- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 21, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A TRAMP ABROAD: FOLLOWING THE EQUATOR, OTHER TRAVELS

By Mark Twain

Library of America, $40,

1,150 pages

Reviewed by Martin Rubin

Mark Twain will always be most famous as the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, but if he has a second string almost as perfect to his bow, it is as travel writer. In fact, he first burst onto the literary scene with “Innocents Abroad,” a tale of a cruise to the Mediterranean and Near East in 1867, when that was a most unusual undertaking. With that best-seller, he may be said to have inaugurated the modern travel book, which writers such as Paul Theroux continue today.

But there never has been - and, I daresay, never will be - another writer like Twain, with his preternatural ability to show the essence of a strange land and society through odd, seemingly peripheral, features, like Alpine water. And then there’s his wit, which illuminates everything with its wry, always original take on things. As a longtime resident in drought-stricken California, I have always loved his famous dictum: “In California, whiskey is something you drink, water is something you fight over.”

Trust Twain to zero in on something as universal as water and make so much of its different effects, from the dullness of Alpine drinking water to the devastating consequences of water’s scarcity in an arid region that craves development.

Now, to coincide with the centenary of Mark Twain’s death, Library of America has given us a substantial volume packed with his travel writing. Two lengthy books make up the bulk of it: “A Tramp Abroad,” a marvelously satirical account of his family’s stay in Germany, Switzerland and Italy in the late 1870s, and the even more remarkable (and lengthier) “Following the Equator.”

This recounts Twain’s around-the-world trip to Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, India, Mauritius and South Africa in the mid-1890s, a truly amazing undertaking at a time when slow travel by steamship necessitated a huge investment of time, to say nothing of daring to penetrate some pretty far-out (in every sense) locales.

The editors have rounded off the volume with some shorter pieces, including a hilarious account of the visit of the Shah of Persia to Britain in 1873 and a sharp eyewitness account of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. This last is, of course, informed by Twain’s just having visited a considerable portion of Her Majesty’s Empire in following the equator. You can count on his view of this event as being in its way as acute and remarkable as “Recessional,” Rudyard Kipling’s celebrated poem on the occasion.

The splendors contained in this book are so manifold that it is hard to know just what to single out. There can be few travel writers who can simultaneously engage a subject while retaining such a detached perspective. His description of the sword-fighting dueling fraternities common in 19th-century German universities is a blood-and-scarred-cheek account not for the weak of stomach, and then Twain finds himself acting as a second in an actual duel with pistols in France.

The one thing you can always say about Twain is that he is no ordinary tourist. His picture of the odd customs of the British Indian empire - both native and colonial - are seemingly endless but always fascinating, as is his elaborate account of European eating habits in hostelries. This book really does contain multitudes, and they never blur in the reader’s mind.

On occasion, the timing of his visits gives Twain a unique opportunity. Visiting South Africa, both Boer and British territories, in the aftermath of the Jameson Raid, an unsuccessful imperial attempt to overthrow the South African Republic and gain control of its gold fields, he gives marvelous pen portraits of such figures as Cecil Rhodes while still finding time to analyze the structural and economic details of gold mining in the region and how it differs from California’s.

And his view of the political situation around the raid, encompassing everything from its ludicrous aspects to the heroic, is as masterly a contemporary analysis of that time and place as we have.

We know from Twain’s glorious “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” that he had a gift for time travel, and it always has seemed to me that he would have been the ultimate space traveler. By a strange fluke, he was born during one of Halley’s comet’s infrequent passes by the Earth and died just as it blazed anew exactly 100 years agotoday on April 21, 1910, something he seemed even to anticipate with his customary sangfroid:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’ ”

It is a conceit somehow worthy of the man himself for us to imagine Twain riding for all eternity through the universe on the tail of Halley’s comet. What a pity we cannot read his dispatches from out there.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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