The Innocents Abroad

I got around to finishing Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress (1869), the other day. Although in structure it’s a rather helter-skelter parody of American travel literature of the period, there’s a deeper journey there too, suggested by Twain’s journey east, from modern America to the old Europe, then eastward again into the ancient Holy Land and Egypt: a journey backward in time as well as eastward in geography. The Twain persona is in its infancy in The Innocents Abroad, but no longer in embryo as it had been in his earlier journalism: the face a dead pan, self-mocking (as well as other-mocking), enjoying a good drink now and again (and again). The further along the voyage to the east and into the past becomes, the more profound it becomes, however; the light humor and caricature are displaced by subversive meditations on the relationship of human beings and history. Finally, Twain leaves the Holy Land with even more skepticism about religion and humanity than when he arrived; the more he comes face to face with history and belief, the less he has faith with either. (Note the subtitle of the book.) I’d have more to say about Innocents Abroad, had I the time to say it. But I’d recommend it. Most travel books are recommendable; I’m glad to have Twain’s portrait of the Holy Land to confirm me in my complete disinterest in going there myself.

Here’s a good online resource covering the writing, influence, and reception of The Innocents Abroad. It’s a part of the “Mark Twain in His Times” web site at the University of Virginia, “Written and Directed by Stephen Railton.”

2017 marks the 150th anniversary of the sailing of the Quaker City, the boat that took Twain and his compatriots from New York to Egypt and back again. A new documentary, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland, is being aired on various public television stations this month; narrated by Martin Sheen, the film explores the Quaker City voyage that led to The Innocents Abroad, and features rare film of Twain and Jerusalem itself. I’m unable to find airtimes in my local area, but maybe you’ll be able to. The trailer for the film is below.

An inauspicious debut

One of the virtues of the Oxford Mark Twain — maybe its greatest virtue — is that the series photographically reproduces the earliest published texts of books that Twain completed in his lifetime. The Mark Twain Project at the University of California is attempting to produce definitive scholarly versions of all of Twain’s surviving texts and letters, and they’re having a slow go of it, but the Oxford series in contrast presents Twain’s work as it was first presented to American readers from 1867 to 1910, Twain’s death. Reading through the 29 volumes of the Oxford series, one familiarizes oneself with Twain’s own self-presentations during his lifetime, and comes to them, in a way, as his first American readers did. The series also reproduces the original illustrations that accompanied the text, along with introductions from Twain enthusiasts and contextualizing essays from Twain scholars. The series was first published in hardcover in 1996, and a paperback edition appeared in 2010, but the latter is available only as a set; individual volumes are not available for purchase from the Oxford University Press. This is a little unfortunate; in the absence of a complete edition from the Mark Twain Project the Oxford series has become the unofficial standard edition, despite a few critical quibbles, and its $355.00 recommended retail price puts it beyond the budgets of most casual but engaged readers.

But individual books from the series are available if one hunts around enough; various vagrant volumes can be found on Amazon and in larger used book stores. I found the Oxford edition of Twain’s first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867), at the Strand. The Jumping Frog was issued to cash in on the phenomenal success of the title short story, which first appeared in the New York Saturday Press on November 18, 1865, and was quickly reprinted in other newspapers around the country. Twain’s friend, publisher Charles Henry Webb, gathered the frog story and 26 other parodies and short essays by Twain dating from 1863 in a volume that enjoyed what Richard Bucci in his afterword describes as only a “modest performance in the marketplace.” Twain himself was dissatisfied with the book. Only 4,076 copies were printed, and in December 1870 Twain bought and destroyed the typesetting plates.

Reading it in 2017 — this year marks the 150th anniversary of its publication — I can see why. Like any book of comic essays, it’s not a good idea to read it straight through, and among the few bits of gold there’s quite a lot of dross. One joke about the commonality of the name “John Smith” (and it’s the first joke of the book, in the dedication) is more than enough, but coming across it six or seven times strains one’s patience to the snapping point. In 2017, jokes about insurance companies may not read as fresh as they did 150 years ago.

But the best of the sketches and stories still shine. The title story, of course, remains something of a milestone in American literature — the first literary work from the American West to succeed in the East, and subversive enough in both form and vernacular. “The Jumping Frog” is the relation of several anecdotes from a poker-faced man named Simon Wheeler rendered as a monologue which, with utter seriousness, trades in the palpably absurd, a pointless meander that nonetheless draws some wonder in its imagination and language. But several other sketches retain their attractiveness too. “Aurelia’s Unfortunate Young Man” describes a young man’s slow but sure physical disassembly through the eyes of an advice columnist (a precursor perhaps to Lemuel Pitkin of Nathanael West’s A Cool Million and the Black Knight of Monty Python and the Holy Grail); “Lucretia Smith’s Soldier” is a caustic parody of a sentimental Civil War romance, years before Gone with the Wind; “The Story of the Bad Little Boy who Didn’t Come to Grief,” as Roy Blount says in his introduction, “[is] not at all outdated at a time when The Book of Virtues sells in the millions.” Its final paragraph is one for the ages:

And he grew up, and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an ax one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality, and now he is the infernalest wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.

But far be it from me to discuss Donald Trump any further here.

Most of the best pieces in the volume were originally published in the Californian, a San Francisco newspaper started in 1864 and edited by the Jumping Frog‘s publisher, Charles Henry Webb. The Californian was a serious effort to produce a genuinely literary magazine in San Francisco, and Webb himself was a member of the New York circle of self-styled “Bohemians” before travelling west. He had been a regular visitor to Pfaff’s, the New York beer cellar and meeting place for some of the most experimental and avant-garde writers of the day, including Walt Whitman. The experiment attempted to extend humor into more serious literary endeavors, and Webb encouraged Twain to extend himself from the rough, quick journalistic satires of his early work into something more lasting and ambitious. The “Jumping Frog” story was among the first results.

Reading early Twain today is not unlike watching Chaplin shorts from the Keystone and Essanay eras. The character of Twain, like the character of the Tramp, is there in broad outline — more violent and less subtle than later iterations of the same character, but in stories like the “Jumping Frog” and others in this first collection, the reader can recognize intimations of the later complexity of Twain’s comedy and satire. There are worse ways to spend an hour or two of reading (and the Oxford Mark Twain edition is still a bargain; first editions of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches, a very rare volume, fetch up to $31,000 at abebooks).

Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin, 2014) is an essential guide to understanding the cultural milieu in which Twain began to reach his aesthetic maturity, and I can highly recommend that as well.

Donald Trump and the vulgarity of Mr. Twain

The vulgar Mark Twain.

Those who think of Mark Twain as the quintessential twinkly-eyed American sage have another think coming. Last month, Ben Tarnoff delivered the keynote speech at the Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies, sponsored by the Center for Mark Twain Studies and held in Elmira, NY; the title of his speech was “Vulgarity from Below Versus Vulgarity from Above: Twain in the Age of Trump.” Without mentioning the name of the 45th President of the United States, Tarnoff mused upon what Twain’s own reaction to our current situation may have been, and concludes that it would not have been kind.

Ben Tarnoff in Elmira.

In doing so, Tarnoff with a sly, subversive humor provides an excellent lesson in one of the most important periods of American humor and literary history — the Southwest of the mid-19th century; a good anthology of this Southwest humor is Walter Blair and Raven McDavid’s The Mirth of a Nation, now unfortunately out of print — and urges upon his listeners a new “vulgarity” and “barbarism” based on Twain’s own moral and satiric perspective, which Twain developed before he came east with the 1869 publication of The Innocents Abroad, the book that put him permanently on the map. Tarnoff’s 35-minute speech can be heard below, and it’s worth your sustained attention.

Ben Tarnoff is the author of The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (Penguin, 2014). He also writes regularly (and extremely well) for The Guardian on technology and politics, and is founder of Logic, a new magazine about technology. Mr. Tarnoff, take it away:

Huck Finn and Hamlet

Originally published here in April 2016, and by far the most popular post I’ve ever written, with over 1,500 hits upon its first appearance. Go figure.

If, as Ron Powers suggests in his exemplary biography of the writer, Mark Twain is America’s Shakespeare (and this coming Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is his Hamlet. Comparisons are odious, of course, but that never stopped people like myself from stinking the place up a little.

At first glance, there couldn’t be two works of literature more different in genre, style, and voice. Hamlet is tragedy, Huck Finn comedy; Hamlet is set in 14th or 15th century Denmark, Huck Finn in the 19th century American South; Hamlet’s a play confined to the locality of Elsinore, Huck Finn a picaresque novel. And I could go on. But to lay out only their differences is to obscure the continuing appeal of both works to a 21st century international readership. The similarities are more telling.

For a comic novel, Huck Finn has a large body count, nearly as large as Hamlet’s. Indeed, violent death weaves through the novel like a black thread. Before one reaches page 150, Pap Finn, three men on the Walter Scott, and Buck Grangerford (as well as others of the Grangerford clan) have already met violent ends, via a knife in the back, drowning, and shooting; that’s more than three deaths against the two deaths of Ophelia (drowning) and Polonius (stabbing). And there’s more to come, not least a gunshot that leaves Tom Sawyer near death.

There’s more to come in Hamlet, too, which leads to another interesting similarity, and that’s the controversial and, to some, unsatisfying conclusions of both Huck Finn and Hamlet. There are two schools of thought in Twain scholarship about the last fifth of the novel. The first believes that it represents a falling off of Twain’s talent and the book’s appeal, a cowardly repudiation of what had gone before; the second argues that the book is far more subtly crafted and deliberately structured than that, and the conclusion confirms all the satire that has gone before. I am of the latter opinion myself, but even so, Hamlet’s conclusion also suggests that Shakespeare had written himself into a corner and resorted to the Suddenly, everyone was run over by a truck. The End school of narrative closure that Michael O’Donoghue identified many years ago.

Both Shakespeare and Twain were working in a period of great linguistic transformations. Elizabethan English was in considerable flux in 1600, and the plays written and performed from Marlowe to Ford demonstrate the white-hot development of both written and spoken English in the 16th and 17th centuries. Similarly, written and spoken American English, both vernacular and literary, were just beginning to mature in the 19th century. Twain’s appropriation of Southwestern American dialects as he defined them in the author’s note that precedes the book revolutionized American literature (although, it must be said, many Southwestern literary journalists, including Josh Billings and Petroleum V. Nasby as well as Twain himself, had already started integrating this vernacular into stories written for newspapers and magazines).

Finally there is the question of theme, and Hamlet and Huck Finn share one particular thematic concern, that of guilt and conscience. The title characters of both experience confusion, doubt, and moral quandaries as they make their way through the stories that bear their names. Hamlet is tragic in that his search leads to a death-wish; Huck Finn is comic in that his leads to a desire for freedom. But in both works, individual morality in conflict with cultural morality is a central, if not the central, theme.

I picked up Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a reprieve from the dour imaginings of Shakespearean tragedy, but it was less a reprieve than I thought. Huck’s story is just as complex as Hamlet’s, and like Hamlet you cant get a firm grasp of Huck Finn on a single reading. Perhaps it is this that has led to its remarkable endurance, and not only in America. Like Hamlet, Huck Finn has been translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies around the world, and its popularity does not appear to be waning. (Except, that is, in the United States, where there’s far more Shakespeare than Twain sitting on the shelves of serious readers and critics, in the columns of literary and cultural journals, and in my Twitter and Facebook feeds though Huck Finn like Hamlet has generated entire shelves of critical response.)

Perhaps in part this is because, despite the book’s setting in the American South, there are children, temptation, corruption, violence, rivers, the wonders of friendship, and nostalgic longings for a seemingly more innocent past in every country (not to mention guilt and conscience). It may also be because it’s so funny, and remains so. If we’re going to be honest about it, there are more real laughs in Huckleberry Finn than in any three or four Shakespearean comedies combined. There are also a few in Twain’s own parody of the Hamlet soliloquy embedded in Huck Finn, and for a few laughs here, it’s posted below:

To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would fardels bear, till Birnam Wood do come to Dunsinane,
But that the fear of something after death Murders the innocent sleep,
Great nature’s second course,
And makes us rather sling the arrows of outrageous fortune
Than fly to others that we know not of.
There’s the respect must give us pause:
Wake Duncan with thy knocking! I would thou couldst;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The law’s delay, and the quietus which his pangs might take.
In the dead waste and middle of the night, when churchyards yawn
In customary suits of solemn black,
But that the undiscovered country from whose bourne no traveler returns,
Breathes forth contagion on the world,
And thus the native hue of resolution, like the poor cat i’ the adage,
Is sicklied o’er with care.
And all the clouds that lowered o’er our housetops,
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
But soft you, the fair Ophelia:
Ope not thy ponderous and marble jaws.
But get thee to a nunnery—go!