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The following review appeared 23 February 2009 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Mark Twain's major travel works, Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, A Tramp Abroad, Life on the Mississippi, and Following the Equator, have recently received more attention, and deservedly so. As Alan Gribben noted in 1999 in his review of criticism (American Literary Scholarship, "Mark Twain"), the travel works needed that attention and scholars are meeting that need in the last ten years.
Several recent editions of the travel writings have appeared, notably the Library of America and the Oxford University series. These allow readers the access required to appreciate Twain's five travel works. Following the Equator had been out of print for literally decades until Dover Publications offered a useful facsimile reprint. One can even read Following the Equator as a Kindle book from Amazon.com or as a Webster's French Thesaurus edition. Even A Tramp Abroad can be found in a relatively new edition (Penguin) designed for a non-scholar, which should replace Charles Neider's rather odd attempt to improve the text. These are designed for general readers.
Gribben and Melton provide an introduction that reviews some generalizations about travel conventions and Twain's modifications of the travel genre, a short description of editorial principles, a list of illustrations, a brief head note to each of the five texts, the excerpts from each of the major travel works, a list of selected secondary criticism, and an index. These excerpts include the discussion of crows in India, the description of Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the massive ascent of the Riffelberg peak, the forest fire at Lake Tahoe, and the stealthy tour of the Parthenon by night.
Trying to find excerpts from these travel works to compile a useful reader is a daunting task. Gribben and Melton's effort leaves much good material behind in this editing process. They do admit that they sought to focus on traditional travel rather than on the tall tales often anthologized, omitting "Jim Baker's Blue Jay Yarn," from A Tramp Abroad, for example. They suggest that this "present volume more authentically introduces this neglected Mark Twain, a man en route, out of his comfortable element, on the road, on the seas, on trains, matching his travel skills against the inconveniences and hazards of living away from home and earning the thrills and diversions that the unfamiliar can bring" (p. xix). Gribben and Melton admit that "winnowing Mark Twain's travel works down to the contents of a single volume proved tremendously frustrating because we were obliged to eliminate so many superb passages" (p. xxi).
In that winnowing process, they have had some success. The brief sketch of the Sphynx woman in Roughing It seems parallel to the description of the Sphynx in Egypt from Innocents Abroad. Both are good selections. However, at some point it would have been useful to present a rationale for what was chosen, because some excerpts lack context or connectivity to travel themes. It is not entirely clear why the sage brush in Roughing It receives a page or two of space, unless the Syrian camel incident, which is embedded, is highlighted somehow as a reference to truth and reality from Twain's journey to the Holy Land, the anticipation of finding authentic moments of religious revelation half-creating the perceived truth of the journey. The Syrian camel attempts to eat Twain's innocuous piece of journalism, choking on the truth. Perhaps the sage brush represents reality, a demythologized part of the American West, and the Syrian camel personifies the exotic myth of Arabic culture. Gribben and Melton discuss the general traditions of travel writing or tourism, summarized more comprehensively in Melton's work on travel writings in 2001 (Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement, University of Alabama Press). The conventions of the Grand Tour are sketched out in this current travel anthology's introduction: travel modes, hazards and inconveniences of travel, and the attitudes of the American traveler. Gribben and Melton do present some of the perspectives that Twain brings to these travel conventions, principally the necessity of the American to resist the culture of Europe and to exaggerate the American way of life. It would have been useful to find a way to make that more clear in their introduction, perhaps, and discuss how each of the excerpts reflects these concerns with some kind of brief footnote or added introduction to each of the excerpts.
The head notes are oddly brief, presenting some of the history of each text and summarizing some of Twain's attitudes, for example, remarking that Twain reflected an "air of insolent nationalism" in Innocents Abroad (p. 2). These head notes could provide a bit more detail on current criticism or cite more sources for further reading. For example, the head note on A Tramp Abroad seems very astute and condensed, suggesting new directions for further scholarship on that text, alluding to the intense effort to parody himself and travel works in general (an experimental attempt to break free from the genre of travel writing that Twain had himself helped to create), and this head note could offer several suggestions for further reading. Following the Equator seems less usefully summarized. Common assumptions about that text are that Twain wrote this book under the strain of having lost his daughter Susy to meningitis and that the text reveals his alarm at the racial and colonial attitudes of other countries, such as India and South Africa. The editors simply plead for more attention from readers and critics, writing that Following the Equator "deserves to be better known than it is" (p. 203). For a general reader, this level of commentary might suffice.
The illustrations, considering the hundreds available, are few. The illustrations provided for A Tramp Abroad, four out of all nine provided for all of the works, are not necessarily representative of the illustrations used by all five travel texts. A Tramp Abroad, by itself, seems an anomaly in terms of narrative structure and authorial persona, and the illustrations are similarly flawed in terms of reflecting the text. Three of these four are illustrations doctored by Twain in some way, presumably part of the attempt to parody travel writing illustrations. It would have been useful to add "An Author's Memories" from A Tramp Abroad, for instance, to show the importance of memory in Twain's travel schemes, as a kind of parallel illustration to "A Miner's Dream" from Roughing It, and "The Pilgrim's Vision" from Innocents Abroad which are in this edition. That said, it's easy to argue that Gribben and Melton should have included more illustrations; perhaps the publisher had limitations on how many illustrations to include. "The Full-Dressed Tourist," from Innocents Abroad, is an ideal choice as a frontispiece, and other illustrations similar to that one would have been useful to capture the sense of demythologized travel that the editors discuss.
Given that the anticipated readership is decidedly general, the list of Selected Readings that appears at the end of the book is a fair overview of the criticism available for further study. Scholarly readers might object because the list is fairly short, roughly fifty articles and books relating to Twain's travel works, though it does represent a starting point for further reading. It would have been useful to provide a citation to Harold Smith in this bibliography, as that name appears in the introduction as a resource of useful information about the publishing trade in travel literature of the nineteenth century, but no endnote exists for that cited information nor does it appear in the bibliography. I trust that this is a reference to Harold F. Smith's American Travellers Abroad: A Bibliography of Accounts Published before 1900 (Scarecrow Press, 1999).
An index is surely a devil's task. The index provided is curious in a number of ways. Sometimes the index system makes little sense. The word "Buffalo" appears, with an appropriate page number, though the text has no useful reference to buffaloes, other than the one word reference. If the excerpt had been the famous Bemis buffalo climbing a tree in Roughing It, which does not appear in this collection, then the indexed item would have had real merit. The same thing occurs with the indexed word "Boots," though the index could have clarified why this seems a useful word to index [perhaps "Boots, wearing them in mud"]. Other indexed items do have context, such as the "ice water" item in the index that refers to a paragraph from A Tramp Abroad, where Twain discusses European and American attitudes toward drinking cold water. Sometimes the index is just wrong. "Dan," as an index reference to page 14, apparently misses an obvious and more useful reference on page 11. The indexer might be playing a hoax on occasion as well; the reference "Intoxicated man in a hotel" (page 144) is clearly a duplicate of the index item, "Drunk man in a hotel" (also referenced to page 144). One last example: Ferguson is indexed as a guide, without any mention elsewhere that this is a fictitious name applied by the tourists and Twain to all tour guides; the index also indicates that Ferguson ought to be a reference to be found on page 6, though it clearly is not there at all. The typical reader might assume that Ferguson was one individual tour guide in Innocents Abroad. Names presented in the introduction, Margaret Fuller, Henry James, Washington Irving, Julia Ward Howe, and William Dean Howells (Howells does have his name in the index elsewhere) probably deserve as much space in the index as "Boots" or "Buffalo."
Much of the index is useful. It is just not that reliable. Historical references, as endnotes or footnotes, might help explain some of the references that could otherwise escape the reader. A reference to Kent Rasmussen's Critical Companion to Mark Twain: A Literary Reference to His Life and Work (Facts on File, 2007), other than being listed in the Selected Readings, would be helpful for some readers. Certainly, a statement about reasonable scholarly editions of the travel works seems in order. Roughing It, for example, deserves some mention in terms of the teamwork provided by the staff at the Mark Twain Project, resulting in that award-winning edition by Harriet Elinor Smith, Edgar Marquess Branch, Lin Salamo, and Robert Pack Browning, replete with historical notes and explanations.
Given the need to be selective, perhaps readers will be enticed to read the full adventures of the Pilgrims on the road to Damascus, not just the brief page or two provided; to admire the frontier spirit and pluck represented by the American coyote, not present at all; and to understand Twain's growing disenchantment with colonial efforts to subdue natives in South Africa and India, particularly with absent passages on the diamond mines and the problematic fascination with the Thugee. There are passages from Life on the Mississippi that beg to be read and to be analyzed, passages that are not in this edition, passages that reflect Twain's days on the river as a cub pilot, and, which, if given a context, help explain why travel is such an important component of Twain's thinking.
There are surprises here. The brief sketch of an inebriated man trying to pour more wine from a corked bottle is an unappreciated classic from A Tramp Abroad. The parody of a scenic description of the Sphinx in Innocents Abroad is a reminder of American hubris and a fitting coda to the ignorant American tourist. The excerpt from Life on the Mississippi that reflects Twain's self-deprecating conversation with a Hannibal inhabitant who remembers Twain as a "damned fool" is a deft commentary on nostalgia. There are some good choices made here also, such as the insightful reflection on memory and Bombay in Following the Equator, and the description of the volcano Kilauea in Roughing It. The excerpt on art appreciation in Innocents Abroad is essential to understanding what Twain means in the preface to that book in terms of seeing things properly as a tourist.
Gribben and Melton are to be commended for providing a set of
readings that begin to point the way toward further work and reading.
About the Reviewer: Harold Hellwig is the author of Mark
Twain's Travel Literature: The Odyssey of a Mind (McFarland, 2008).