Thursday, October 24, 2013

Mark Twain abroad

A Tramp Abroad, Mark Twain

I enjoyed The Innocents Abroad so much last year that I soon lined up more of Mark Twain's travel writing.  Though I started this book a couple of times, I never got too far with it.  This time I drew it from the book box, and when I finally settled down with it, I enjoyed it even more than the first.  Written eleven years later, it is more pure comedy, often at Twain's own expense, frequently at his fellow travelers', especially young Americans.  But in other ways, he has mellowed.  He doesn't have the chip on his shoulder, the constant need to assert the superiority of the United States, to compare everything unfavorably with "back home."  The all-American attitude creeps in every once in a while, but he is far from the typically "ugly American" tourist of his 1867 travels.

Twain announces at the start of the book,
One day it occurred to me that it had been many years since the world had been afforded the spectacle of a man adventurous enough to undertake a journey through Europe on foot.  After much thought I decided that I was a person fitted to furnish mankind this spectacle. So I determined to do it.  This was in March, 1878.

He hires an agent to accompany him, a Mr. Harris, and they set out with three goals: to take a walking tour, to study German, and to study art.  As well as a traveling companion, Harris is there as Twain's proxy.  He sends Harris off to do anything that he doesn't want to do himself, or is too lazy to do, but still plans to write about (and claim the credit for).  The editors of the Penguin Classics edition that I read point out that in fact Twain traveled to Europe in the spring of 1878 with his family, and they label this book "autobiographical fantasy."  They add, "Twain's travel narratives are as 'fictional' as his novels are 'autobiographical.'"  However you want to classify this book, fact or fiction, it is great fun.

In Twain's account, their travels begin in Germany.  From the start, this book reminded me of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel.  Despite constant protestations that his is meant to be a walking tour, he jumps on every train, horse, wagon, or boat that passes by, with transparent excuses like the roads are uphill, or the sun is up.  There is a hilarious account of a trip down the Neckar River to Heidelberg on a raft of very small poles, which sometimes seems to foreshadow Huck Finn and other times reads like a perilous ocean voyage, complete with storms and near-shipwreck (or raft-wreck, to be technical).  Any time Twain and his agent set out to actually walk somewhere, they mosey along, often losing their way and frequently quarreling.  Like Jerome, Twain also becomes fascinated with the custom of dueling among university students.  He gives a detailed account (over three chapters) of an afternoon spent watching the duelists in action. He follows that with a burlesque of a French duel at which he claims to have stood a second.

From Germany the account moves to Switzerland, where Twain becomes equally fascinated with the Alps and mountaineering.  These chapters are an interesting mix.  Twain recounts various expeditions, discussing seriously the dangers and the frequent loss of life.  He writes lyrically about the scenery, the majesty of the different mountains, particularly Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn.  In between, he tells a ridiculous story of a expedition he organizes, consisting of 198 people (including 15 bartenders and a Latin scholar), to ascend a minor point that didn't even need a guide.  When he and Harris arrive at the village near Mont Blanc, on the other hand, he just tries to buy the certificate awarded to those who made the ascent, claiming it's for a sick friend.

From Switzerland, he travels on to Italy. Here he himself admits that he has come to appreciate art much more than when he traveled with the Innocents.  Of course, his tongue is firmly in his cheek.  This book is illustrated with Twain's own "art," which can only charitably be called primitive.  In one of the last chapters, he discusses why Art can be indecent and Literature cannot.  He is rather indignant that the statues in Florence have been "fig-leaved."  But that is nothing compared to his anger over Titian's Venus of Urbino, which he considers the most pornographic picture ever painted, hanging in the Uffizi "for anybody to gloat over that wants to..."  Yet, he says, if he tried to describe what the picture shows, his work would be banned as obscene.  It's a weirdly serious chapter in the midst of this crazy book.

Twain's German studies seem to go about as well as his art studies.  Fortunately for him, he finds English-speakers almost everywhere in Germany.  This book includes his famous essay on "The Awful German Language," one of several appendices.  The title page of the "Appendix" section has a quote from Herodotus, "Nothing gives such weight and dignity to a book as an Appendix."  This book has six!


  1. This sounds delightful. I really enjoyed that other American-innocents-abroad novel, Our Hearts were Young and Gay, and I suspect the Twain would be a nice complement. Should I read the first one first, or would you regard them as independent?

  2. I haven't read much by Mark Twain but this sounds great. I'll have to consider reading it, especially as I enjoyed Three Men on the Bummel so much.

  3. What an entertaining post. Mark Twain was such an American icon. I always enjoy hearing about his life and his books. Enjoyed this completely.

  4. vicki, do you mean the two Twain books? If so, I think they can be read independently. I read your comment too quickly the first time & thought you hadn't yet read Our Hearts - which I was going to recommend before either of the Twains!

    Helen, I'm finding that I enjoy Twain's travel books (however fictional) more than his novels & stories - Huck Finn being an exception.

    Pam, I have such a yen to read Life on the Mississippi now! and maybe even Huck Finn - talk about iconic!

  5. I read a lot of Twain years ago and I thought that I had read this one but I obviously haven't, although I have a copy. I seem to remember him liking the UK and that he loved the cream and said that American cream wasn't nearly so good, I don't know which book that was in though.

  6. The Innocents Abroad was so funny, and this one sounds even more hilarious. I need to read it soon!

  7. Katrina, he only mentions the UK at the end of this book, but he definitely complains about the German cream (says it's thin, blue & watery). If you find the UK travels, please let me know!

    elizabeth, this one made me laugh out loud (on the bus, which made me feel conspicuous) - I don't remember that with the Innocents, much as I enjoyed them.

  8. I haven't read nearly enough Twain. This sounds wonderful, and I love travelogues!

  9. Jenny, I got bogged down with some of Twain's later, bleaker stories, but I'm finding these travelogues such a delight.

  10. I read Innocents Abroad when I was a teenager and reading a lot of Twain and it left such a sour taste in my mouth that I didn't read any more of his travel books, which is too bad because this one does sound like fun. He did need to lose that chip on his shoulder--when Twain is snarky he can be insufferable.

    It's funny you mention Three Men in a Boat because that is the image I had almost immediately upon reading your review.

    Great review--btw. I will get a copy of this book for future reading.

  11. Jane, I didn't like The Innocents at all, when I tried it in high school, but I did when I finally tried it again last year - though I did get very irritated with Twain in some parts. This book is just fun (mixed with a few serious bits).


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!