Introduction by Richard Russo
The novelist William Dean Howells once famously remarked that his friend Mark Twain was not a writer who performed so much as a performer who wrote. Perhaps surprisingly, this astute observation also holds true in Twain’s nonfiction, a form that would seem to put less of a premium on both invention and performance. To read the passages from The Innocents Abroad
, Roughing It
, A Tramp Abroad
, and Life on the Mississippi
collected in this volume is to understand that Twain didn’t lose much sleep over the idiosyncratic demands of fiction versus nonfiction. Both offered numerous and varied opportunities to an inspired, indeed unparalleled, bullshitter. To be sure, many of the set pieces that are included in the Everyman’s Library volume of Twain’s Complete Short Stories –
“Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral,” “The Story of the Old Ram” – turn up in this volume as well. Classifying Twain’s work into fiction or nonfiction is something we do for our own convenience; it was his own convenience to ignore ours.
So, are the events chronicled in Roughing It –
which details Twain’s journey by stagecoach to the Nevada territory, his stint there as a silver miner, and his apprenticeship to the newspaper trade – true? Once asked that same question about one of his own stories, David Sedaris replied, “They’re true enough,” and it’s easy to imagine Twain saying the same thing about his youthful adventures in the American West. We know he traveled to Europe and the Holy Land as a correspondent, so it’s not unreasonable to suppose that at least some of what he reports in The Innocents Abroad
actually happened. I suspect, however, that the literally true parts are those he wasn’t able to improve on through embellishment or outright invention. For Twain, “truth” was not just elastic but indeed designed to be stretched. He learned this lesson early on, writing for western newspapers. He explains the job to great comic effect in Roughing It
, where, as a cub reporter, he wrote a story about a wagon full of immigrants attacked by Indians. At first, fearing that other reporters might recount the same story, he sticks pretty close to the facts, despite his conviction that the story could be improved upon by straying from them. Later, though, when he learns that the owner of the wagon meant to continue his journey the following morning (leaving no one to contradict Twain’s account), all bets are off. His next draft describes an Indian fight that “to this day has no parallel in history.” This is Twain we’re talking about, so it’s likely that he also exaggerated the extent of his exaggerations, but still. Buoyed by praise from the paper’s editor, he expresses a willingness to murder every immigrant on the plains with his pen if “the interests of the paper demanded it.” Thus the low bar of truth is established: true enough
. For him. For his editor. For the paper’s readership.
His approach to fiction was basically the same. At the beginning of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
, Huck says that readers may have heard of him if they’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
, which “was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There were things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.” That first assertion, it’s worth remembering, was both the truth and a lie. The book was actually “made” by Samuel Clemens, and the parts Mr. Clemens “stretched” were the parts that needed stretching, beginning with his own identity as Mark Twain. Again, Twain is not so much a writer, at least the way the term is used today, as a storyteller whose primary duties are to the narrative and its audience. No story is likely to be instructive if it isn’t entertaining, and the best way to gauge whether it’s working or not is to watch it land with an actual audience, a lesson Twain learned long before he gave his first public lecture.
In A Tramp Abroad
he recounts his first ride on a Mississippi steamboat as a ten-year-old boy. Falling asleep, he has a terrifying dream that the boat is ablaze, and he rushes into the ladies’ salon, still under the nightmare’s influence, screaming, “Fire!” The ladies there knew better, of course, and they advised him to return to his cabin and dress, lest he catch cold. It’s a revealing memory. The humiliation of his story playing so badly, his audience rejecting both the tale and the teller, is still fresh in Twain’s mind twenty-five years later as he’s writing Tramp
. Just as telling is the reason he recalls the episode in the first place. He’s in Germany watching a production of King Lear
, where the actor playing the title role “raged and wept and howled” about the stage. Twain admires the performance but feels sorry for the actor, who has to wait all the way to the end of the act for his applause.
Writers, by contrast, are used to silence. Their applause, if they’re lucky enough to get any, comes long after their “performance” has concluded, in the form of reviews. True, authors who publish serially may to some degree interact with their audience. When readers loved Sam Weller in an early installment of Pickwick Papers
, Dickens was happy to expand his role as the novel progressed, but that’s hardly the same as telling the same stories on stage night after night, as Twain did on his public speaking tours. Each audience provided him with valuable insight into what worked and why, allowing him to revise the material accordingly. His first public lecture triumph near the end of Roughing It
is described almost completely in terms of the crowd’s appreciation. The audience is with him from the start, he tells us, even the jokes he’d judged to be inferior, faring “royally.” Near the end, though, the material grows more somber and serious, and Twain tells us that the “absorbed hush” that fell over the audience “gratified me more than any applause.” Indeed, he’s so pleased by the reaction that he can’t help but smile, which the crowd took as a cue to laugh, thus ruining the moment.
Later in life, Twain’s relationship with his audience would grow more complex. In Life on the Mississippi
, he admits that being a river pilot was the best job he ever had, because the steamboat pilot has no master, whereas writers were “manacled servants of the public.” That said, no writer ever courted his audience more assiduously nor drew more confidence and pleasure from public adulation (Twain courted honorary degrees, too, and shamelessly). Indeed one suspects that it was from his audience, as much as the work itself, that Twain derived his sense of accomplishment and well-being.
It’s worth pointing out that the world has changed since Twain left it, and our attitudes towards “truth” and “fiction” have become more rigorous and stern. Mislabel your novel as a memoir (or allow your publisher to do so) and you’ll likely find yourself in a world of hurt. Twain was no great fan of fraud and deception, but like Melville he understood that the world was steeped in both, and moreover he harbored more than a little admiration and affection for the world’s charlatans. Reading Huckleberry Finn
I often wonder if I judge the King and the Duke more harshly than their creator intended. At the very least Twain would’ve understood that people who get conned are often complicit in their own deception. Just as important, Twain would have recognized the paradox inherent in labeling some stories “made up” (fiction) and others “true” (nonfiction). Interestingly, audience often plays a role here, too. When you claim that a story is invented – especially one as elaborate as Twain’s were – people will naturally suspect you of telling the truth (Come on! You couldn’t have made that up!)
; conversely, when you claim to be telling the truth, those same folks shift gears and suspect you of lying (Surely you embellished this?
). Storytelling thrives in this fundamental paradox and often resists attempts at clarification.
The world has changed in other ways, too, since Twain’s departure. Seen in proper historical context, he appears in so many ways – in his embrace of technology, his use of the vernacular, his attitudes toward race, colonialism, and, later, the abomination of slavery – forward-thinking, a man ahead of his time. However, though it pains me to say it, there is, by contemporary standards, some pretty cringe-worthy stuff in these pages. In The Innocents Abroad
, observing the two men in a Paris parade, Twain sees in Emperor Napoleon III “the representative of the highest modern civilization, progress, and refinement,” whereas the Turkish sultan Abdul-Aziz, sized up from a distance as “stupid” and “unprepossessing,” represents a people “filthy, brutish, ignorant, unprogressive, [and] superstitious.” In Palestine, Twain’s party comes upon a group of homeless, impoverished people by the side of the road. Among them are a mother and child; from afar, it looks like the child is wearing goggles, but up close they see that its eyes are infested with flies which the mother can’t be bothered to shoo away. Twain notes how this “usual assemblage of squalid humanity . . . sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.” Yikes.
Closer to home in Roughing It
, he describes the western coyote as having a “blood kinship” with the American Indian, both of which will “eat anything they can bite.” The Goshoot tribe of the Nevada territories are a “silent, sneaking, treacherous looking race . . . always hungry, and yet never refusing anything that a hog would eat, though often eating what a hog would decline.” From our privileged twenty-first-century vantage point, we can’t help wishing our nineteenth century literary hero would identify what he’s witnessing as poverty and ignorance, not innate depravity. And female readers will surely note that women don’t seem to register fully on Twain’s consciousness and imagination. Nor do the poor and downtrodden always elicit the sympathy we might expect. Twain describes Parisian slum-dwellers as “savage-looking ruffians” who “take as much genuine pleasure in building a barricade as they do in cutting a throat or shoving a friend into the Seine.” Nor, at times, is he above playing the least fortunate for laughs: “If you want dwarfs – I mean just a few dwarfs for a curiosity – go to Genoa. If you wish to buy them by the gross, for retail, go to Milan . . . the crop [is] luxuriant.”
But if Twain was a man of his time and not ours, it’s also worth noting that his convictions evolved during his life. For instance, throughout The Innocents Abroad
, he identifies himself as a Christian and as such compares himself and his fellow pilgrims favorably to non-Christians and pagans, who are typically depicted as superstitious, cruel, and violence-prone. But in The Mysterious Stranger
fragments, which were among the last things he wrote, he has the angel Satan tell the story’s protagonist that “two or three centuries from now it will be recognized that all the competent killers are Christians.” And who is to blame? Why, the Christian God, “who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones.”
More often, though, he is our
Mark Twain, compassionate, broad-minded, and fatherly, more the man we’ve come to expect from reading Huckleberry Finn
and Pudd’nhead Wilson
, whose moral compass we can admire. In Roughing It
, he recognizes as purest bigotry the shabby treatment of the Chinese, who were essential to both the building of the transcontinental railroad and the settlement of the West: “They are a harmless race when white men either let them alone or treat them no worse than dogs . . . A disorderly Chinaman is rare, and a lazy one does not exist.” On their behalf he demands fairness, justice. “Any white man can swear a Chinaman’s life away in the courts, but no Chinaman can testify against a white man.” And once aroused, his sympathies are both righteous and fierce. “Only the scum of the population” abuse the Chinese, he asserts, they and “policemen and politicians . . . the dust-licking pimps and slaves of the scum.” With very few exceptions he can be counted on to take the side of the oppressed over the oppressor. In The Innocents Abroad
, the prisoner consigned for political reasons to the dungeons of the Doge’s palace in Venice lives “without light, air, books; naked, unshaven, uncombed, covered with vermin; his useless tongue forgetting its office, with none to speak to.” And his heart goes out to all abused animals, even to the notorious, much maligned dogs of Constantinople: “I never saw such utterly wretched, starving, sad-visaged, broken-hearted looking curs in my life.” “Do I contradict myself?” Walt Whitman asked in “Song of Myself,” before immediately answering in the affirmative. If Twain embodies his own fair share of contradictions, we do well to remember that he too was “large” and “contained multitudes.”
Of course the prevailing characteristic of Twain’s storytelling is his witty, playful exuberance. He loves to tell us one thing while showing us another, ascribing, for instance, a laudable, benevolent motive to a human behavior when a baser one is actually on display. Again in Palestine, fearing an attack by Bedouins, he tells us, “My first impulse was to dash forward and destroy [them] . . . My second was to dash to the rear to see if there were any coming in that direction. I acted on the latter impulse. So did all the others. If any Bedouins had approached us, then, from that point on the compass, they would have paid dearly for their rashness.” Taking painting lessons in A Tramp Abroad
, he tells us, tongue firmly implanted in cheek, that he’s been complimented by his teachers for having “a manner of my own . . . that if I ever painted the commonest type of a dog, I should be sure to throw a something into the aspect of that dog which would keep him from being mistaken for the creation of any other artist,” and after many months of arduous study, his German is described by one of his teachers as “very rare, possibly a ‘unique.’” By the end of his life Twain would rail against the “damned human race,” but in these pages we see a writer still buoyant and hopeful enough to regard human foolishness as grand entertainment, and far from considering himself exempt from folly, he’s all too willing (as above) to make himself the butt of the joke. If others are fools and hypocrites, well, they have him (and, if we’re honest, us
) for company. In Gibraltar he buys a pair of kid gloves that are manifestly too small, tearing them to shreds as he tugs them on and off, all because the merchant keeps complimenting him on how perfect they look on him. Elsewhere he tells the story of a tiresome, grouchy fellow who keeps banging on about how perfectly wretched the coffee has been during their travels, offering as evidence the pale, transparent liquid he happens just then to be drinking. Taking a taste, his companion admits that as coffee it leaves a great deal to be desired, but that it’s tolerably good tea
. Only at the anecdote’s conclusion does Twain identify the chastened fool as himself.
Such passages, together with unforgettable set pieces on shaving, dueling, profanity, singing gondoliers, Turkish baths, and the ridiculous German language, make apparent just how much fun
Twain had writing. I mention this because not every writer does have fun, and not all that do are willing to admit it. For Twain, much of the sheer joy of storytelling is language itself. All good writers take pleasure in locating the precise right word for the occasion. Twain, who in a letter to William Dean Howells called a man “a quadrilateral, astronomical, incandescent son of a bitch,” finds equal delight in locating the perfect wrong
one. In order to tell the story of his grandfather’s ram, it’s necessary for the storyteller, Jim Blaine, to become “tranquilly, serenely, symmetrically
drunk” [my emphasis], and in real life Twain takes particular delight in people like Mr. Ballou, also in Roughing It
, who loves the sound
of words, irrespective of their meaning and context. His ire up, he accuses a man named Ollendorf of being dumber than a “logarythm.” That gentleman, deeply wounded, later admits he has no idea what the word means except that it’s obviously “a thing considered disgraceful and unbecoming in America.” When young Sam didn’t learn the Mississippi River fast enough to suit his “gunpowdery” teacher and mentor, Mr. Bixby, Bixby “went off with a bang . . . and then went on loading and firing until he was out of adjectives.” Twain himself is never out of them. He describes a riverboat captain named Brown as a “middle-aged, long, slim, bony, smoothshaven, horse-faced, ignorant, stingy, malicious, snarling, fault-hunting, mote-magnifying tyrant.” Who says
, Show, don’t tell
? In addition to words, Twain is deeply devoted to every sort of comic illogic and fallacy. “There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it.” His inability to keep
promises, he explains (lest it be considered a character flaw) is the quite natural and understandable result of his too large and generous capacity to make
them. “The surest way to stop writing about Rome,” he informs us, as if we’ll all have need of this advice one day, “is to stop.”
Also on display throughout these pages is Twain the iconoclast, who has little use for received wisdom. Prone to invention and embellishment himself, he’s naturally suspicious of the authority of others. Taking in the sights of Europe, he steadfastly refuses to allow professional guides (including, and especially, guidebooks) to trump the evidence of his own senses. Those who revere “the old masters” for their “sublimity,” “feeling,” and “richness of coloring,” come under sharp, unrelenting attack. “I envy them their honest admiration, if it be honest – their delight, if they feel delight . . . But at the same time the thought will
intrude itself upon me, How can they see what is not visible? . . . What would you think of a man who stared in ecstasy upon a desert of stumps and said: ‘Oh . . . what a noble forest is here!’ “ German opera? Twain finds it insufferable, though he has a theory as to its popularity across the Atlantic. Opera’s ingenuity, he argues, is that “it deals so largely in pain that its scattered delights are prodigiously augmented by the contrasts . . . just as an honest man in politics shines more than he would elsewhere.” He has little doubt that one day Americans will like opera, too: “One in fifty” already does, the other forty-nine attending “in order to learn to like it, and the rest in order to be able to talk knowingly about it.” They hum along “so that their neighbors may perceive that they have been to operas before. The funerals of these do not occur often enough.”
What’s particularly thrilling to witness here is the emergence of Twain’s voice, which he seems to have invented not just for himself but for the young nation he clearly feels at liberty to speak for. That voice, its distinctive attitude and posture, has become so much a part of us that it’s hard to remember that there was ever a time when there was simply nothing like it. Its unexpected freshness, like the emergence, later, of jazz or rock and roll, was actually part of its message. In The Innocents Abroad
and A Tramp Abroad
he puts Europe and the rest of the world under the microscope, but the lens he peers through is strictly American, meaning that he has as much to say about us, the viewer, as the viewed. It’s the American character – our energy, practicality, arrogance, competence, anti-intellectualism, and congenital optimism – that thus emerges. His use of arithmetic to suggest the fraudulence of European relics (added up, there are enough nails and slivers of the true cross to make dozens of them, and there appear to be at least two complete sets of the Apostle John’s ashes) are hilarious enough in their own right, but they also make the case that America, a nation too young to have a past, really isn’t missing much. At Heidelberg Castle he buys for a pittance a portrait of a duke and another of a princess so that he might start “a portrait gallery of my ancestors,” remarking that “one can lay in ancestors at even cheaper rates than these.” In Titian, Tintoretto, Raphael, Rubens and Veronese he sees men of “cringing spirit,” toadies willing to genuflect before “such monsters as the French, Venetian, and Florentine Princes,” something no American would do. Regarding the riches of the Vatican and “priest-ridden” Italy, he goes off (forgive me) like a Roman candle: “Raphael pictured such infernal villains as Catherine and Marie de Medicis seated in heaven and conversing familiarly with the Virgin Mary and the angels.” “Alas! those good old times are gone,” he says elsewhere, “when a murderer could wipe the stain from his name . . . by building an addition to a church.”
When he’s not busy mocking European snobbery and pretension he’s having fun playing with the stereotype of the parochial, self-satisfied American abroad. Seeing Notre Dame Cathedral for the first time, he assures us, “We had heard of it before.” Like Washington Irving before him, he often depicts his fellow pilgrims as slow-witted, a step behind (like Brom Bones), when in reality they’re steps ahead. Throughout Europe they allow their guides – all of whom they call Ferguson, rather than learn to pronounce their names – to deliver long lectures about this or that Renaissance or medieval artist, only to inquire when Ferguson’s voice finally falls, “Is he dead?”
And yet in the two books where America itself is put under the microscope – Roughing It
and Life on the Mississippi –
Twain displays both pride and profound misgivings about the American character that is surfacing. As in Huckleberry Finn
, he recognizes violence as part of the nation’s DNA. As a lover of tall tales, he immediately recognizes its inherent comic potential. On his first day in Carson City he witnesses a dispute between a man named Harris and another who had recently identified him as the robber of a stagecoach. The former “began to rebuke the stranger with a six-shooter, and the stranger began to explain with another.” When both revolvers are empty Harris, full of “picturesque” bullet holes, rides on with a “polite nod.” Twain’s portrait of the fearsome outlaw Slade is similarly cartoonish. Real violence, which Twain equates with cruelty, is different, and he evinces little taste or stomach for either. He learns early that there’s nothing romantic about death. Sneaking home late one night he discovers a corpse in his father’s office: “A white human hand lay in the moonlight! Such an awful sinking at the heart – such a sudden gasp for breath! I felt – I can not tell what
I felt.” With cartoon violence, his instinct is to embellish; with real violence (in life or violence made real in fiction), he instead draws the curtain, as at the end of the Grangerford/Shepherdson feud in Huckleberry Finn
, where Huck explains that he won’t be telling us about all the things he witnessed because “it would make me sick again.” In Life on the Mississippi
, Twain is similarly reticent in describing the death of his brother Henry after a steamboat explosion. “On the evening of the sixth day his wandering mind busied itself with matters far away . . . His hour had struck; we bore him to the death-room, poor boy.” What’s fascinating about his lengthy account of the explosion’s aftermath is that most of Twain’s attention is devoted not to his brother at all, but rather to the boat’s chief mate, whose horrific injuries are described in harrowing detail. Three times the man is carried to the death-room, only to rally there and curse his attendant. Why focus on the mate instead of his own brother? Because the mate “lived to be mate of a steamboat again.” Life trumps death – it’s that simple.
Is such optimism a matter of youth? Faith? If the latter, faith in what? God? Perhaps, sometimes. In these early books, though he gleefully skewers conformist piety, Twain shows both respect and admiration for genuine faith, like that of the Dominican fathers who minister to the sick and dying during the plague. More often, though, his faith seems to reside in the seemingly incorruptible spirit and innocence of individuals like Tom and Huck, the unflagging devotion and love radiating from men like Jim. We sense that it’s because of them he can believe in his fledgling nation, in the progress it represents. At the end of Life on the Mississippi
he returns to Hannibal and locates the house he grew up in before he, like Huck, lit out for the territories. “The people who now occupy it are of no more value than I am; but in my time they would have been worth not less than five hundred dollars apiece. They are colored folk.”
Should it trouble us that in the end Twain’s optimism was unsustainable? Maybe. Should it surprise us? Probably not. If despair is not a potent source of comedy – and many argue that it is – it’s all too often the fate of the comic artist. There comes a day when all that you’ve managed to keep at bay through humor just isn’t funny anymore, which may be why comic geniuses often do their best work early. G. K. Chesterton preferred Dickens’s first novel, Pickwick Papers
, to all that followed. Not many would agree with that assessment, but there is much to be said for the novels that preceded Bleak House
, their sheer delight in the world, their author’s youthful chutzpah. The Mark Twain of these early- to mid-career books clearly felt equal to whatever task was put before him. Sure, even as a young man he was acquainted with loss and failure, but these had not yet begun to take their toll, which is another way of saying he’d not yet really begun to internalize them. That would come later.
Meanwhile, he was, like the nation he spoke for, confident, irreverent, exuberant, unapologetic, full of swagger, untroubled by self-doubt, and, perhaps most important, dead game. A force of nature. Something new in the world.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Twain; Introduction by Richard Russo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.