Take Another Look at Mark Twain: Innocents Abroad

Today the average reader hears of Mark Twain and thinks three things: Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and hilarity. For the first twenty years of Twain’s incredibly successful writing career, the average reader heard of Mark Twain and thought three things: lectures, travelogues, and hilarity.

 

Long before The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn became a serious contender for the Great American Novel (and therefore the bane of every high school student who doesn’t get titillated over reading the N-word with impunity), Twain actually made his fame in the popular genre of the travelogue with his book Innocents Abroad.

 

Innocents Abroad (1869) was a travelogue through Europe with a group of American tourists and Twain’s second book. Published 15 years before Huck, it launched him into nearly overnight success. It sold over 80,000 copies in less than two years.  (Tom Sawyer, on the other hand, would sell a relatively few 25,000 copies in less than two years.)

 

A first edition of Tom Sawyer, surprisingly not as popular as Twain's jokes about Frenchmen.
A first edition of Tom Sawyer, surprisingly not as popular as Twain’s jokes about Frenchmen.

 

As he would later achieve with Huck in its genre, Twain turned travel literature on its head, drawing the absurdities out of its conventions with an admirable mix of hard-bitten humor and pinprick-sharp perception.

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother.

In fact, Twain began this transformation of the genre even before the book was published. On the strength of his comic timing and masterful sense of storytelling, Twain gave lectures about the European cruise. He was terrified that his appearances would be nightmarish failures—this was before Innocents appeared to rave reviews. But in fact, the lectures were a rabid success. Twain rode the wave from his lectures to a stunning performance in book sales, and from that point his name would never fade from the American psyche. Ron Powers says that before Twain,

“Humor” was a curiosity performed by people called “humorists,” a specialized skill roughly equivalent to sawing one’s accomplice in half in a magic show. It was not to be confused with Serious Writing.

Twain changed that: he somehow achieved epiphanies all the deeper through his inability to take any situation seriously. At one point in Innocents Abroad, Twain is pondering how modern archaeologists and historians create entire scenarios of the past with so little data to support their stories. He imagines an encyclopedia entry for Ulysses S. Grant in “A.D. 5868”:

Uriah S. (or Z.) Graunt – popular poet of ancient times in the Aztec provinces of the United States of British America. Some authors say flourished about A.D. 742; but the learned Ah-ah Foo-foo states that he was a contemporary of Scharkspyre, the English poet, and flourished about A.D. 1328, some three centuries after the Trojan war instead of before it. He wrote ‘Rock me to Sleep, Mother.’

This type of writing was something new in American letters: harsh and sarcastic, yet fresh and smart. It made Twain—rightfully—a literary superstar.

 

In comparison with these early triumphs, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was rather like an interesting little side-path running off the road of non-fiction humor that was Twain’s bread and butter. I think it was partially the sheer genius of Huck alone that eclipsed his earlier successes—a book so great that reading it makes even the best books of the day (including some written by the same author) shrink in comparison.

 

Yes, yes, here it is. The first edition of Huckleberry Finn. Now go read something else by Twain.
Yes, yes, here it is. The first edition of Huckleberry Finn. Now go read something else by Twain.

 

All of which is to say, don’t stop at Tom and Huck. Read about Paris, the Parthenon, and the Holy Land through the revolutionary vision of America’s first authentic prose stylist. Mark Twain: the voice of reason and the absurd.

 

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16 Comments Add yours

  1. vanbraman says:

    Innocents Abroad is definitely a good read. I really enjoyed it when I read it. I also like Pudd’nhead Wilson. There is also a recent book out about the real Tom Sawyer who was a fireman in San Francisco. I have a post about it on my blog. It was an interesting read.

    1. Glad to hear you’ve been thorough in your Twain readings. Which is your favorite?

      1. vanbraman says:

        The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is probably my favorite, but I also like Life on the Mississippi and Roughing It. Second in the fiction category would probably be A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or The Prince and the Pauper.

  2. Jon Parker says:

    Another book that shows clearly who Twain was and how he thought is “Letters from the Earth. It’s Twain at his most brutal and profane, and is absolutely a delight.

    1. Thanks for commenting to add a recommendation!

  3. Michael says:

    Awesome.

  4. Let the Brits have ‘Scharkspyre,’ we have Twain. Great post!

  5. Jeff Yoders says:

    “Life On the Mississippi” is a must read for anyone who wants to understand the social life, commerce and difficulty of travel of the time.

    1. Agreed! That book was very personal to Twain.

  6. Thanks for the encouragement to read beyond what everyone does. Love your posts! Now, off to find “Innocents Abroad.”

    1. Super pleased that this post encouraged you to go find the book. Thanks for commenting!

  7. theotherlisa says:

    I found a copy of “Innocents Abroad” a few years ago at a library sale. It’s been waiting to be reopened since then, but it’s in my to-read-next pile on my side table. More motivation is always helpful, thanks!

    1. Glad to hear that I’ve nudged you into making it a higher priority. My book talks often end up with me juggling different titles in new order of priority. That’s what book friends are for!

  8. Michael says:

    Actually the work of Twain’s which I like the most is The War Prayer.

    1. Thanks for adding this. I haven’t read it, so now I’m interested!

  9. Taylor says:

    Interesting factoid: In South Korea, Adventures of Tom Sawyer is much more well-known than Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

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