MARK TWAIN'S FIRST ENGLISH CRITIC.
The Saturday Review Took "Innocents Abroad" Seriously.
By William S. Walsh.
Mark Twain, like other great innovators in literature, had to create the taste by which he was judged.
Not indeed that he failed to appeal at once to the risibles, at least of Americans. But the finer sort of Americans began their laughing in a shamefaced fashion. Their enjoyment was dashed by something like self-reproach. The more uproariously they laughed the more shame they felt at being caught in the act.
It took them a long time to discover that the new humorist was no mere buffoon like some of the humorists who had preceded him, and to whom he was persistently assimilated.
In England Mark Twain's conquest of the critical public was much slower than in America. Indeed it cannot be said to be absolutely complete even to this day.
The Saturday Review, we must remember, was the first English authority to record the arrival of this portent in the literary skies, this strange new comet that was to disturb the equilibrium of many a heavenly body and play havoc with galaxies and constellations.
In its number bearing date Oct. 8, 1870, it thus announces the arrival of the phenomenon to its English readers.
From the London Saturday Review, Oct. 8, 1870.
Every traveller on the Continent has met the American tourist, and formed some opinion of his merits.
We do not speak of that variety of American who comes over to spend five or six years in Europe and finds himself rather more at home on the Parisian boulevards than on the New York Broadway. Nor do we refer to the Americans who have been too highly cultivated to obtrude their national peculiarities upon us in any disagreeable form. There is no pleasanter acquaintance than the gentleman, or still more the lady, of this class who has just enough American flavour to be amusingly original.
But, besides these types, the United States are kind enough to provide us with a vast number of travellers corresponding in refinement and intelligence to Mr. Cook's tourists.
They are the people who do Europe in six weeks, and throw in the Holy Land and Egypt to fill up their spare time. They are gloriously ignorant of any language but their own, supremely contemptuous of every country that had no interest in the Declaration of Independence, and occasionally, it must be admitted, as offensive as the worst kind of Cockney tourist, whilst even less inclined to hide their light under a bushel.
Comparing them with the most nearly analogous class of British travellers, it is rather hard to determine which should have the preference. The American is generally the noisier and more actively disagreeable, but, on the other hand, he often partly redeems his absurdity by a certain naivete and half-conscious humour. He is often laughing in his sleeve at his own preposterous brags, and does not take himself quite so seriously as his British rival. He is vulgar, and even ostentatiously and atrociously vulgar; but the vulgarity is mixed with a real shrewdness which rescues it from simple insipidity.
We laugh at him, and we would rather not have too much of his company; but we do not feel altogether safe in despising him.
We may save ourselves the trouble of any further attempts at description by quoting a few illustrative passages from the book before us.
Mr. Mark Twain, as the author chooses to call himself, is a Californian humourist after the fashion of Artemus Ward. He came to Europe on a grand excursion trip, and describes his impressions of France and Italy in the true tourist style. He parades his utter ignorance of Continental languages and manners, and expresses his very original judgments on various wonders of art and nature with a praiseworthy frankness.
We are sometimes left in doubt whether he is speaking in all sincerity, or whether he is having a sly laugh at himself and his readers. To do him justice, however, we must observe that he has a strong tinge of the peculiar national humour; and, though not equal to the best performers on the same instrument, manages to be an amusing representative of his class.
The dry joke, which apes seriousness, is a favourite device of his countrymen; and Mr. Mark Twain is of course not as simple as he affects to be. We merely say this to guard ourselves against the imputation of taking a professional jester seriously; but, whether he speaks in downright earnest or with a half-concealed twinkle of the eye, his remarks will serve equally well as an illustration of the genuine unmistakable convictions of many of his countrymen.
Without further preface we will quote some of Mr. Twain's remarks upon foreign countries.
And, first of all, he exhibits that charming ignorance of all languages but English which is so common amongst his fellows. French newspapers, he tells us, "have a strange fashion of telling a perfectly straight story till you get to the nub' of it, and then a word drops in that no man can translate, and that story is ruined." He is seriously aggrieved by the names of places, and says that the nearest approach which anybody can make to the true pronunciation of Dijon is "demijohn." The spelling is not much assistance under such circumstances.
Speaking of a certain distinguished artist, he observes, "they spell it Vinci, and pronounce it Vinchy; foreigners always spell better than they pronounce."
Gentlemen who labour under this difficulty of communicating with the natives naturally fall into the hands of guides, and Mr. Twain and his friends appear to have suffered terribly from the persons whom they hired to take them to the sights of foreign towns. Their system on arriving at any large place was to engage a valet de place, whom they always called "Ferguson," to save the trouble of pronouncing a new name, and were carried about as helpless victims to such places as he preferred, besides having to swallow his stories.
They took a characteristic revenge, which appears to have afforded them immense satisfaction. The way to bully your guide is to affect a profound ignorance -- if you have not got it naturally -- and a stony indifference to his information. They therefore told off a gentleman called the Doctor, to ask questions of the said guide, because he could "look more like an inspired idiot, and throw more imbecility into the tone of his voice, than any man that lives. It comes natural to him."
Thus, for example, it was assumed that as Americans they would take a special interest in an autograph letter of Columbus. The Doctor, after asking some irrelevant questions, pronounced it the worst specimen of handwriting he ever saw, and added, "If you have got any specimens of penmanship of real merit, trot them out; and, if you haven't, drive on." The guide, we are told, was "considerably shaken up."
On the same principle, when shown an Egyptian monument, the Doctor asked indignantly, "What is the use of imposing your vile secondhand carcasses on us? If you've got a nice fresh corpse, fetch him out! or, by George, we'll brain you."
The most irritating question you can put to such a guide is to ask concerning any distinguished character to whom he refers -- such, for example, as Columbus or Michael Angelo -- "Is he dead?" And this seems to have met with such success that Mr. Twain scarcely restrained his companions from putting the inquiry to a monk in a Capuchin convent, who showed them some of the personal remains of his predecessors.
We may imagine the temper in which some of the remarkable sights of the Old World would be contemplated under such circumstances.
Mr. Twain, indeed, was much impressed by the cathedral at Milan. The bill for mere workmanship, he says, "foots up six hundred and eighty-four millions of francs, thus far (considerably over a hundred millions of dollars), and it is estimated that it will take a hundred and twenty years yet to finish the cathedral." When he gets to St. Peter's, however, he declares that it did not look nearly so large as the capitol at Washington, and certainly not a twentieth part as beautiful from the outside.
Even natural wonders are generally surpassed by their rivals in the United States. The Lake of Como, for example, is pronounced to be very inferior to Lake Tahoe. In clearness it is not to be compared to it.
"I speak," he says, "of the north shore of Lake Tahoe, where we can count the scales on a trout at a depth of 180 feet." Mr. Twain, however, feels constrained to add, "I have tried to get this statement off at par here, but with no success; so I have been obliged to negotiate it at fifty per cent discount."
Tahoe, we may explain in passing, for the benefit of philological readers, is Indian for grasshopper soup -- so, at least, Mr. Twain believes.
The objects, however, against which Mr. Twain feels a special indignation, to which he tells us he is bound to give vent in spite of the remonstrances of his friends, are pictures by the old masters. The old masters irritate him incessantly; and the apparent reason of his objection is characteristic.
"Wherever you find a Raphael, a Rubens, a Michael Angelo, &c.," he says, "you find artists copying them, and the copies are always the handsomest. Maybe the originals were handsome when they were new, but they are not now."
He "harbours no animosity" against the deluded persons who think otherwise; but he regards them as about as wise as men who should stand opposite a desert of charred stumps and say, What a noble forest! Michael Angelo appears to have been a special annoyance to him.
"I never felt so fervently thankful," he exclaims, "so soothed, so tranquil, so filled with a blessed peace, as I did yesterday, when I learned that Michael Angelo was dead."
One would rather like to know how many of Mr. Cook's tourists share this feeling in their hearts, if they only dared to avow their ignorance with an equally touching frankness.
Mr. Twain took his revenge by asking the wretched "Ferguson" of the moment, whenever he came to a "statoo brunzo" (Italian for a bronze statue), or an Egyptian obelisk, or the Forum or any other work of art, ancient or modern, whether it too was by Michael Angelo; thus at any rate making somebody else share in his tortures.
In presence of the ancients he generally indulges in facetiousness of a rather low order. He goes, for example, to some amphitheatre and tries to realize the scene which it once presented. His most vivid picture is that of a Roman youth, who took "some other fellow's young lady" to a gladiatorial show and amused her and himself during the acts by "approaching the cage and stirring up the martyrs with his whalebone cane." But, to say the truth, Mr. Twain here verges upon buffoonery.
Once or twice he is driven to what is happily described in the heading of the page as "general execration." Here, for example, is a burst of patriotic eloquence.
"O, sons of classic Italy, is the spirit of enterprise, of self-reliance, of noble endeavour utterly dead within ye? Curse your indolent worthlessness, why don't you rob your Church?" And he is very great on occasion in explaining the many advantages of a free and independent Republic as compared with a land groaning under priestly dominion and grovelling superstition. That notion of robbing the Church occurs to him very forcibly at intervals, and he seems to think that, so far as the plan has been carried out, it is the best chance for Italy.
Perhaps we have persuaded our readers by this time that Mr. Twain is a very offensive specimen of the vulgarest kind of Yankee. And yet, to say the truth, we have a kind of liking for him. There is a frankness and originality about his remarks which is pleasanter than the mere repetition of stale raptures; and his fun, if not very refined, is often tolerable in its way.
In short, his pages may be turned over with amusement, as exhibiting more or less consciously a very lively portrait of the uncultivated American tourist, who may be more obtrusive and misjudging, but is not quite so stupidly unobservant as our native product.
We should not choose either of them for our companions on a visit to a church or a picture-gallery, but we should expect most amusement from the Yankee as long as we could stand him.
A fortnight after The Saturday Review has issued this fulmination Mark Twain heard a far-off report of the detonation through The Advertiser of Boston. That paper was hugely tickled by the seriousness of the British review.
"And, indeed," it adds, "it is so humorous in itself that he can hardly do better than reproduce the article in full in his next monthly Memoranda."
The "Memoranda," it may be explained, was the title of a department in the Galaxy Magazine over which Mark Twain had full charge.
Acting on this hint Mr. Clemens, who had not yet seen the Saturday Review article, produced one of his most telling bits of literary imposture. Under the head of "An Entertaining Article" he feigned to reproduce the criticism in its totality. As will be seen his version was only a clever burlesque. The following extracts are quoted, with the permission of Messrs. Harper & Brothers, who have included the burlesque in their copyrighted edition of Mark Twain's works.
Here are the title and the opening paragraphs:
(Copyright, 1872, by Harper & Brothers)
(From The London Saturday Review.)
"REVIEWS OF NEW BOOKS
"THE INNOCENTS ABROAD. A Book of Travels. By Mark Twain. London: Hotten, publisher, 1870.
"Lord Macauley died too soon. We never felt this so deeply as when we finished the last chapter of the above-named extravagant work. Macaulay died too soon - for none but he could mete out complete and comprehensive justice tot he insolence, the impertinence, the presumption, the mendacity, and, above all, the majestic ignorance of this author.
"To say that 'The Innocents Abroad' is a curious book would be to use the faintest language - would be to speak of the Matterhorn as a neat elevation or Niagara as being 'nice' or 'pretty.' 'Curious' is too tame a word wherewith to describe the imposing insanity of this work. There is no word that is large enough or long enough.
"Let us, therefore, photograph a passing glimpse of book and author, and trust the rest to the reader. Let the cultivated English student of human nature picture to himself this Mark Twain as a person capable of doing the following described things - and not only doing them but with incredible innocent printing them calmly and tranquilly in a book. For instance:
"He states that he entered a hairdresser's in Paris to get shaved, and the first 'rake' the barber gave with his razor it loosened his 'hide' and lifted him out of the chair.
"This is unquestionably exaggerated. In Florence he was so annoyed by beggars that he pretends to have seized and eaten one in a frantic spirit of revenge. There is, of course, no truth in this.
"He gives at full length a theatrical programme 1,700 or 1,800 years old which he professes to have found in the ruins of the Coliseum, among the dirt and mold and rubbish. It is a sufficient comment upon this statement to remark that even a cast-iron programme would not have lasted so long under such circumstances.
"In Greece he plainly betrays both fright and flight upon one occasion, but with frozen effrontery puts the latter in this falsely tame form: 'We sidled toward the Piraeus. 'Sidled, indeed.'
"He does not hesitate to intimate that at Ephesus, when his mule strayed from the proper course, he got down, took him under his arm, carried him to the road again, pointed him right, remounted, and went to sleep contentedly till it was time to restore the beast to the path once more.
"He states that a growing youth among his ship's passengers was in the constant habit of appeasing his hunger with soap and oakum between meals.
"In Palestine he tells of ants that came eleven miles to spend the summer in the desert and brought their provisions with them; yet he shows by his description of the country that the feat was an impossibility.
"He mentions, as if it were the most commonplace of matters, that he cut a Moslem in two in broad daylight in Jerusalem, with Godfrey de Bouillon's sword, and would have shed more blood if he had had a graveyard of his own.
"These statements are unworthy a moment's attention. Mr. Twain or any other foreigner who did such a thing in Jerusalem would be mobbed, and would infallibly lose his life.
"But why go on? Why repeat more of his audacious and exasperating falsehoods? Let us close fittingly with this one: He affirms that 'in the mosque of St. Sophia at Constantinople I got my feet so stuck up with a complication of gums, slime, and general impurity, that I wore out more than 2,000 pairs of bootjacks getting my books off that night, and even then some Christian hide peeled off with them!'
"Will the reader longer marvel at the brutal ignorance that pervades the American nation when we tell him that we are informed upon perfectly good authority that this extravagant compilation of falsehoods, this exhaustless mine of stupendous lies, this 'Innocents Abroad,' has actually been adopted by the schools and colleges of several of the States as a text-book?"
Mark Twain's jest overreaches itself. His burlesque was mistaken by many readers of The Galaxy for a genuine Saturday Review article. So far, so good. But Mark grew indignant when the press began to rally him as a man who could not see a joke.
"The flavor of the Partaga," said the Cincinnati Enquirer, "is too delicate for palates that have been accustomed to Connecticut seed leaf. So it is with humor. The finer it is in quality, the more danger of its not being recognized at all. Even Mark Twain has been taken in by an English review of his 'Innocent Abroad.' Mark Twain is by no means a coarse humorist, but the Englishman's humor is so much finer than his that he mistakes it for solid earnest and 'larfs most consumedly.' "
In vain did Mark Twain in the next number of The Galaxy thunder forth the explanation that he himself had written the article which he had attributed to the Saturday Review. In vain did he pour volleys of ridicule upon the innocents whom he had duped. In vain did he assert that hereafter, "when I write an article which I know to be good, but which I have reason to fear will not, in some quarters, be considered to amount to much, coming from an American, I will aver that an Englishman wrote it and that it is copied from a London journal. And then I will occupy a back seat and enjoy the cordial applause.
In vain, I repeat, was all this expenditure of sarcasm, so far at least as The Cincinnati Enquirer and some others doubters were concerned.
"Mark Twain," said The Enquirer in its next issue, "at last sees that The Saturday Review's criticism of his 'Innocents Abroad' was not serious, and he is intensely mortified at the thought of having been so badly sold. He takes the only course left him, and in the last Galaxy claims that he wrote the criticism himself, and published it in The Galaxy to sell the public. This is ingenious, but unfortunately it is not true. If any of our readers will take the trouble to call at this office we will show them the original article in The Saturday Review of Oct. 8 which, on comparison, will be found to be identical with the one published in the Galaxy. The best thing for Mark to do will be to admit that he was sold, and say no more about it."
Return to The New York Times
Quotations | Newspaper Articles | Special Features | Links | Search