Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter LXXI

The Great Book of Travel

‘The Innocents Abroad’ was a success from the start. The machinery for its sale and delivery was in full swing by August 1, and five thousand one hundred and seventy copies were disposed of that month — a number that had increased to more than thirty-one thousand by the first of the year. It was a book of travel; its lowest price was three and a half dollars. No such record had been made by a book of that description; none has equaled it since.

If Mark Twain was not already famous, he was unquestionably famous now. As the author of The New Pilgrim’s Progress he was swept into the domain of letters as one riding at the head of a cavalcade — doors and windows wide with welcome and jubilant with applause. Newspapers chorused their enthusiasm; the public voiced universal approval; only a few of the more cultured critics seemed hesitant and doubtful.

They applauded — most of them — but with reservation. Doctor Holland regarded Mark Twain as a mere fun maker of ephemeral popularity, and was not altogether pleasant in his dictum. Doctor Holmes, in a letter to the author, speaks of the “frequently quaint and amusing conceits,” but does not find it in his heart to refer to the book as literature. It was naturally difficult for the East to concede a serious value to one who approached his subject with such militant aboriginality, and occasionally wrote “those kind.” William Dean Howells reviewed the book in the Atlantic, which was of itself a distinction, whether the review was favorable or otherwise. It was favorable on the whole, favorable to the humor of the book, its “delicious impudence,” the charm of its good-natured irony. The review closed:

It is no business of ours to fix his rank among the humorists California has given us, but we think he is, in an entirely different way from all the others, quite worthy of the company of the best.

This is praise, but not of an intemperate sort, nor very inclusive. The descriptive, the poetic, the more pretentious phases of the book did not receive attention. Mr. Howells was perhaps the first critic of eminence to recognize in Mark Twain not only the humorist, but the supreme genius — the “Lincoln of our literature.” This was later. The public — the silent public — with what Howells calls “the inspired knowledge of the simple-hearted multitude,” reached a similar verdict forthwith. And on sufficient evidence: let the average unprejudiced person of to-day take up the old volume and read a few chapters anywhere and decide whether it is the work of a mere humorist, or also of a philosopher, a poet, and a seer. The writer well remembers a little group of “the simple-hearted multitude” who during the winter of ’69 and ’70 gathered each evening to hear the Innocents read aloud, and their unanimous verdict that it was the “best book of modern times.”

It was the most daring book of its day. Passages of it were calculated to take the breath of the orthodox reader; only, somehow, it made him smile, too. It was all so good-natured, so openly sincere. Without doubt it preached heresy — the heresy of viewing revered landmarks and relics joyously, rather than lugubriously; reverentially, when they inspired reverence; satirically, when they invited ridicule, and with kindliness always.

The Innocents Abroad is Mark Twain’s greatest book of travel. The critical and the pure in speech may object to this verdict. Brander Matthews regards it second to A Tramp Abroad, the natural viewpoint of the literary technician. The ‘Tramp’ contains better usage without doubt, but it lacks the “color” which gives the Innocents its perennial charm. In the Innocents there is a glow, a fragrance, a romance of touch, a subtle something which is idyllic, something which is not quite of reality, in the tale of that little company that so long ago sailed away to the harbors of their illusions beyond the sea, and, wandered together through old palaces and galleries, and among the tombs of the saints, and down through ancient lands. There is an atmosphere about it all, a dream-like quality that lies somewhere in the telling, maybe, or in the tale; at all events it is there, and the world has felt it ever since. Perhaps it could be defined in a single word, perhaps that word would be “youth.” That the artist, poor True Williams, felt its inspiration is certain. We may believe that Williams was not a great draftsman, but no artist ever caught more perfectly the light and spirit of the author’s text. Crude some of the pictures are, no doubt, but they convey the very essence of the story; they belong to it, they are a part of it, and they ought never to perish. ‘A Tramp Abroad’ is a rare book, but it cannot rank with its great predecessor in human charm. The public, which in the long run makes mistakes, has rendered that verdict. The Innocents by far outsells the Tramp, and, for that matter, any other book of travel.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05