A Tale of Two Twains

Travel Books: Kristin Van Tassel considers two recent books about Mark Twain, arguably America's greatest traveler -- and travel writer

07.14.06 | 6:10 AM ET

Mark TwainAlthough known first as a novelist, humorist, and regionalist, Mark Twain was a prolific travel writer as well. He wrote five travel books: The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Following the Equator (1897). Mark Twain: On Travel, edited by Terry Mort, and to a lesser extent Mark Twain’s Helpful Hints for Good Living: A Handbook for the Damned Human Race, edited by Lin Salamo, Victor Fischer, and Michael B. Frank of the Mark Twain Project, glean their contents from Twain’s excursions, domestic and international.

The latter compilation, “Helpful Hints,” is an intentionally episodic collection on a variety of topics, including essays on everything from travel to health, from parenting to fashion. The excerpts are punctuated with pithy quotations—chosen, it would appear, more for their cleverness than their relevance to the chapter in which they are placed.

For those seeking a sustained reading experience, “Helpful Hints” might disappoint, but it is perfect for the easily distracted or frequently waylaid. An alternative title for the collection could very well be “Mark Twain for Parents of Small Children: Antidotes for Insanity,” as most of the excerpts are brief enough to be read in 3-10 minutes, about as much uninterrupted time the moms and dads of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers ever expect to have. The numerous photographs of Twain in the collection are a big plus—they are truly delightful—and further reinforce the possibility that the book actually belongs in the parenting aisle of the local bookstore. The collection might double as a children’s picture book: parents could read its excerpts aloud (for themselves) while the kidlets check out the variations of Twain’s ample mustache.

Mort’s anthology is devoted exclusively to travel, drawing on all five of Twain’s travel books. As Mort points out in his introduction, Twain deliberately bulked up his 600-page travel books for readers “who wanted something substantial for their money.” “On Travel” provides an alternative for the text-saturated contemporary reader whose reading regimen includes more than a family Bible and the occasional James Fenimore Cooper novel.

Mort, who aims to convey Twain as a “complicated” man, has selected a variety of excerpts, most of them more substantial than those of the Mark Twain Project collection. Many of the selections display Twain’s characteristic breeziness, though some also address weighty topics (the self-sacrifice of widows in India, for example, or the ill treatment of slaves in the American south) with gravity, dark humor, or both. Horses are a frequent topic of Twain’s in Mort’s selections, inadvertently offering readers a recurring reminder of the extent to which travel has changed over the past century. While Mort is given to hyperbole at times in his introduction (concluding it, for example, with a proclamation of Twain’s “fathomless genius”), his text offers a fine introduction to and overview of Twain as a travel writer. Those wishing to familiarize themselves with American-authored travel texts of the past may very well wish to begin with Mort’s collection.

Kristin Van Tassel teaches writing and American literature at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kansas. Her essays and articles on place, ecology, motherhood, and travel have appeared in Alternet, Counterpunch, Mamazine and Transitions Abroad. Her poetry has appeared in Relief and Mamazine.

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