice of writing, which is humor. Which was considered kind of base. It wasn't high-brow literature. But then, as you read through his thoughts on his habits and writing and his attention to quality, you also get that feeling that he cared very deeply about writing literature, the power of the pen, and bringing his reader into the story. So, there was definitely a conflict, right through his entire life.

RYSSDAL: Peter Krass' book on Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens, whichever you prefer, is called, "Ignorance, Confidence and Filthy Rich Friends." Peter, thanks for your time.

KRASS: It was great being with you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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