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Mark Twain on the Move: A Travel Reader

By: Alan Gribben and Jeffrey Alan Melton, eds.
Reviewed by: Elaine Hughes
University of Alabama Press, 2009
$63.50, Hardcover; $29.95 Paper

Mark Twain on the Move: A Travel Reader, edited by Alan Gribben and Jeffrey Alan Melton, is an appropriate tribute to the literary figure many think the greatest American writer. On the occasion of the centenary of Twain’s death, this collection offers reflection on his early career and his first successes. The collection includes excerpts from all five of Twain’s travel writings—The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Following the Equator (1897)—and commentary by the editors on the genre and on Twain’s mastery of it.

As Gribben and Melton note, travel books during the nineteenth century became a prominent form for Americans to learn about the world and for writers to earn more income. Twain first ventured into this arena as a young journalist in his thirties, unsettled, restless, and eager to explore. When he boarded the steamship Quaker City in June 1867, little did he know that excursion would launch his career as a travel writer, earn him a following far beyond that of his novels and short stories, and provide a lucrative income for thirty-five years.

The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869, was Twain’s first and his best-selling book. His humorous, satiric, cynical accounts of the five-month pleasure excursion through the Mediterranean is a must read for travelers today. Gribben and Melton note, “Passages [in this book] capture tourism and tourists like no other American travel narrative.” And some things do not change: how many first-timers have encountered the “Old Travelers,” who have been there before and are anxious to share their knowledge and advice about what not to do and what not to bother seeing. Twain’s accounts of the Old World treasures revered by many regaled American readers who sought a sense of their own worth and relished Twain’s satiric jabs: those “battered and broken-nosed old fellows” (the stone statues of Christian saints and pagan gods); the “wagon-load[s] of solid gold and silver utensils used in the great public processions and ceremonies of the church”; and the nails—the “true nails” from the “true cross.” There must have been buckets of them, Twain concludes, as he saw them in every church he visited in Europe. He ridiculed those tourists who drooled over the “miles of paintings by the old masters” in the Louvre and who exclaimed in adulation over “the mournful wreck of the most celebrated painting in the world”—Leonardo Da Vinci’s faded and peeling “The Last Supper.” These accounts are witty, humorous, cynical, often irreverent—but always filled with insight and told in Twain’s inimitable style.

Twain’s next book, Roughing It, draws upon reminiscences of his experiences traveling west in 1861 with his brother, Orion, to Carson City, Nevada, and the ensuing years Twain spent in California and the Far West, taking up journalism and creating graphic pictures of those times and places. His description of the rigorous, dangerous stage coach travel and the new (to him) specimens of “sagebrush” and the “jackass rabbit” are just the beginnings for his tall tale renderings of jumping frogs and his exotic descriptions of the Hawaiian Islands and their abundance—from fruits to foliage to volcanoes to surf-bathing “naked natives.” As these editors say about nineteenth century travel writing, “Readers desired the most fulfilling and uplifting rhetoric possible; the genre hardly encouraged understatement.” Twain provided the hyperbole in grand style.

The remaining three travel books continue in Twain’s style but shift from epic form of discovery to a more reflective view of himself and his world. In A Tramp Abroad, Twain uses the same techniques of satire and parody found in the earlier works but directs them toward himself, rather than his destinations. His descriptions of the necessary attire for an affluent American and his entourage traveling Europe in 1878 reads much like a Nike or North Face catalog would today:

We were all dressed alike: broad slouch hats, to keep the sun off; gray knapsacks; blue army shirts; blue overalls; high-quarter coarse shoes snugly laced. Each man had an opera glass, a canteen, and a guide-book case slung over his shoulder. . . . Around our hats were wound many folds of soft white muslin, with the ends hanging and flapping down our backs,—an idea brought from the Orient and used by tourists all over Europe.

In Life on the Mississippi, Twain returns to the world of his youth and his experiences as a riverboat pilot for his creative energies. After an absence of twenty-one years from the river and the profession he loved, he set out in 1882 to experience again the allure of the river. He discovers, however, changes that have occurred—the intrusion of railroad travel and electric lights, physical changes in the Mississippi itself from flooding and from the construction of levees, the loss of riverboat pilots and “the absence of the river man.” His visits to New Orleans and to Hannibal prove to be nostalgic. He finds improvement in New Orleans architecture and its sanitation system but is relieved to hear the same spoken language with its nuances: “A Southerner talks music.” In Hannibal, he inquires of a long-time resident the fate of many of his grade school acquaintances and learns from the unsuspecting source his own outcome: “Oh, he succeeded well enough—another case of damned fool. If they’d sent him to St. Louis, he’d have succeeded sooner.” Twain’s final travel book, Following the Equator, takes him full circle as a writer: he begins this journey as he did with The Innocents Abroad, with a specific itinerary and a specific purpose. His pragmatic purpose was to make money to pay off his debts and get out of his financial crises; his creative purpose was to do something unique—provide an account of his journey to the four corners of the globe. It proved to be much more as he suffered grief from the tragedies in his family and as he observed first hand some of the atrocities of colonialism, the “injustice and tyranny existing in the world.” As Gribben and Melton note, “[Twain} came back from this educational experience a changed man and a darker writer.”

Modern readers recognize Mark Twain as a great humorist, novelist, and satirist, but they are not as familiar with his travel writing—which was his greatest success during his lifetime. Alan Gribben and Jeffrey Alan Melton have selected the very best passages from Twain’s five travel books for this collection, Mark Twain on the Move, to give readers the opportunity to see Twain in his fullness. Any traveler today should take along a copy of this Travel Reader, as this reviewer did recently on a cruise through the Mediterranean. Twain would be pleased to know that the Sphinx’s nose is still falling off and that religious relics are still being sold in the Holy Land. He would be most pleased, however, to learn that travelers to Hannibal, to Hartford, to Carson City can purchase memorabilia of him and his experiences in those places—down to a replica of the exact counting of his tab—“Mark Twain”—from several Virginia City saloons. March 2010

Elaine Hughes recently retired from the University of Montevallo where she taught English for thirty-five years.

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