The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism

Written by Mark Zwonitzer
Review by Viviane Crystal

What do John Hay, American Ambassador to England and later Secretary of State, and Mark Twain, great American novelist, share in common? Both grew up in the muddy, rural area alongside the Mississippi River, country boys who defied their humble origins. They were friends of a kind, although their paths diverged more than converged during the course of the stormy latter part of the 19th century. Their shared history wound up enmeshed in America’s international policy. Clemens’s adult life was marked by poor choices and endless debt that his skilled and amusing fiction and speeches barely covered, along with the devastating loss of a daughter. However, he always maintained enough spunk to remain popular and beloved by the public. Only after that debt disappeared was he able to fully voice his disagreement with America’s policies of “manifest destiny” and its embodiment in the Monroe Doctrine. John Hay, on the other hand, married into money and lived a comfortable, charmed life. He found his skills and talents suitably appropriate in America’s endless quarrels with England and Spain, as well as numerous Latin American countries. For the true fascination of this book is seeing how manifest destiny fleshed out, how America acquired other lands in Hawaii, the Philippines, Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Cuba in the name of protection and defense. John Hay’s silence and “good neighbor” attitude often facilitated the plans rather than countered them. Reading about the minute details and steps of this process makes for riveting reading, defying the dullness of many a historical textbook. A highly recommended book and amazing read!