Archive » November 23, 2006
By Shelly Lowenkopf
EVER THE TWAIN SHALL MEET
The motion picture “Charade” begins ominously enough with a funeral service in progress. Given a passing view of the open casket, we are able to determine that the departed is a man of roughly middle years. From the cadre of mourners, a woman approaches the casket, precipitously removes a hat pin from her rather large, floppy-brimmed hat, then, shockingly, uses the pin to jab the corpse. She is, it turns out, the widow. “I wanted to make sure,” she announces, “that he was dead.”
Although Samuel Langhorne Clemens once created an iconic moment with the observation that reports of his death had been greatly exaggerated, it is generally agreed that he did ultimately reach a cut-off point in April of 1910. It is also generally agreed that among his illustrious predecessors and, indeed, his successors, no one has so successfully defined the American psyche or the American landscape. To be sure, there are men and women who have set pen to paper in memorable fashion, but if you wished to use one writer to introduce America to an outside source, the name Mark Twain would figure heavily in your calculus.
The man himself may be dead but an extraordinary range of his work remains very much alive, resonating to this very day. In the process of jabbing a metaphoric hatpin into the body of his legacy to us, I’ll mention three works of nonfiction. One of these in particular has been under the light of inquiry. “The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress” wrested America away from looking over its shoulder to see what Europe thought of it. “The Innocents Abroad” gave America to Americans and to a large extent continues to define the diverse, prolific, and dysfunctional family we have become. As a piece of literature, “The Innocents Abroad” is an amalgam of travel writing, morality, humor, self-assurance, and a glorious appreciation of our independence. It is a secular bible, a dynamic appreciation of our strengths and weaknesses. Like a number of Twain’s other works of fiction and nonfiction, “The Innocents Abroad” illustrates the pairs of opposites that reside within us, informing and arguing with our every movement.
No less important in their individual ways are “Life on the Mississippi” and “Roughing It,” the former a panegyric to a river rightly seen as the aorta of America, the latter an introduction to the frontier. Space limitations and the focus of enthusiasm confine me to “The Innocents Abroad,” a book one can return to in the same spirit as one revisits the defining moments of life.
In 1867, the Quaker City, a commodious side-wheeler steamer with an impressive set of auxiliary sails set forth from New York harbor on a five-month tour of Mediterranean Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Among the passengers was a 32-year-old journalist who, among other things, was building a reputation as a humorist, and who’d had to leave the second of what he considered the best jobs a man could have in one lifetime, lest the consequences of one of his journalistic pranks forced him to fight a duel.
Almost from the get-go, Twain’s journalistic eye kicked in on the elements that impress people and the attempts they will make to appear impressive to others. He’d already had great success at the Virginia City, Nevada Territorial-Enterprise, dramatizing such events. Now, aboard the Quaker City, he had the opportunity to visit fabled locales and even more fabled museums, laden with the treasures and relics of legend.
Twain had already learned to watch, dead-pan, and to record in equally dead-pan manner what he saw. In the Holy Land, he was approached by an entrepreneur who offered to let him see the skull of Adam for a mere 25 cents. As Twain reports it, he immediately began to cry because, as he put it, “I was so far from home and yet here was the skull of a relative.”
Scant minutes later, another guide approached him, offering him the chance to see the skull of Adam for 50 cents. Noticing that this last skull was larger than the first, Twain concluded, “The first skull was Adam, the boy. The second had been Adam as a man.”
His particular targets were museums, overzealous guides, and fellow travelers who professed to see “art,” “beauty,” and “meaning” where in fact these qualities were invisible to the human eye.
“People,” he writes, “come here from all parts of the world to glorify the masterpiece, They stand entranced before it with baited breath and parted lips, and when they speak, it is only in the catchy ejaculations of rapture:
‘What sublimity of conception!’
‘A Vision! A vision!’
Í only envy these people; I envy then their honest admiration, if it be honest – their delight if they feel delight. I harbor no animosity toward any of them, But at the same time the thought will intrude itself on me, How can they see what is not visible?”
Twain and a travel companion have decided to give tour guides a hard time, thus the setting for a visit to a museum in Italy where they are shown documents allegedly written by Christopher Columbus. Twain promptly wants to know whether Columbus is dead, then wonders aloud what Columbus did that was all that remarkable.
“Discover America,” the guide insists.
“Nonsense,” Twain responds, “we are from there and we have heard nothing of a discovery by Columbus.”
Nor are they moved by Columbus’s calligraphy. “We have fourteen-year-old boys in America who can do better than this,” Twain says. “If you have any better specimens, trot them out.”
The fact that Twain could and did write with admiration of impressive things balances his humor and attitude, giving his readers guidelines for what to take seriously and what at all costs to take without being duped by rank or pretense.
A five-month tour of a significant slice of the globe becomes a metaphor which the man who was Mark Twain pounced upon and exploited. The tour allowed him to see the wonders of the small detail, the amazing similarity rampant among mankind, the virtues and the meanness with which we are wired. “The Innocents Abroad” helped Twain refine his voice and give us a national one that in some measure transcended the rancor of our Civil War, the suspicions of regionalism, and the lessons to be learned from travel. “If you are of any account,” he wrote, “you will leave home and see the world. If you are no account, you will remain at home and be a burden to family and friends.”
It is probably true that Twain was closer to the top of his game in “Life on the Mississippi,” and at the actual top when he moved over to “Huckleberry Finn,” which he returned to after having once abandoned it, an innocent himself with regard to the effect it would have. It is no stretch to consider Twain an innocent, abroad in a larger, complex world, where he dined with royalty and the intellectual elite of his day but told stories that delighted all levels of humanity. One of his favorite works, “Personal History of Joan of Arc,” does not hold up well at all, and in his later travel writing, “A Tramp Abroad,” and “Following the Equator,” we can see him, manfully reaching through the personal tragedies of his life to find the rambunctious spirits and energy of “The Innocents Abroad.”
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