Skip Global Navigation to Main Content
Skip Breadcrumb Navigation
2010-05-06 | Mark Twain Abroad: Travels and Growth

Mark Twain Abroad: Travels and Growth

06 May 2010
Mark Twain and his family aboard the SS Warrimoo sailing to Australia in 1895  (Photo: State Dept.)

Mark Twain and his family aboard the SS Warrimoo sailing to Australia in 1895 (Photo: State Dept.)

Mark Twain received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University along with Rudyard Kipling, Auguste Rodin, and Camille Saint-Saens. (Photo: State Dept.)

Mark Twain received an honorary doctorate from Oxford University along with Rudyard Kipling, Auguste Rodin, and Camille Saint-Saens. (Photo: State Dept.)

By Gregg Camfield, editor, The Oxford Companion to Mark Twain

Shortly before his 41st birthday, Mark Twain wrote to a Missouri correspondent,

As you describe me I can picture myself as I was, 22 years ago. ... You think I have grown some; upon my word there was room for it. You have described a callow fool, a self-sufficient ass, a mere human tumble-bug. … Ignorance, intolerance, egotism, self-assertion, opaque perception, dense and pitiful chuckle-headedness. … That is what I was at 19–20. (1 November 1876)

It might seem surprising that a person could see himself as so transformed in two decades, but to Twain this would not have seemed surprising at all. As he emphatically proclaimed in 1887, “What is the most rigorous law of our being? Growth. No smallest atom of our moral, mental or physical structure can stand still a year.” Appropriately, Twain uses the metaphor of movement, of travel, to describe growth, because he was an inveterate traveler whose wanderings contributed to his profound growth as a person and as a writer. While his friends, family, and reading had an equally profound impact, no better index of his growth is to be found than in his five major travel narratives.

He had much to write about. Few people in the 19th century could match Mark Twain mile for mile. To detail all of his voyages would take volumes. In the United States, he traveled from coast to coast, and from the Mississippi delta to the northern border. He worked as a printer, riverboat pilot, reporter, lecturer, and literary man, and he lived in just about every kind of population center, from farms, small towns, and mining camps to great cities. Mark Twain traveled extensively outside the United States, living at times in or near London, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and Florence. He visited, among other places, lands that today comprise Australia, the Azores, Bermuda, Canada, Ceylon, Egypt, Fiji, Gibraltar, Greece, India, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritius, Morocco, New Zealand, Pakistan, Turkey, Ukraine, South Africa, and Syria. While he didn’t always find travel comfortable or pleasant, he found it compelling. As he wrote in an 1867 letter, “All I do know or feel, is, that I am wild with impatience to move—move—Move!”

To track those movements is to chart the artistic and ethical growth of a writer who was as prolific as he was mobile. Indeed, after he became a newspaper correspondent in the 1860s, Twain’s travels led him to collect material for his writing. In doing so, he experienced travel differently with each voyage. This is not to say that his earlier travels did not change him. When describing his training to be a steamboat pilot, he writes,

In that brief, sharp schooling, I got personally and familiarly acquainted with about all the different types of human nature that are to be found in fiction, biography, or history. ... When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before — met him on the river. (Mississippi, Chapter 18)

But meeting is not the same as knowing. As a reporter, Mark Twain learned to pry into matters, to look below surfaces, to question justifications and rationalizations for human behavior. He was supposed to judge, and judging helped him see more deeply, to understand new places and events from different perspectives. This process began in San Francisco, where he came to see the corruption of the local police and their abuse of disenfranchised Chinese immigrants as a human rights problem. Outraged at finding bigotry in the police, Twain then found it in himself. From finding it to fighting it was a necessary step, one that put him on a path toward cosmopolitanism.

Not that it was an easy or an unbroken path. Twain’s first major travel narrative, Innocents Abroad, (1869) is known as much for its boorish irreverence toward Europe, North Africa, and Asia Minor as for its energetic humor. He expressed just about equal parts defensiveness and fascination. The more alien a place was to his prior experiences, the more likely he was to enjoy what he saw. Twain’s descriptions of Tangiers, for example, express wide-eyed delight. On the other hand, his knowledge of Christian schisms and his Protestant background fueled a constant scorn of anything having to do with Roman Catholicism. The line from Chapter 25, “Why Don’t You Rob Your Church?” could serve as a subtitle for much of the book.

Brash bluster and irreverence are normal reactions of the ignorant; in this sense, Twain’s mockery both of European customs and of Americans who “went native” in Europe are typical outbursts of the beginning traveler. Indeed, travelers for generations have enjoyed his laughter at “those necessary nuisances,” tour guides. But Twain was acutely aware of his own ignorance, and his humor opened the door to self-exploration. The book’s very title acknowledges how much he had to learn and how simultaneously painful and funny that learning could be.

Twain built Innocents from a collection of newspaper articles that reflected his immediate impressions. Roughing It (1872) began as a book, affording Twain the opportunity to craft his narrative persona as an older person reflecting on youthful folly. He thus could show how travels in the American West matured the narrator from a credulous, narrow-minded neophyte into a wiser, more flexible, and much more observant man of the world. Much of the book’s rich humor juxtaposes his prejudiced expectations of the American West with the far richer reality. Readers thus learn to see East Coast or European airs and assumptions about other cultures as limited and stultifying. The book teaches the importance of viewing the world from more than one perspective.

In A Tramp Abroad (1880), Twain returns to the Old World. This book is cast not so much as a description of his travels, but rather as a warning. By imitating European aristocrats, Twain suggests, Americans endanger their democracy. Again, Twain created a narrator whose expectations and rigidities force him into humorous situations, but, unlike in Roughing It, this narrator never learns. He justifies his genteel wanderings as an educational grand tour to teach him the fine arts, but the title tells the truth — that a lazy rich man turning himself into an ersatz aristocrat is really a tramp. This is a subtler and more important criticism: Mark Twain is not the ugly American blasting anything he doesn’t understand; instead, his narrator shows the dangers of pretension. He creates his Mark Twain persona as a cautionary example to show that democracy requires egalitarianism and compassion. Along the way is much wonderful humor about intercultural contact, including, at the most basic, learning a foreign language. As Twain puts it in an appendix on his efforts to learn German, “I heard a Californian student in Heidelberg say, in one of his calmest moods, that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective.”

Life on the Mississippi (1883) combines pieces written in two distinct periods. Twain first published Chapters 4–17, describing his apprenticeship as a riverboat pilot, in 1875. The bulk of the book describes an 1881 tour of America’s heartland. Perhaps no single work so clearly indicates Twain’s growth. Here he candidly admits that as a child and young man he was a conforming member of the slave-holding South. He speaks from experience as he humorously condemns the phony feudalism of “the lost cause” (slavery). Twain has two political purposes: first, that time and opportunity can enable great change, and second, that one cannot change without learning how to observe and judge, to peer beneath placid surfaces to find complexity. No doubt Twain understood, too, that one might liken this kind of social observation to piloting a steamboat on a wild river. Twain saw up close in 1881 that the Civil War had solved little; racial prejudice and de facto segregation allowed the Southern fantasy aristocracy to live on, stunting America’s moral and material progress. It was not safe to say such things in the South. Twain softened the point with humor, but he made the point nonetheless.

Twain’s agenda to liberate people from prejudice persisted in his last major travel narrative, Following the Equator (1897), which reports his experiences in a world-girdling 1895–96 lecture tour. While Mississippi addressed specifically American chauvinism, Equator addresses the prejudices that lay behind European imperialism. Often attacked by Europeans for his irreverence toward Christianity, Twain pointed out the hypocrisy of his detractors, writing, “True irreverence is irreverence for another man’s god.” While this book extends Twain’s plea for a more generous and cosmopolitan appreciation of cultural differences, it transcends advocacy, seeking to explain human cultural variation. Twain expresses both puzzlement and joy in the wide range of cultural practices that human beings can invent and then call “natural.”

While these books reflect Twain’s personal and intellectual development, they also display a remarkable consistency. He always sought to understand the world by juxtaposing what he learned from books and peers with his careful observations and emotional experience. And he always observed the world through a wide range of filters, from compassion to ridicule, from angry scorn to humorous joy. While this combination often manifested itself in irreverence, it also turned him into one of the most tolerant and open-minded of travelers. Not surprisingly, then, Twain’s travel books were among the best sellers of his time and still wear well in ours.