The Travels of Mark Twain!
Our book today at first almost seems like a blasphemy: it’s The Travels of Mark Twain from 1961, and its seeming blasphemy comes from the fact that Charles Neider is its editor rather than its author. Rather than a work of history and analysis about Mark Twain’s extensive travels, as its title might indicate, it’s an anthology of highlights from Twain’s accounts of those travels – and since those writings are some of the best stuff he ever produced (and since, for instance, one of those books, Life on the Mississippi, always vied with the unreadable Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc in Twain’s own mind as the best book he ever wrote), the shrill question immediately arises: what kind of barbarian would want to read an anthology of bits and pieces when he could read the whole, unabridged, glorious works themselves?
In one sense, there’s no good answer to that question. Twain was an omnivorously engaging writer, but he had a particular flair for travel-writing, and his many books and collections of it are endlessly enjoyable (and have no dud pages). An anthology of bits and pieces from those book will strike die-hard Twain fans as merely a sacrilegious butchering.
But there are a couple of good answers to the question nevertheless. The first is that die-hard Twain fans have to come from someplace, and for over a hundred years, especially when it comes to books that aren’t Huckleberry Finn, that place is usually an anthology of some kind. And the second is that this particular anthology is superb.
It’s superb thanks to Charles Neider, who was in his day was the best Mark Twain popularizer in the world. He had a complete command of the man’s sprawling life’s work, which put him in the perfect position to assemble selections of that work, selections designed to invite, designed to make die-hard Twain fans out of curious dabblers. Probably the most popular of the anthologies Neider crafted was his “Autobiography” of Twain, but this generous 1961 volume, with its thick pages and deckled edges, does excellent service for its readers, despite some ominously phlegmy moments in the Introduction, as when Neider writes about The Innocents Abroad, “Nor can one overlook the book’s technical skill – for example, the subtle shifts of tense from past to present to give sudden vividness to scene and description, or the wise, sly avoidance of much use of the first-person pronoun, suggesting that the author’s opinions and reactions are typical.” You can practically hear Twain drawling, “You figure I’m doin’ all that, Seymour?”
But the simple truth is that Twain wrote a great heaping pile of travel-writing, including Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi, Following the Equator, and A Tramp Abroad … and an expertly-chosen anthology like this one can come as a godsend, especially to the bewildered newcomer to Twain, wondering where to start.
It’s more than that, also: Neider isn’t just making things easy. Thanks to his amazing knowledge of Twain’s writing, he’s able to zero in on one especially outstanding excerpt after another and fit them all smoothly into an over-arching narrative of his own construction. And some of the aspects of Twain’s relationship to his subject might come as a surprise even to those die-hard Twain fans. Neider is surely right to characterize the whole field of writing as something of a job for its author:
He was on the whole a conventional traveler who treasured his comforts and was content to go where others had gone before. One suspects that he went to California mainly because of its proximity to Nevada and that he liked San Francisco largely because he could pursue his trade there while enjoying a society which by the standards of his childhood and youth was extremely cosmopolitan. As far as I know he did not visit Monterey (the old Pacific capital), the missions, Sutter’s fort, or the village of Los Angeles. It is a pity; his impressions would be worth having. He made no effort to penetrate into Africa. He did not bother to record his week in Spain near the end of the Holy Land excursion. In later years, despite many visits to Europe, he did not go to Spain, Greece, Russia or any of the other places where travel was likely to be uncomfortable. He liked the well-padded trails: England, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy.
And true to form, he finds the perfect quote from Twain himself, a cold-water quote if ever there was one:
An indefatigable traveller! That’s where I am misunderstood. Now I have mad thirty-four long journeys in my life, and thirty-two of them were made under the spur of absolute compulsion. I mean it – under nothing but sheer compulsion. There always was an imperative reason. I had to gather material for books or sketches. I had to stump around lecturing to make money, or I had to go abroad for the health or education of my family. For love of travel – never any of these thirty-two journeys. There is no man living who cares less about seeing new places and peoples than I. You are surprised – but it’s the gospel truth.
It’s hard to reconcile this kind of dour grousing with the absolutely infectious enthusiasm of the travel-writings themselves, which certainly don’t read like the expressions of somebody who isn’t interested in seeing new places and meeting new people. It’s no doubt one of the reasons why Neider chose to put such a quote right at the beginning of the anthology: so readers can hear the author’s own disclaimer … and then get swept away by the excerpts themselves. And Neider is so good at picking his bits and pieces that a book like this functions as much as a “greatest hits” album as an invitation to newcomers. Either way, it’s a mighty delightful thing to have on the Twain shelf.