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Monday, March 30, 2009

TWAIN'S THE INNOCENTS ABROAD is not so innocent!

I’m a Mark Twain fan. I believe The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a brilliant work—one I would take with me if left on a desert island. Twain’s witticisms are sharp, insightful, and laced with vinegar. My bumper sticker this last election cycle read, “Mark Twain for President: Better to be popular than right.”

So it was no hardship to pick up a book of his I had never read, The Innocents Abroad. This 1867 travel book of four-month excursion through Europe to the Holy Land seemed just the venue to showcase Twain’s talents. I was right. This book is both a journey into the past and its perspectives as well as a look at some apparently universal qualities that are just as true today as they were in 1867. That means if you are looking for a PC book, skip this one. What’s true is not always pretty, and Twain’s ink is tinted with reality. That goes for People, Places, and Things. He definitely voices the idea that The Emperor Has No Clothes. I did a lot of chuckling at how little some things have changed.

If you close your eyes and think of what was unfamiliar to people in the mid 19th century, you can see how spectacularly this book which was available by subscription was received. His descriptions are wonderful—some complimentary, others caustic. In his fashion he strips away the expectations and describes the reality. It’s a wonderful read------IF you can forget that he was painting pictures for people who were far less familiar with the world than we are today. That makes some of the detail quite tedious and other detail quite amusing. I admit to skimming through some of that 1867 stuff and chuckling at the stuff that remains true today.

But don’t mistake Twain for a mocking writer. In almost every case, he mocks and admires at the same time. A great example is his first daylight impression of Venice that evokes disdain and disappointment. But as night falls and lights come on (just a few paragraphs later), the charm and beauty of the city is evoked with all the grace and talent he possesses.

Twain describes the great Bazaar in Stamboul: “The place is crowded with people all the time, and as the gay-colored Eastern fabrics are lavishly displayed before every shop, the great Bazaar of Stamboul is one of the sights that are worth seeing. It is full of life, and stir, and business, dirt, beggars, asses, yelling peddlers, porters, dervishes, high-born Turkish female shoppers, Greeks, and weird-looking and weirdly dressed Mohammedans from the mountains and the far provinces—and the only solitary thing one does not smell when he is in the Great Bazaar, is something which smells good.”

Does that seem old-fashioned and stereotyped? Here is a description from a current popular book, Out Stealing Horses: “There is nothing but bazaars in that town, and voices shouting in every language wanting to sell you something, wanting you to come down the gangway…and it is deafening and bewildering, there are cymbals and kettledrums, and smells that almost make you faint; a mixture of overripe vegetables and indefinable meat he had no idea existed in this world.”

Twain remarks about the pomposity of travelers: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad…there are Americans …who have actually forgotten their mother tongue in three months—forgot it in France. They cannot even write their address in English in a hotel register.”

I cannot help but include this section from an 1870 Saturday Review (British magazine) piece done on this book: “Perhaps we have persuaded our readers by this time that Mr. Twain is a very offensive specimen of the vulgarest kind of Yankee. And yet, to say the truth, we have a kind of liking for him. There is a frankness and originality about his remarks which is pleasanter than the mere repetition of stale raptures; and his fun, if not very refined, is often tolerable in its way. In short, his pages may be turned over with amusement, as exhibiting more or less consciously a very lively portrait of the uncultivated American tourist, who may be more obtrusive and misjudging, but is not quite so stupidly unobservant as our native product. We should not choose either of them for our companions on a visit to a church or a picture-gallery, but we should expect most amusement from the Yankee as long as we could stand him."

Choose this book with care, but hang on—it’s going to be a bumpy but remarkable ride.

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