[Barbee Library’s Life Long Learners Series “The Life and Work of Mark Twain” began on Oct. 22 and concludes Jan. 28; this review covers the Jan. 21 session]

French author André Maurois noted that, “There are deserts in every life, and the desert must be depicted if we are to give a fair and complete idea of the country.” Mark Twain was no stranger to that metaphorical desert. He endured a traumatic childhood, an adulthood haunted by fear of not achieving success, failed investments, financial ruin, and the crushing grief of a wife, an infant son, and two adult daughters predeceasing him.

Welcomed by Halley’s Comet in 1835 in the year of his birth, Mark Twain’s brilliance would illuminate modern literary thought. Yet darkness pervaded his life until in 1910, Halley’s comet reappeared to usher him out of this world of cares.

At age 60 and nearly bankrupt, Mark Twain launched a grueling four-year world tour to pay off his creditors. The tour encompassed 150 appearances across five continents. Although he detested lecturing, he thrived on the adulation of the enthusiastic crowds.

From Hawaii to Australia and New Zealand to India (where he noted that the Taj Mahal, while very impressive, could not compare to the ice-covered trees of Hartford, Connecticut), to South Africa and across Europe, Mark Twain witnessed the horrors of colonialism and the hypocrisy of “benevolent” imperialists. His revulsion at the brutal treatment of “savages” fueled his most incisive writing, including “Following the Equator.”

Mark Twain’s mental state worsened as the heartlessness and evil that he witnessed grew more extreme. His bouts of depression and self-recrimination consumed much of his mental energy. Paradoxically, his anguish may also have inspired his most profound work, reminding us that the comet shines brightest against the darkest sky.