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.