Mark Twain and the Colonel may appeal more to general readers than to hard-core academics. The book's originality comes from Philip McFarland's organizing principles. Technically, Samuel Clemens [1835–1910] was a generation older than Theodore Roosevelt [1858–1919], Clemens's reputation just reaching its height around the time that Roosevelt came into prominence, roughly during the 1880s. McFarland brings the two together by focusing on how each man engaged—personally, politically, and economically—in the cultural upheavals of the period between 1880 and 1910.
The book's weakness lies in its opening chapters, which, seemingly pointlessly, bounce between the two subjects' early lives. It gathers speed and point when it brings the men together, first over their dual experiences of the far West, then in their common interest in American imperialism. In both cases, they responded very differently: Roosevelt wrote about the life of a hunter and ranchman with gusto; Clemens satirized his Western days as a miner and budding journalist. Even more striking was each man's response to the annexation of the Philippines in 1899. Roosevelt, then vice president, saw America's plunge into imperialism as a chance to exercise the courage, manliness, and military strength he revered—as well as to acquire new markets. Twain, newly returned from a lecture tour through the British Empire, thought that in forcing American rule on the Philippines the United States had betrayed its national values. Both men were true believers, both deeply and passionately desirous of securing the country's future and its honor. But they had radically different takes on how that was to be secured.
As a study of comparative character, this book is admirably evenhanded. McFarland strives to present each man in his own best light; it is clear, for instance, that he is not sympathetic to Roosevelt's proclivity to “fire bullets into living four-legged creatures,” but he balances his occasional cutting phrase with quotations from Roosevelt's own richly evocative descriptions of hunting (126). McFarland accurately describes Clemens's compulsion to invest in hare-brained schemes that the writer expected would enrich him but that instead gobbled his hard-earned money (a typesetter, a steam generator, a steam pulley operator, a marine telegrapher, an engraving processor). However, McFarland details Twain's follies in a chapter that frames his subject in terms of energy, as a restless American who criss-crossed the country and engaged in, as well as chronicled, a period that Twain himself dubbed the Gilded Age. Neither man is all good; neither is evil. Even Roosevelt's passion for hunting is balanced by his creation of the national park system.
McFarland enhances Twain and Roosevelt's stories by adding briefer vignettes of the individuals who impacted them—such as Andrew Carnegie, Henry Huddleston Rogers (vice president of Standard Oil), Twain's daughter Susy, and Roosevelt's daughter Alice. The tissues holding all these personalities together are the events in which they all participated, either in person or vicariously. At over four hundred pages, the book is a pleasurable journey through a period of great personalities and tumultuous change.