Traveling in Mark Twain

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Mark Twain’s five travel books, with the exception of Life on the Mississippi (1883), have deservedly received much less attention than has his fiction. Richard Bridgman shows in Traveling in Mark Twain, however, that the charm, humor, anger, and disillusionment associated with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889) also appear in Twain’s travel writing. In addition, the well-known structural flaws of his fiction occur to an even greater degree. In looking at The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), Following the Equator (1897), Life on the Mississippi, and “Old Times on the Mississippi,” an earlier, magazine version of the latter, Bridgman, author of books on Gertrude Stein, Henry David Thoreau, and colloquial style in the United States, combines literary criticism with insights into Twain’s character.

Ironically for someone who spent so much of his career traveling and writing about these experiences, Twain claimed to hate travel. He was nevertheless attracted to it, Bridgman explains, because change was an essential facet of his life: “Energetic, impatient, fidgety, invariably pursuing a host of projects, . . . he was constantly on the move. . . . He early discovered that the genre afforded him a license to react to whatever caught his fancy and be paid for it.” Twain’s exploitation of what Bridgman calls “the gratifying irresponsibility available in the form” is central to the critic’s analysis of the man and his work. Travel writing appealed to the two sides of Twain’s nature: The moralist could comment on a wide variety of subjects, often unusual, frequently involving a clash of values; the literary comedian could string together a series of anecdotes.

Much of Traveling in Mark Twain is devoted to the composition of Twain’s travel pieces and the structural problems they pose for writer, reader, and critic. Bridgman admits that one of the major limitations of analyzing the works of Mark Twain is that not everything in his books can be explained: “Enigmatic presences call out for attention, obliging one repeatedly to ask what motivated the telling of that particular anecdote in just that way?” Bridgman feels compelled to comment on all the major elements in the travel books, admitting failure only with the drawings in A Tramp Abroad, calling them unamusing, “technically crude,” “virtually meaningless,” and beyond—or beneath—interpretation.

These books have been said to be held together by nothing but their bindings, and Bridgman blames Twain’s casual method of composition as he constantly added, dropped, and rearranged materials for no apparent reason. He inserted discarded stories into later works and even repeated anecdotes from book to book. He also padded some books until they reached the size expected by the marketplace. In A Tramp Abroad, for example, are found “long mechanical stretches and a good deal of filler, especially in the latter reaches where others’ accounts of Alpine climbing exploits and accidents are copied out verbatim.”

Another reason for Twain’s rambling style was the way his mind worked, his penchant for...

(The entire section is 1359 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXV, December, 1987, p. 618.