Mark Twain goes east and west

Mark Twain was an inveterate traveller. He published three fascinating books about his foreign trips and two more on the Mississippi and the American West.

Twain-quoteThe Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869) grew out of letters commissioned by a San Francisco daily newspaper. The first edition describes it as “Being some account of the steamship Quaker City’s pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land; with descriptions of countries, nations, incidents and adventures as they appeared to the author.” The title page includes a dedication, “To my most patient reader and most charitable critic, my aged mother, this volume is affectionately inscribed.”

The excursion included numerous stops along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a train trip from Marseilles to Paris for the 1867 Exhibition (where for the first time Japan presented art pieces to the world in a national pavilion), a journey through the Papal States to Rome, a visit to Odessa, and finally a pilgrimage to the Holy Land taking in Philippi, Genessaret and the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, and Jerusalem. A deist, Twain was appalled by the excessively pious people on the trip, whom he labelled “pilgrims” in contrast to the “sinners” (himself among them).

Innocents was enthusiastically reviewed, except by religious periodicals, which failed to appreciate Twain’s satire.

In 1878, Mark Twain travelled to Europe to concentrate on writing and in an effort to curb his extravagant spending at home. He spent some seven months wandering through northern Europe and was joined by his close friend Pastor Joseph Twitchell for a six-week ramble through Bavaria and Switzerland. The result was A Tramp Abroad (1880) – a mix of tall stories, anecdotes and what has been described as “adventures by proxy”. For some of the passages, Twain borrowed lavishly from the English mountaineer Edward Whymper’s 1871 book Scrambles Among the Alps, including adapting several illustrations. Clearly, plagiarism (the Latin word plagiarus literally meant “kidnapper”) was of no concern, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works not coming into force until 1886.

A Tramp Abroad includes two well known chapters berating opera (especially Wagner) and a famous appendix on “The Awful German Language”. It is generally believed that Twain did not like any of Wagner’s music, but he adored Tannhäuser. In a letter to the Chicago Daily Tribune (6 December 1891) he wrote:

“I saw the last act of ‘Tannhäuser’. I sat in the gloom and the deep stillness, waiting – one minute, two minutes, I do not know exactly how long – then the soft music of the hidden orchestra began to breathe its rich, long sighs out from under the distant stage, and by and by the drop-curtain parted in the middle and was drawn softly aside, disclosing the twilighted wood and a wayside shrine, with a white-robed girl praying and a man standing near. Presently that noble chorus of men’s voices was heard approaching, and from that moment until the closing of the curtain it was music, just music – music to make one drunk with pleasure, music to make one take scrip and staff and beg his way round the globe to hear it.”

Kipling-TwainFollowing the Equator: Journey Around the World (1897) was Twain’s third attempt at producing a genre of international travel writing that was uniquely his own. In 1894, the author was bankrupt having lost thousands of dollars on a failed typesetting machine and publishing company. To recover financially, he set off on a lecture tour encompassing the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Australia and India. Following the Equator is more sympathetic to the human condition, and less sardonic than its predecessors. In all likelihood Twain was mellowing. Each chapter is headed by a maxim intended to “lure youth towards high moral altitudes” such as “When in doubt, tell the truth” and his famous definition of a classic as “A book which people praise and don’t read.”

Twain saw travel as essential to broadening the mind in an era in which science was revolutionizing people’s self-understanding. Just before the turn of the century, he met the British writer Rudyard Kipling, whose writings he had long admired and knew “better than I know anybody else’s books”. Twain used to read Kipling’s poems to attentive audiences and he would have appreciated having contradicted Kipling’s assertion in his poem The Ballad of East and West (1889): “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the Twain shall meet.”


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