MARK TWAIN – 19th century master blogger

I know everyone except me read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at school. Somehow I missed out.

I’ve jumped straight into Mr Twain’s travel writing, starting with A Tramp Abroad (1880), his account of his ‘pedestrian journey’ through Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

I love it, mostly. I didn’t know Mark Twain could be so damn funny!

It isn’t a well organised literary masterpiece; he’s a great wordsmith, but there is no discernible theme, argument, or even a consistent point of view.

It’s an account of his travels with his friend ‘Harris’, who I’d heard, and Wikipedia reliably confirms, is a character invented for purposes of narrative and humour. Of course ‘Mark Twain’ is also a nom-de-plume, taken by Samuel Clemens for imaginative literary purposes.

What I enjoy about A Tramp Abroad is the way the author feels free to go off on tangents, to tell invented, or at least wildly exaggerated, stories. He acts as a second in a duel in France. He watches ants at work and marvels at their stupidity. He learns when to bow to Germans, and has a run-in with annoying Swiss touts (things have changed in Geneva since). I love his description of his epic expedition to scale a Swiss mountain, finally arriving in the lobby of the hotel on its peak.

He goes into great detail about the movement of glaciers and relates tales of tragic alpine disasters, next his hilarious account of his own valiant attempt to climb Mont Blanc ‘by telescope’ from the safety of Chamonix.

‘There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it.’

There are detailed descriptions of scenery and architecture that I admire, but skip through. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, I’ll find him describing a place I know – the covered porticos of Turin or the grand arcade of Milan – and my interest is sparked again.

In matters of navigation and distance calculation on a hike, it seems not much has changed in 130 years. I remember once being disappointed that the map did not agree with my Garmin GPS that I’d walked a record-breaking 1500km in a day along New Zealand’s Caples Track.

Twain had the same problem…

‘At half past eight we stepped into Oppenau…(having walked) a hundred and forty miles. This is the distance by the pedometer; the guidebook and the Imperial Ordinance maps make it only ten and a quarter – a surprising blunder, for these two authorities are usually singularly accurate in the matter of distances.’

A Tramp Abroad would have been a fantastic, free-ranging travel blog, and in the 19th century I suppose that’s just what it was. Like any good blog, you can read it for free these days (downloaded from Amazon to the Kindle: $0.00).

And what a tweeter Mark Twain would have been! Who could ever forget his legendary telegram after reading his own premature obituary in a newspaper, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”? That one went viral long before the invention of Twitter.


Filed under Travel- Europe

9 responses to “MARK TWAIN – 19th century master blogger

  1. Rachel

    In Washington, DC the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts annually awards the Mark Twain Prize to a “humorist” – – people who’ve had an impact on society in ways similar to Twain’s. Past awardees have been Richard Pryor (1998), Jonathan Winters (1999), Carl Reiner (2000), Whoopi Goldberg (2001), Bob Newhart (2002), Lily Tomlin (2003), Lorne Michaels (2004), Steve Martin (2005), Neil Simon (2006), Billy Crystal (2007), George Carlin (2008), Bill Cosby (2009), and Tina Fey (2010), and this year to Will Ferrell. As you can see, these happen to be Americans; it would not surprise me if you do not know them or the prize..

    • Thanks for that, Rachel. I didn’t know about the award, but I do know the work of most of its winners. (American culture does sometimes spread across the Pacific Ocean.) It sounds an excellent idea. Though shouldn’t Twain’s direct descendant travel writer Bill Bryson have won it some time? Is he disqualified now he lives in England?

      I like Aachen, Germany’s, annual award for the ‘Combatting of Deadly Seriousness’, though it’s not named after a German writer.

      If we had a Dutch or Australian award, I wonder which humorist we could name it after…hmmm…

  2. I will certainly look for Mark Twain’s adventures. Thanks for the tip.

    • You would certainly enjoy his accounts of travels in Italy, BdL. Surprisingly, he reports that coffee is almost unknown there. This was 1880, when Starbucks was unknown in the USA.

      I must check it out – when did Italy get good at coffee? Could be worth a later blog post.

  3. michael

    I’m a big fan of Mark Twain. His wit can be so subtle that it’s easy to pass over gems, or full-on nasty satire that kicks you in the bum, causing absolute guffaws & belly-laughs. It’s worth getting into his essays & other short works. He is also a master of the insult, stringing marvellously singeing words together into fantastic curses. Thanks for this blog; it reminds me that now I have a 1 terabyte external hard-drive, I can snaffle loads of his stuff (it’s all over the web, being long out of copyright) for reading on trains, buses & planes. I’m dying to read ‘Following the Equator’, his account of a journey in the 1890s that included Oz & N.Z.

  4. I love it. Mark Twain is what teens would call ‘random’. Haven’t read any for ages but maybe I will now.

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