The following review appeared 31 May 2001 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2001 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mary Leah Christmas
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Larzer Ziff has given the traveling and Twainian worlds a troubling, thought-provoking book. No starry-eyed romanticism here, Ziff is all facts and analysis, bathed in a sea-spray of sociology. One reviewer pronounced this book to be good bedside reading, and that it is--if one's intention is to lie awake in the dark.
Ziff has selected five individuals to represent the "history of distinguished American travel writing from the end of the Revolution to the outbreak of the First World War": John Ledyard, John Lloyd Stephens, Bayard Taylor, Mark Twain, and Henry James. In turning their telescopes toward the horizon, they were in fact gazing through microscopes at their American culture, to borrow a device from one of Mark Twain's notebooks.
One cannot help but think of Mark Twain at every step of the way--in others' steps as well as his own. For anyone steeped in Mark Twain's travel writings and his life-long musings on humanity, Ziff's book is almost too much to bear. There is just too much material--too many parallels, too many philosophical points to be agreed upon or argued--to be absorbed in a single reading or even a few. The great secret of this book? For the cognoscenti it is all about Mark Twain, not just the section assigned his name.
Return Passages is freighted with issues of race, imperialism, and culture. These familiar topics in Twain circles are relevant in examining other travel writers as well. Bayard Taylor's work "brings to the fore the entwined issues of racism and imperialism that are never far from the surface of other travel writings." The other individuals featured in the book are found to be similarly at fault, to varying degrees, except one: "In his democratic idealism Ledyard alone appears exempt." Ziff further observes that, "[Ledyard] saw that if anyone appeared insane it was not the island cannibals or the grease-encrusted Aleuts or the stony-hearted Tartars but the one who visited them. He saw that the true alien is the traveler."
These alien guests faced enticements whether inside or outside the art galleries, from Titian's "Venus" to village maidens, from the "burning shame" of John Lloyd Stephens to the "ultimate subjection of women to male desire...found in the institution of slavery." Then we are given this to ponder about the widowed Bayard Taylor. "That the subsurface eroticism is gendered male while his physical descriptions of men and boys are generally more detailed than those of women suggest also that Taylor may have been experiencing a release from more than the institutionalized confinement of heterosexuality in his homeland." Let us draw the curtain of institutionalized charity over this scene.
Ziff packs a lot of information into the pages, and the sites and accompanying commentary go zipping along as if past the windows of a tour bus. However, at that pace one cannot stop and savor any particular point, and any revelations (or possible errors) in the narration may not fully register until later, once one is between the sheets in one's hotel room. Let us consider a few examples of why our traveler may now be feeling wide awake after an exhausting day.
The author has some pet words and phrases which he uses--not to excess, but often enough to attract notice. The word "shaggy" is used more than once, but only and always in conjunction with Mark Twain's work. The term may be apt, if not endearing, but still contains a whiff of contempt.
The author follows Mark Twain through his years of artistic "adolescence" (another term used several times, and again only about this writer) to his eventual maturity. Ziff pegs Twain's arrival with the cultural sensitivity shown in Following the Equator, but to his dismay, Twain does not stop and soon leaves the station. "For all his nominalistic skepticism this great practitioner of horse sense did for an exalted moment before his final plunge into colorless nihilism achieve transcendence."
In the Introduction, Ziff ranks Twain's "accomplished travel literature" alongside that of James; but such approval seems tenuous when one reads "drawl on," "massive, shaggy volumes," "shaggy conglomerate," "garrulous rambling," "rambling giant of a book," etc. However, in the process of setting-up Twain as a "thinly cultured" rube, in order to chart his intellectual growth, Ziff creates some situations which backfire.
We know that Mark Twain observed that some folks couldn't tell when he was being humorous or serious. Ziff falls into this pit a time or few. For instance, the author believes Mark Twain's claim of laziness. Lazy doesn't earn one honorary degrees from Yale, the University of Missouri, and Oxford. As for Mark Twain's laments regarding the nude "Venus" in the Uffizi, they are interpreted as
not a claim that the writer should be as free to portray the sexual as is the painter the nude, but rather a wish that the painter too be reined in. The proper father of three daughters [though he had only two at the time--M.L.C.] wholeheartedly subscribed to the proposition that in the enlightened second half of the nineteenth century the only standard for exhibited art or published literature (as opposed to smoking-car exchanges) should be its fitness for the eyes of the American girl.
Does he really think that the writer of 1601, the Stomach Club speech, and Letters from the Earth was in fact an inveterate prude who never let his wild, white--dare I say "shaggy"--hair down? He must, for surprise, surprise, there is no mention of any of Twain's seamier titles having even existed. Some further digging by Ziff would also have yielded the chronology of the matter, and once again he could have avoided drawing such an erroneous conclusion. When our not-so-Innocent was fretting about the positioning of the model's hand, he may in fact have been bemoaning the uptightness of a magazine editor who had recently failed to see the brilliance of his earthy Elizabethan manuscript.
Ziff may be an accomplished scholar and author, but he has not spent the years with Mark Twain that some have. That is why he can innocently report that Mark Twain "as early as 1879" (which happens to be the year of the infamous Stomach Club speech) referred to Henry James as a "master," and Ziff not only takes that as a compliment, but alludes to the honor in the Introduction as well. Meanwhile, Twain's intimates politely hide their knowing smiles behind their dinner napkins.
The individual writers in Return Passages were undoubtedly chosen to represent different stages in the overall maturing of American culture, culminating with the cosmopolite Henry James. Interestingly, some of the things about James which Ziff praises were things for which he had earlier criticized Twain.
But let us return to our traveler abroad, who is now tossing and turning in the darkened hotel room.
Ziff tells us that Bayard Taylor's Northern Travel and Travels in Greece and Russia, both dated 1859, were "the last book-length narratives of travel he was to publish." We are also informed that Taylor's travel writings "climaxed" (ahem) with the collected Bayard Taylor's Travels in 1874. Omitted from the Bayard Taylor section heading, and missing throughout the text, is any mention of Egypt and Iceland in 1874; and yet he cites the very book, with a sanitized title (sans date), in the fine print of the first endnote for the Mark Twain chapter. Egypt and Iceland in 1874 is in this reviewer's personal library, part of her research for the upcoming State of Mark Twain Studies conference. After writing a series of letters from Egypt in March and April of that year, Bayard Taylor was in Iceland from July to August to document the millennial celebration of Iceland's colonization for Greeley's New York Tribune. So much for Taylor's stand-alone volumes ceasing in the 1850s.
Then there is this further error of omission. By not giving an identity to Mark Twain's nameless wife--who is mentioned only once, in passing--he sidesteps having to address the Clemens family's travels for the sake of Olivia's health. Instead, the last ten years of Twain's life and travels are summarized in a single paragraph with an unemotional listing of geographical points visited. The reason he went to any of those places, and what happened there, goes unexplored. Ziff's concluding statement, "His days of travel writing had ended but the psychological link between his mind's rambling along the route of associations and his need to journey from place to place continued to his death," does not suffice.
More on the subject of health. On an earlier page, Ziff incorrectly implies Susy Clemens died in Elmira of spinal meningitis.
Larzer Ziff is Caroline Donovan Research Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University. He has done a significant amount of research, and an admirable job of squeezing over a century's worth of information into a relatively small space; but based on the aforementioned, we know that parts of the story had to be sacrificed. That is not to say the book is not a compelling and erudite one, whether the reader agrees with Ziff's every point or not.
This reviewer has, but an arm's length away, at least a dozen foreign-language dictionaries. Such Magellans as we, never know when we may find ourselves stranded in Byzantium or Thule or some far-flung Grand Duchy, deposited abroad by an errant hot-air balloon.
For all of the romanticism of travel, however, reality can prove far different. Explorers and other high-profile travelers may seem larger-than-life and invincible, but they are as vulnerable as any of us. Captain Cook was killed in the Sandwich Islands; Ledyard met his fate in Cairo battling a "bilious complaint"; Stephens, in Panama, was felled by hepatitis brought on by malaria and taken back to New York; Bayard Taylor, in Germany, died of a chronic, undiagnosed ailment; and Henry James, in ill health, passed away in England. Mark Twain, as we know, returned from Bermuda with but a week to spare.
We have been given much to ponder before we next consider climbing into the
Professor's airship. "[F]or the 'real and genuine traveler' travel is a test
rather than a pleasure. Only the journey that involves fatigue and suffering
leads to wisdom...." And with wisdom comes sorrow. Mark Twain may have led a
life of international travel and worldwide acclaim, but he wrote that if he
had it to do all over again, he would have become a river pilot and stayed one.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Mary Leah Christmas is an award-winning freelance writer/editor with a background in book publishing. She first became interested in Mark Twain when, as a teenager, her parents inadvertantly bid on the wrong box-lot of books at an auction and became the owners of an 1876 edition of Innocents Abroad. This is her sixth review for the Mark Twain Forum.