Indiana State University Newsroom

Professor tells new tales about Mark Twain

January 25, 2010

Michael Shelden sits at a scratched and aged oak desk in his office, barely the size of a small walk-in closet. On the bookcase behind him and the wall above his head are remnants of his past: a full-page newspaper feature story he wrote about movie star Daryl Hannah; an unpublished candid photograph of Ernest Hemmingway that Shelden picked up from one of the writer's acquaintances; and three thick biographies with Shelden's name on the spine.

A fourth biography, a book with a glossy black cover and white image of the indisputable icon of American fiction, has a place of greater prominence near Shelden's hand. The cover of the book symbolizes all that lies within the book's 528 pages while the back of the jacket bears the praise of other Mark Twain experts.

Shelden's "Mark Twain: Man in White" is "the liveliest and best work of Twain biography in recent memory," says Jon Clinch, author of "Finn."

As Shelden fields questions, he speaks of Twain as though they've spent hours together in an interview. He interjects Twain quotes into his answers - breaking into a broad smile with each one, and shifting his voice into a soft soothing, groveling tone.

"I wanted you to have the feeling that you walked into Mark Twain's life and spent time getting to know him," Shelden says. "I want you to be able to get close to him. And you could do that because people were so enamored with him. If they had a letter from Mark Twain, they held onto it for life."


Shelden, 58 and a professor of English, has operated out of his unassuming Indiana State University office for the last 30 years. During that time, he estimates he's interviewed more than 200 people and written one million words.

Opportunities for those interviews came through Shelden's job as a correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph for which he interviewed North America's most influential politicians, best-selling authors, or movie stars who were celebrities of the moment. The fruit of his labor most often ripened into a 1,500- to 2,500-word newspaper feature story for one of the United Kingdom's most-read newspapers.

The job, which he held while simultaneously teaching at ISU, definitely had its perks, Shelden says.

"I never dreamed I would be a newspaper correspondent for a paper that wasn't in my own country," he says. "Wherever the story was, they would fly me there. So for the longest time I thought ‘Why write books when I can have the life of a jet-setting reporter?'"

When he interviewed comedian Bob Newhart, it was the equivalent of a personalized three-hour comedy routine, Shelden says, and the advice he gleaned nine years ago from a paralyzed Christopher Reeve of Superman fame haunts Shelden every time he gets behind the wheel of his car.

"He told me ‘most people end up this way because they've been involved in a car accident,'" and then Reeve admonished Shelden to never sit in a car without the seatbelt fastened, he says. "That guy taught me more in four hours than I think anyone ever has."

Shelden stumbled into his job as a correspondent quite by accident.

He first established himself as an author in 1989 with the release of his book "Friends of Promise: Cyril Connolly and the World of Horizon."
But it was his second book, "Orwell: The Authorized Biography," that drew the attention of the literary world. "Orwell" examines the life of the English writer best known for the classic novels "Animal Farm" and "1984." Shelden's work earned him a 1992 Pulitzer Prize nomination.

Aside from correcting misconceptions about the Pulitzer - "Lots of people want to say they're a Pulitzer Prize finalist, but there's only one finalist and one winner in each category every year," he says - Shelden seems to have moved past the prestige of the honor as quickly as he moves to the next interview subject.

After Orwell, Shelden researched British novelist, essayist and screenwriter Graham Greene and published "Graham Greene: The Enemy Within" in 1995.

That's when editors of the Daily Telegraph took notice of Shelden and queried him about whether he might be interested in helping them with the occasional feature story. Whether it stemmed from the need to have more control over what he wrote, or a desire to delve more deeply into a subject than the demands of a news cycle would allow, Shelden made the decision two years ago to give up his "jet-setting" and return to the type of writing that led him to his job as a correspondent.


Shelden has learned a few things throughout his years of prolific writing. He knows now how long to write. He knows what's likely to interest publishers and readers. And his systematic approach to reporting a news feature has helped him hone his research skills.

That makes "Mark Twain: Man in White" unlike Shelden's earlier biographies. It focuses on a narrow window of time - the last five years of Twain's life between 1906 and 1910 - when he was the beloved American icon of literature riding the wave of his fame.

"This is the story of a man who knows he only has a few years to live," Shelden says.

Shelden traced Twain's steps through Missouri, Connecticut, California, New York and even Bermuda to turn up some of the history that's never before been revealed. In the book, Shelden describes Twain as a spiritually intuitive man whose relationship with God was "strained;" a man who outlived most of his immediate family and whose only living daughter snubbed him even as he enthralled the American public with the character he created of himself.

Shelden's book gives readers a glimpse of Twain at home in Bermuda where he spent long periods of time with a family unrelated to him who treated him like a grandfather he never was.

With Shelden's affinity for Twain apparent, it's no surprise that he is defensive about unfounded rumors that his book reveals Twain as having been sexually inappropriate with children.

"While it's no surprise that people have thought that, it bothers me that something pure can be smudged with unfounded suspicion," he says. "It's been 100 years. I think we'd have found out by now if he was a pedophile."

With much of what he's learned about Twain contained within the flashy cover of his book, Shelden, just as he did in the days when he was a correspondent, is already thinking about his next story. He scoffs at the idea of becoming the sort of professor who would spend the rest of his life studying Twain. In fact, before the official Jan. 26 release of "Mark Twain: Man in White," Shelden had already begun a courtship with Winston Churchill - the subject of his next book.

"I kind of sweep through these people's lives and I move on," he said. "I delight in learning something from the next person."

Contact: Michael Shelden, professor of English, Department of English, Indiana State University at 812-237-3261 or

Photo: Michael Shelden, submitted photo.

Writer: Rachel Wedding McClelland, assistant director of media relations, Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University at 812-237-3790 or

Story Highlights

Pulitzer-prize nominee and ISU Professor of English Michael Shelden has released a fourth biography. After spending years interviewing celebrities, Shelden returned to writing the sorts of stories he enjoys most.

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