Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Feet of Clay

Many of you have heard me call Mark Twain my favorite all-time American.  I quote him frequently and reread him often.

Since my time with books is never enough, I have taken to listening to ones that I have read before and want to read again.  We New Yorkers spend a lot of time walking, which creates opportunities to transport oneself and “read” at the same time.

Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn were early candidates and enormously satisfying, especially when read aloud by folks who managed the accents and understood the irony.


A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, what fun.

My next choice, however, has been causing me a lot of trouble.   The Innocents Abroad.  I had read it before.  But long ago.  The book has not changed.  I guess I have.  Or something.  I will finish it.  But it is killing me.

Oh, I love the jokes—some of which have made me giggle out loud, despite the miserable weather, on Fifth Avenue between Twenty-second Street and Twenty-third.  Twain’s itinerary is a blast.  I have been to a number of the places he visited while writing this travelogue.  His reminders of Europe’s wonders—of say, the palazzi of Genoa or the Cathedral of Milan—bring back my own pleasant memories.

But I find myself wincing more than smiling.  The way Twain characterizes the denizens of the countries he visits is positively painful to read.  No one who is not American or English is at all pleasing to him.  He berates the citizens of France or Spain or Italy for “jabbering” in “foreign” languages.  He calls their countries “puppy republics.”  The French are “garlic chewers.”  The Italians are “lazy spaghetti stuffers.”  The Greeks are all “mendacious.”  Everyone is dirty.  Everyone is swarthy.  Everyone is stupid, except for those who are too clever at cheating tourists.

Twain feels free to break the laws of the countries he visits—illegally going a shore when his ship has been quarantined to make sure there is no cholera on board.  Borrowing someone else’s passport when he had lost his own, and gleeful that the ridiculous people in the Russian port of Sebastopol could not read the English description of the passport holder.  Serves them right to be fooled if they can’t read English!


At one point, while illegally sneaking around Athens in the middle of the night, having broken quarantine, he and his companions steal grapes from a vineyard—about ten pounds apiece he says.  The Greek owner of the grapes notices what they have done and follows them.  Twain calls the man and his friends “brigands.”  Excuse me, but who are the thieves in this situation?  And we are not talking here about frat boy pranks.  Twain and his companions are grown ups, and wealthy enough to enjoy a months-long cruise

I am sure that Twain’s contemporary American readers were heartily amused by all of this.  I find it very disappointing.  Cheap shots from the masterful wielder of the verbal scalpel.   
I love his language.  I love how alive his prose is.  He is still a beacon of great writing.  I will continue to the end, but I won’t read this book again.  Ever.  And I mourn the loss of my idol.  Boohoo. 

Annamaria Alfieri   


  1. Annamaria, it seems to me that very few 19th or early 20th century writers were openminded about people who were not of the same race/nationality/religion/gender/you name it. Dickens' portrayal of Fagin in Oliver Twist is cringe-inducing, and the casual racism of Edith Wharton (another great writer) is also startling today. I think these writers reflected the attitudes that existed in their time (not that this makes them less unpleasant). Unfortunately, respect for those different from us seems to be a fairly recent development.


    1. Allan, you are right. Twain is exhibiting the attitudes of his time. They still make my skin crawl. My grandparents--one of a coal miner and one a baron--arrived in the States from Italy just around the turn of the 20th century. They were greeted with these opinions of who they were. I was subjected to them myself as a child. I guess that is why I find them so intolerable.

  2. I agree with Allan. Much of our base of opinions of writers was formed by early teachers - if I had had a different route in high school - I'd NEVER have majored in Latin!!! What on earth can I do with that in today's crime fiction market that would sell the zillions the Big 6 seek??? tjstraw

    1. Thelma, I studied Latin for six years. I think it did me a lot of good as a writer. Nothing I know can do either one of us any good when it come to what works in publishing. NO ONE knows the answer to that.

  3. I'll have to take a look at Innocents Abroad again. I know I loved it years ago. I also have some years of Latin. My husband taught it for a while. Right now he's having a great time reading Livy (In English this time) He gets parallel texts when he can.

  4. Annamaria, I've found that getting a book published is very much like finding one's life mate... there is an invisible element that no human can explain - in many instances. On this topic - I COULD write a whole book!!! If I ever become more of an extravert, perhaps I will! tjs

  5. Steph, I loved my years of teaching Latin in two college prep boarding schools! But crime fiction was not then part of my life. I guess, if I dug deep down I might find some plots in the Roman classics... I certainly could find some characters for my crime novels in my fellow teachers!!! And school heads! Now, there's a thought... but I really don't want to set my books in those surroundings! tjs

  6. I love a good acadmic mystery, Thelma. People have the idea that academics are genteel. I have academic politics as brutal as anything in the corporate world

  7. Steph, how right you are. Having dealt for over 25 years of my adult life with both university and high school level academics intimately, I have found some of the biggest crooks et co in these ranks... as well as, of course, some really lovely men and women! tjs

  8. P.S. To Steph... I can't resist this: I worked as a high level dean in a college once - that shall remain nameless - where all the food was disappearing from the college kitchens ! The cops found it all hidden in the home of the college's president! tjs