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.)
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.
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.