There are probably more studies and biographies of Mark Twain — the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910) — than of any other figure in American literature. And why not? After all, Twain produced at least three or four titles that rank high on almost everyone’s list of favorite books. “Huckleberry Finn” is a leading contender in the The Great American Novel sweepstakes. “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” as biographer Roy Morris Jr. observes, “seems to take place in perpetual summer” and conveys an “ineffable magic.” Twain’s own favorites, if no one else’s, were “The Prince and the Pauper” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” Instead of those “English” novels, I would argue for “Life on the Mississippi.”
However, Mark Twain was more than just an author. The barefoot boy from hardscrabble Hannibal, Mo., rose to become a global celebrity, the most famous American of his time, rivaled only by Teddy Roosevelt (whom he once derided as the “Tom Sawyer of the political world”). His quips and yarn-filled performances in “Mark Twain at Home” took him to lyceums, opera halls and auditoriums around the world. In fact, as “American Vandal” reminds us, he spent more than a dozen years of his adult life outside the United States.
In an earlier book, “Lighting Out for the Territory,” Morris chronicled the youthful Twain’s adventures out West and in Hawaii. In this new book, he picks up Twain’s life when, at the age of 31, the young journalist arrives in New York City in 1867 and signs up for what would we now call a pre-packaged luxury cruise. The Quaker City would sail across the Atlantic, swing into the Mediterranean, pause at various ports of Europe and finally deliver its pilgrims to the Holy Land and the ancient monuments of mysterious Egypt.
As a roving correspondent for a San Francisco newspaper, the Alta California, this was just the kind of roving Twain wanted to do — and he persuaded his editors to underwrite this “picnic on a gigantic scale.” When he came to publish his account as a thick volume, “The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress” (1869), it became not only his first book but also “the best-selling American book since ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ ” In its pages Twain looked at old Europe not as a Henry Jamesian sophisticate but as a down-to-earth, no-nonsense “American Vandal.”
Morris gives a quick overview of that journey, with abundant quotations from Twain himself, noting that, apart from the New Yorkers on board, the largest contingent of the ship’s company were members of the First Presbyterian Church of Cleveland. Many of the 65 to 80 passengers — the exact number is unknown — were writing up the voyage for hometown newspapers: “Everyone taking notes,” Twain observed sourly. “Cabin looks like a reporter’s congress.” One especially colorful character, Bloodgood Haviland Cutter, fancied himself a poet and regaled his fellow tourists with such effusions as “Recollections of the Pleasant Time on Deck Last Night” — in 75 stanzas — and “Apostrophe to the Rooster in the Waist of the Ship.”
Fortunately, Twain’s cabin mate was, in his words, the “splendid, immoral, tobacco-smoking, wine-drinking and godless” Dan Slote, whose luggage included 3,000 cigars. In between shore visits, chiefly given to mocking famous paintings and sacred relics, Twain, Slote and a handful of fellow roisterers would smoke, play cards and talk about women. Those of Genoa, Twain maintained, were the prettiest in the world: “I fell in love with a hundred and eighty women myself, on Sunday evening, and yet I am not of a susceptible nature.”
In truth, the handsome journalist fell in love only once. When young Charley Langdon showed his new friend an ivory miniature of his sister Olivia, Twain immediately vowed to marry her. And when he returned to America, he did just that.
But Twain’s was a restless nature, and he could never settle down for long. “I am wild with impatience to move — move — Move!” In the course of his life, as Morris writes, “he made twenty-nine separate transatlantic crossings, circumnavigated the globe via the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans; cruised the Mediterranean, Caribbean, Black, Caspian, and Aegean Seas, crisscrossed India from Bombay to Darjeeling; hiked the Alps and the Tyrolean Black Forest; floated down the Neckar and Rhone Rivers on a raft; and lived and worked for extensive periods of time in London, Paris, Berlin, and Vienna, as well as various smaller European cities and resorts.”
Most of these trips were undertaken, at least in part, to make money. Besides “The Innocents Abroad”— the first 10 chapters of which, by the way, were written here in Washington — Twain produced “A Tramp Abroad” (1880), which covers his family’s first European sojourn, and “Following the Equator” (1897), which tracks the worldwide lecture tour he undertook at age 60 (and is a book remarkable for its “prescient depiction of the modern evils of racism, militarism and imperialism”). This last journey — with stops in New Zealand, Australia and India, as well as Europe — was needed to pay off Twain’s huge debts. He had invested heavily in an invention that would set type, but unfortunately it was with a charming incompetent instead of Ottmar Mergenthaler (whose linotype machine was still in use at this newspaper in the 1980s). Rather than declare bankruptcy, Twain traveled 53,000 miles and gave more than 120 lectures in seven countries.
If you’re a scholar of Mark Twain, there’s probably nothing terribly new in “American Vandal.” But for the rest of us, Morris is a first-rate tour guide. He knows his subject, cites other authorities with respect and presents a good deal of information with easygoing, professional smoothness. His entertaining and — despite its title — eminently civilized book is just slightly marred by an occasional typo or mistake (e.g., it’s Sir Edward Grey, not Gray, who said at the outbreak of World War I that the lamps, not the lights, are going out all over Europe). I found it particularly pleasing to learn that Twain, who knew Civil War veterans Ulysses S. Grant and Ambrose Bierce, also met Lewis Carroll and shook hands with Sigmund Freud. He was even introduced to such lesser folk as Czar Alexander II, Kaiser Wilhelm II and King Edward VII.
As readers of Twain’s “Great Dark” writings know, his later years were heartbreaking. At the end of his world tour, his eldest daughter Susy died suddenly of spinal meningitis. In 1904 his beloved wife, Olivia, succumbed to heart disease. In 1909, his youngest daughter, who suffered from epilepsy, drowned in a bathtub at age 29. “How poor I am,” he wrote, “who was once so rich!”
Mark Twain, who died at age 74, always maintained that he would have been happy to spend his entire life as a Mississippi riverboat pilot. Fortunately for world literature, things didn’t work out that way.
Michael Dirda reviews books for The Washington Post on Thursdays.
Mark Twain Abroad
By Roy Morris, Jr.
Harvard Univ. 279 pp. $27.95