TERRE HAUTE —
Speaking to a gymnasium filled with Vigo County middle school students, Michael Shelden, a successful writer and longtime educator, followed the advice of Mark Twain who said public speakers should keep their presentations short.
“After 12 minutes every audience knows that the speaker ‘ought to be gagged.’ After 15 minutes, ‘They know that he ought to be shot.’”
Shelden quoted Twain giving that advice in his new book, “Mark Twain: Man in White.” Shelden also followed that advice during a 15-minute presentation to the students of Honey Creek Middle School on Tuesday afternoon during the school’s annual writers fair.
This is Shelden’s fourth book. The Indiana State University professor of English has also written biographies of British novelist and social critic Cyril Connolly, author George Orwell and screenwriter, essayist and novelist Graham Greene. Shelden’s biography on Orwell earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1992.
Shelden, who has taught English at ISU for the past 30 years, told the Honey Creek Middle School students that Twain wore white in the final years of his life because white was the opposite of the traditional mourning color, black.
“I want to go out in white,” Shelden said, quoting the famous American writer.
The book focuses on the period from 1906 to 1910, the year of Twain’s death. According to a recent review of “Mark Twain: The Man in White” in The Christian Science Monitor, Shelden’s goal was to “reverse the common viewpoint that Twain’s old age was merely a sad and uneventful countdown toward death.”
The book definitely seems to achieve that goal. Twain, despite the deaths of his wife and a beloved daughter, threw parties, helped a group of slum children start a theater and more.
The inspiration for the book on Twain’s final years came from a four-hour newspaper interview Shelden had in 2001 with the late actor Christopher Reeve, he told the students. Reeve, who was paralyzed from the neck down after a horseback riding accident, had a positive attitude even when faced with his personal tragedy. Like Mark Twain, Reeve made the most of the last years of his life.
Reeve “smiled almost the whole time I was with him,” Shelden told the students. Many bad things happen in life that you cannot control, he said. “You do have control over your attitude.”
Twain lived the final years of his life joyfully and apparently always aware that he would be remembered in the future. “He was living as if he’d live forever,” Shelden told the students. “He acted as if he’d be immortal.”
It took Shelden four years to write his latest book, he said. He has already started work on his next project – a biography of Winston Churchill, focusing on the famous British leader’s earlier years.
After Shelden’s talk, which included photographs of Twain and Reeve, several students approached the author to say hello. One even asked for his autograph.
“I love getting out and speaking to kids,” Shelden said. “Many of these are our future [university] students.”
Arthur Foulkes can be reached at (812) 231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org