Mark Twain: The indefatigable traveller

Mark Twain is one of the great travel writers: irreverent, conspiratorial and engaging. He delights in human fallibility, ridiculing pomposity even when he is the butt of his own irrepressible humour.

Aged only 11, Mark Twain (1835-1910) began working as a typesetter and contributor of articles and humorous sketches to the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper owned by his brother Orion. In the evenings he educated himself in public libraries and soon felt confident enough to join the newly formed International Typographical Union. Twain’s first success as a writer came in 1865 when his tall tale of “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published in The Saturday Press, a New York weekly. It brought him national attention. One year later, he travelled to the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii) as a reporter for the Sacramento Union. The resulting travelogues were popular and formed the basis of money-making public lectures.

In 1867, the Daily Alta California, a newspaper in San Francisco, funded a trip to the Mediterranean during which Twain wrote a collection of travel letters, later compiled as The Innocents Abroad (1869). In typical fashion, the preface notes:

“This book is a record of a pleasure trip. If it were a record of a solemn scientific expedition it would have about it that gravity, that profundity, and that impressive incomprehensibility which are so proper to works of that kind, and withal so attractive. Yet not withstanding it is only a record of a picnic, it has a purpose, which is, to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him. I make small pretence of showing any one how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea – other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.”

Twain’s second piece of travel literature was Roughing It (1872), which he described as “a record of several years of variegated vagabondizing, and its object is rather to help the resting reader while away an idle hour than afflict him with metaphysics, or goad him with science.” The book gently lampoons American and Western society in the same way that The Innocents Abroad explored the quirks and quiddity of Europe and the Middle East.

But it is A Tramp Abroad (1880) for which Twain may be best known. This is the book in which he castigates “The Awful German Language” for being “slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.” It is also the one in which he parodies Rhineland legends and devotes a whole chapter to the superiority of American home-cooking over European hotel fare. Surprisingly, this is not where Twain’s famous anti-Wagner comments are to be found, the principal source of which is “Mark Twain at Bayreuth” – one his later travel letters published in the Chicago Daily Tribune (6 December 1891).

A Tramp Abroad was reviewed by William Dean Howells, editor of The Atlantic magazine (May 1880), himself a noted author and literary critic. Howells concluded:

“There is no danger that they will not laugh enough over it; that is an affair which will take care of itself; but there is a possibility that they may not think enough over it. Every account of European travel, or European life, by a writer who is worth reading for any reason, is something, for our reflection and possible instruction; and in this delightful work of a man of most original and characteristic genius ‘the average American’ will find much to enlighten as well as amuse him, much to comfort and stay him in such Americanism as is worth having, and nothing to flatter him in a mistaken national vanity or a stupid national prejudice.”

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