Mark Twain on the Move: A Travel Reader Edited

May 3, 2010

In "Mark Twain on the Move," AUM professors Gribben and Melton have chosen a goodly selection of the travel writing that made Twain rich and famous.

Audio ?2010 Alabama Public Radio

Although most readers think of Mark Twain as a novelist, he was first celebrated as a literary humorist, stand-up entertainer and travel writer.

In "Mark Twain on the Move," AUM professors Gribben and Melton have chosen a goodly selection of the travel writing that made Twain rich and famous. The best pieces, I think come from the early book, "Innocents Abroad," (1869) where Twain travels around the Mediterranean on the ship "Quaker City" with a group of affluent and pious pilgrims.
In those 19th century days, when only the truly affluent and bold travelled, and the rest read, most travel books did well. Usually, though, they took the position of awe in the face of greatness, beauty and antiquity. Twain became notorious for debunking. The editors call Twain's stance "astonished disappointment." Shown in Genoa a letter written by Christopher Columbus Twain's co-conspirator says to the pompous, self-satisfied guide, "It's the worst writing I ever saw "and "Why, I have seen boys in America only fourteen years old that could write better than that" and " . . . Christopher Columbo. Well, what did he do?"

Twain would habitually wait until a guide had finished his spiel about Columbus or Julius Caesar or even an Egyptian mummy and then innocently ask "and is he dead?"

Faced even with Da Vinci's "The Last Supper," which put most viewers into rapture, Twain is harsh. "The countenances are scaled and marred, and nearly all expression gone from them; the hair is a dead blur upon the wall, and there is no life in the eyes."

Twain had read about and been looking forward to a Turkish bath in Constantinople?but he hated every bit of it. The place smelled bad, the tobacco in the hookah had a "vile taste" and the Turkish coffee the "worst" drink that ever passed his lips.

Twain's "Roughing It" (1872) is domestic, not foreign, and features his account of a stage coach ride in 1861 from St. Joseph, Missouri to Carson City, Nevada, across prairie mountains and desert. This volume celebrates the stagecoach and its colorful driver, as colorful as a steamship captain, but the transcontinental railroads had put paid to the stagecoach in 1869, so there is a sense of nostalgia.
Not as great a sense as in "Life on the Mississippi" (1883), however. Here Twain is travelling on the great river, remembering his days as a young pilot and sadly noting that the riverboat industry is as dead as the stagecoach business and for the same reason: the railroad. Where once steamboats were moored alongshore for miles, two and three deep, now there were nearly none at all.

If "Life on the Mississippi" and "Roughing It" were looks back, "A Tramp Abroad" (1880) and "Following the Equator" are again books of new experiences undertaken and reported on.

"Tramp" is mainly set in Germany and Switzerland and contains some hilarious, facetious accounts of mountain climbing, Twain style. Gentler, but still sardonic, he describes Rhine wines thusly: "they are put up in tall, slender bottles, and are considered a pleasant beverage. One tells them from vinegar by the label."
Twain's last travel volume, "Following the Equator" (1897), is his account of an around-the-world journey, undertaken mainly to raise much-needed money. His descriptions of India, especially Bombay, are gorgeous, and he really enjoyed riding on elephants, but the older, wiser, sadder Twain is also more aware of the effects of imperialism and colonialism in Asia and Africa and these selections have less hilarity.

Taken all together though, the effect of reading this volume of excerpts was to remind me that Twain was much more than a fiction writer. It made me want to read the complete Twain volumes and made me envy Gribben and Melton the fun they must have had in their perusing and selecting.

This review was originally broadcast on Alabama Public Radio on May 3, 2010. Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show "Bookmark." His latest book is "A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama."