By the time Mark Twain died in 1910 his celebrity exceeded that of presidents and kings. His works had been published on both sides of the Atlantic and widely translated. They were also pirated by Canadian publishers—an act of literary theft that moved Twain to appear personally before a congressional committee to lobby for more stringent laws to protect intellectual property. He had made and lost a fortune and enjoyed long friendships with some of the nation's most influential intellectuals and businesspeople. Among those were both William Dean Howells, "dean of American letters," and Henry Rogers, infamous head of Standard Oil. A simple list of the friends he delighted and enjoyed over the decades of his variegated career would provide ample testimony to the capacious reach of his tastes, ambitions and tolerance.

Twain's large appetites were matched by the restless energy that took him across the country several times and back and forth to Europe many more times, to places where he divided his time between lecture halls and billiard parlors. One of his proudest achievements was the honorary doctorate of letters he received in 1907 from Oxford University, a consummation he greeted with the comment, "For 20 years I have been diligently trying to improve my own literature, and now, by virtue of the University of Oxford, I mean to doctor everybody else's." But his deepest joy came from a long, happy marriage to his beloved (and long-suffering) Livy, whose death six years before his own, along with the deaths of two of his three daughters, left him bereft.

Numerous biographers have relied heavily for their understanding of Twain's final years on his autobiography and the authorized 1912 three-volume biography by his friend Albert Bigelow Paine, both of which offer evidence of growing bitterness, cynicism and disillusionment with church, state and social hypocrisies. But a rereading of the compendious record of those years, including over 5,000 letters that have been available at the University of California-Berkeley since 1966, modify this picture. In fact, as Michael Shelden shows, Twain's characteristic humor, his tenderness toward others' children and grandchildren, his lively interest in public affairs and scientific discovery, and his wide hospitality survived the harsh disappointments and losses that afflicted him in his final years.