The Statesman and the Storyteller

John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism


By Mark Zwonitzer

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In a dual biography covering the last ten years of the lives of friends and contemporaries, writer Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) and statesman John Hay (who served as secretary of state under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt), The Statesman and the Storyteller not only provides an intimate look into the daily lives of these men but also creates an elucidating portrait of the United States on the verge of emerging as a world power.

And just as the narrative details the wisdom, and the occasional missteps, of two great men during a tumultuous time, it also penetrates the seat of power in Washington as the nation strove to make itself known internationally–and in the process committed acts antithetical to America’s professed ideals and promises.

The country’s most significant move in this time was to go to war with Spain and to eventually wrest  control of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. In what has to be viewed as one of the most shameful periods in American political history, Filipinos who believed they had been promised independence were instead told they were incapable of self-government and then violently subdued in a war that featured torture and execution of native soldiers and civilians. The United States also used its growing military and political might to grab the entirety of the Hawaiian Islands and a large section of Panama.

As secretary of state during this time, Hay, though a charitable man, was nonetheless complicit in these misdeeds. Clemens, a staunch critic of his country’s imperialistic actions, was forced by his own financial and family needs to temper his remarks. Nearing the end of their long and remarkable lives, both men found themselves struggling to maintain their personal integrity while remaining celebrated and esteemed public figures.

Written with a keen eye–Mark Zwonitzer is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker–and informed by the author’s deep understanding of the patterns of history, The Statesman and the Storyteller has the compelling pace of a novel, the epic sweep of historical writing at its best, and, in capturing the essence of the lives of Hay and Twain, the humanity and nuance of masterful biography.



  • “In The Statesman and the Storyteller, Mark Zwonitzer, a documentary film producer, director and writer, provides an engaging narrative of the last decade of the parallel lives of America's most illustrious writer and one of the nation's most influential secretaries of state. Set in the context of the emergence of the United States as a world power, the book is also a vivid and at times moving account of patriotism, honor, integrity and family tragedy.” ─Minneapolis Star-Tribune

    “Compelling…it makes that decade come alive, with interesting doses of arcane history.” ─St. Louis Post-Dispatch

    “…a jam-packed, engrossing epic of American political and diplomatic history…. Zwonitzer handles all this material superbly, giving us a cornucopia of social and atmospheric detail without losing sight of the big picture. [He] deploys his glittering cast to near-novelistic effect.”Bookforum

    “A compelling narrative, opening rare insight into an exceptional friendship played out in the shadow of epoch-making geopolitics.”Booklist (starred) 

    “Absorbing….This book is so well written I did not want it to end. With exhaustive research and superlative descrip­tive skills, Zwonitzer is able to capture mood and tone, bringing his prolific and often-profiled sub­jects to life and leading the reader to consistently feel present in the moment.” ─BookPage

    The Statesman and the Storyteller: John Hay, Mark Twain, and the Rise of American Imperialism is an engaging, funny and heartbreaking history, well worth its 547 pages of narrative text.” ─Durham Herald-Sun

    “In this wonderful new history, America’s true emergence as a real global player at the end of the nineteenth century is explored through two titans of the age—Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, John Hay, and America’s (maybe the world’s) best known writer, Mark Twain. Part Great Men, part Forces of Nature, Zwonitzer’s book convinces that changes in the fate of nations often happens ‘all at once, spurred by the need to adapt quickly to extraordinary events—or be crushed by them.’” ─Manhattan Book Review

    “The Statesman and the Storyteller is one of the best and most enjoyable books I have ever read in my life, on any subject and in any genre.  Samuel Clemens made "Mark Twain" into an icon and a family business, but here Mark Zwonitzer gives us Clemens himself, in full, deep, dark color.  John Hay is enjoying a new round of political influence now, as the Republican party revives his memory to try to inspire a post-Bush-Cheney conservative foreign policy renaissance.  But here is Hay in life and in the politics of his time, seen as clearly as we have ever seen him: challenged and brilliant and human.  Zwonitzer has discovered that Clemens and Hay's intersection as friends and conflicted patriots in complicated times is one of the great personal stories of American political history. What a wonderful story, what a riveting book.”Rachel Maddow, Host of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show

    “Mark Zwonitzer’s book is the wonderfully rich story of two dramatically different, but compellingly interesting men, whose friendship and achievements encompass America’s rise to wealth and world power at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. His sharp eye for detail, his ability to turn history and biography into story, and his ability to bring not only the protagonists, but the people around them, into vivid drama makes this a deeply insightful and satisfying book.”Michael Korda, author of CLOUDS OF GLORY and HERO

    “The parallel lives of two of America’s greatest sons will make you want to cheer. It will bring tears to the eyes of even the most hard-hearted political cynic.”James McBride, author of The Good Lord Bird

    “Set at the dawn of the United States’ rise to world power, this well told and moving story about the unexpected relationship of an artist and a political leader should help readers understand how we came to be what we are today."Bob Kerrey, former US senator, author of When I Was a Young Man

On Sale
Apr 26, 2016
Page Count
608 pages
Algonquin Books

Mark Zwonitzer

About the Author

Mark Zwonitzer is the author of a previous biography, Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music, written in conjunction with Charles Hirshberg. That book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In addition, he is an acclaimed documentary film producer, director, and writer.

Learn more about this author