Thursday, January 21, 2016

very rare, possibly a "unique" - Twain's travel hodgepodges

A note on Mark Twain’s loose sense of structure in his early books.  They are such hodgepodges.  A bit of travel writing, a tall tale, some reasonably authentic memoir, a joke, an old newspaper piece, more travel writing, ordered as the materials are removed from Twain’s desk.  The voice pulls it all together, the sensibility.

Life on the Mississippi (1883) begins with a geography lesson, and then a history capsule stolen almost entirely from Francis Parkman followed by a genuine excerpt from “a chapter from a book which I have been working at, by fits and starts, during the past five or six years, and may possibly finish in the course of five or six more” (Ch. 3).  A chunk of Huckleberry Finn, in other words, “some passages in the life of an ignorant village boy,” actually completed in only two more years.

The excerpt has very little Finn in it – he is eavesdropping on some keelmen.    It now occurs to me what a difficult leap Twain made when he set his own voice aside and wrote Huckleberry Finn in the first person.

The early books are designed to be broken in pieces, even the novels.  The Gilded Age (1873) is mostly a compendium of the novelistic clichés of its day, but specific passages are outstanding, including a piece of pure travel writing about Washington, D.C. and a long joke about – let’s call its fashions in health care for dependents – that is among the funniest Twain writings I have ever encountered.  The book is worth reading once just to discover the parts that are worth reading again.

I find myself becoming impatient with the more straightforward travel writing in Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), and Life on the Mississippi.  Get to the funny stuff, Sam.  And he always does, soon enough.  The value of one more 19th century description of Italy is in passages like the long gag where Twain and his doctor friend decide to never be enthusiastic, no matter what the guide shows them.  Well, really they pretend to be idiots:

He brought us before the beautiful bust – for it was beautiful – and sprang back and struck an attitude:

“See, genteelmen! – Mummy!  Mummy!”

The eye-glass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever.

“Ah, – Ferguson [Twain and the doctor have call their guide Ferguson]– what did I understand you to say the gentleman's name was?”

“Name? – he got no name! – Mummy! – 'Gyptian mummy!”

“Yes, yes.  Born here?”

“No!  'Gyptian mummy!”

“Ah, just so.  Frenchman, I presume?”

“No! – not Frenchman, not Roman! – born in Egypta!”

“Born in Egypta.  Never heard of Egypta before.  Foreign locality, likely.  Mummy – mummy.  How calm he is – how self-possessed.  Is, ah—is he dead?”  (Innocents Abroad, Ch. 27)

I suppose it is barely possible that Twain has, in a callous disregard for truth, invented all of this for the petty and corrupting amusement of his readers.

I have not read The Tramp Abroad (1880), about Twain’s walking tour of Germany and its neighbors, but I see that by the second chapter he has been led to a story that should have been in Roughing It, about a man who thinks he can talk to birds; a comic story about a frustrated California blue jay fills Chapter 3.  Why Twain had to go to Germany to find a place to put this story I do not know.  Hey, A Tramp Abroad is also the source of “The Awful German Language” (Appendix D).  I may have read more of this book than I realized:

I went often to look at the collection of curiosities in Heidelberg Castle, and one day I surprised the keeper of it with my German.  I spoke entirely in that language.  He was greatly interested; and after I had talked a while he said my German was very rare, possibly a “unique”; and wanted to add it to his museum.

These books must be unreadably bizarre to the reader who does not find Twain funny.


  1. Your expectations -- c'mon, Twain, be funny -- remind me of the New Criticism exercise: reading poems without names of authors attached in order to separate the author from the text; however, I also recall a different approach (i.e., contextualizing the writer/writing within the cultural moment of creation). None of these has much to do with you commentary. It is simply me thinking out loud again. I'm now reading Emily Dickinson (and about her), so I'm especially sensitive to the second concept but not interested in the first concept. In any case, I'm following your travels with Twain with interest.

  2. The first joke in Innocents Abroad is in the second sentence. You don't need to bring in any expectations to figure out that the tone is mainly comic.

    And then Twain has one of the most recognizable voices in English. He is a gimme in a blindfold test. Anyone who wants can play the game by reading the co-written Gilded Age. You will not have much trouble figuring out which parts were written by Twain and which by deadly Dudley.

  3. Later on, Twain dropped his patented American suspicion of Europe, and became somewhat of a Germanophile. He even wrote a short play in German, for his language class. (I guess if Twain is in your German class, you have to expect that.) Here's a later appreciation of Berlin, not particularly comic. He was full of surprises;

  4. Wow, all right. The voice is unmistakable, but the sentiments have changed. "Mommsen!" - I love that.