Saturday, March 21, 2015

Exile From Main Street

"American Vandal – Mark Twain Abroad,” by Roy Morris Jr.,  2015

Mark Twain was the quintessential American in the 1800s.  He was probably also the funniest man on many continents.    He proved that by his travels, where he spent an incredible 12 years living outside the U.S., and also moved incessantly within the U.S.  Twain crossed the Atlantic dozens of times in the process.  Travel was essential to Twain, not only as the direct topic of many of his books, but also as a way to earn money on speaking tours.  He literally ‘lit out for the territory.’ 

The Travelin' Man - A Citizen of The World
Direct works about travel included “The Innocents Abroad,” “Roughing It,” “Following the Equator,” “Life on the Mississippi,” and “A Tramp Abroad.”  Even novels that are not about ‘travel’ per se were influenced by it, like “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and “Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc.”  “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is a raft ride down the mighty Mississippi – something every kid in his right mind had a ‘hankering’ to do.  (In fact, cruises from St. Paul are now being arranged to travel the length of the river…)

Twain wanted to be at home anywhere in the world, and was intimidated by none of it.  Much he found unpleasant, but some wonderful.  He commented on the dirty poverty of the ‘Holy Land,’ the thievishness of the citizens of Naples, the backwardness of Tangiers, the ‘adulterous’ behavior of the French.  However, he loved Hawaii and Bermuda, was fascinated by his long sojourn in India, felt comfortable in England and Berlin, lived all over Europe, including for many years in Florence, Italy with his family. 

The word ‘vandal’ in the book title comes from the methods some tourists employ to bring home every artifact they can.  This book backgrounds Twain’s travel stories and aphorisms, and in the process provides a picture of his home life that is not always pretty.  Twain’s bankruptcy forced him to leave his ship-like home in Hartford and go into financial exile outside the U.S. for almost 9 years.  He lived in many places restlessly even while in the U.S., so his traveling rarely stopped.  He lost two daughters and a wife before dying himself in 1909 – not surviving to see the horrors of the 20th century, but perhaps anticipating them. 

Twin was a life-long religious skeptic and was not afraid to express it.  His first major trip on the steamer “Quaker City,” which traveled through the Mediterranean to Palestine, formed the basis for his humorous take on the follies of the ‘old world’ in “The Innocents Abroad.”  He joked about the multiple relics and Catholic sites in Italy that all seem to have the bones of the same saint.  In Palestine, he said of Bethlehem it was full of ‘troops of beggars and relic-sellers;’ Jerusalem was ‘mournful and dreary and lifeless.”  He called the ‘holy land’ a “howling wilderness instead of a garden.”  And perhaps it is still today.

Twain also slowly became an anti-imperialist – opposing the U.S. wars against Spain, in the Philippines and Cuba, even the Boer War.  “I left these shores, at Vancouver, a red-hot imperialist. … But since then my eyes have been opened.  I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines.  We have gone there to conquer and not to redeem. … And so I am an anti-imperialist.”  Twain enjoyed the Republic of Switzerland and in 1891 compared it to Russia:  “It seems to me that a crusade to make a bonfire of the Russian throne and fry the Czar in it would be some sense.”  A pre-Bolshevik? 

Most important was his post-bankruptcy trip to earn money to pay his many creditors. He even visited Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth on this trip, where he was described as a ‘short, slightly-built man with a mass of iron gray hair.”  He and his family continued on a lecture tour through India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania, mostly English-speaking colonies of the largest colonial power of the time, Great Britain.  This trip furnished the material for the book “Following the Equator,” though as the author argues, it really followed the Tropic of Capricorn.  In this book, Twain is a witness to the brutality of the English colonial mission. He wanted to dynamite a statute to English soldiers who had died subduing the native New Zealanders, the Maori.   He watched a German-born hotel owner in Bombay punch a porter as he’d seen people do to slaves in Hannibal. He notes the extermination of the indigenous people of Tasmania, who had been killed by “fugitive gangs of the hardiest and choicest human devils the world has seen.”  The ‘true’ Tasmanian devil was a white-man.  Twain saw the remaining 16 Tasmanian tribesmen kept behind a fence on an isolated corner of the island, where they all eventually died, the last in 1876.

The book also records Twain's flawed ethnic stereotyping - something he was not in the habit of doing normally.  Twain had a life-long antipathy towards Native Americans, something the author never explains.  He also hated Paris and the French, evidently because of their sexual ‘promiscuity.’  At one point he wrote an attack on the French called “The French and the Comanche,” which comparing the two despised ethnicities.  This is perhaps why “Injun Joe,” the fearsome and evil character in “Tom Sawyer,” has no resemblance to the person he was based on, Joe Douglas.  Douglas was ugly due to facial damage from small pox.  He was a decent person of mixed-ethnicity from Hannibal who lived to be 102, dying not trapped in a cave but from bad pickled pigs feet. 

Twain started his life as a small-town lawyer’s son in shackadelic Hannibal, MO, and eventually had the money to build a gigantic dream house, meet all the prominent writers of his day, travel incessantly, putting his family up in hotels, mansions, spas and villas all over the world and in the U.S.  He met a Russian Czar, the Queen of England, the Viceroy of India, and the American President Teddy Roosevelt – even though he opposed the latter on the issue of war.  His class position changed but his opinions and attempts at ‘truth-telling’ did not, which is why he was so popular across the English-speaking world.  His travels formed an integral part of his humanity and his writing.  Twain knew that without travel, the world remains in many ways ‘a closed book.’ 

And I got it as a gift.
Red Frog
March 21, 2015

No comments: