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The following review appeared 6 November 2008 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Recent years have seen a resurgence in the study of travel literature in general. Scholars are beginning to take a long-needed second look at Mark Twain's travel books, which have often been overlooked in favor of his fiction, short stories, and essays. Earlier studies included Arthur Scott's Mark Twain at Large (1969), Richard Bridgman's Traveling in Mark Twain (1987), and Jeffrey Alan Melton's Mark Twain, Travel Books and Tourism (2002). In addition, Leland Krauth's Proper Mark Twain (1999) includes a close reading of Twain's travel writing as well. In 2007, two other scholarly studies of Twain's travel books appeared: Thomas Ruys Smith's River of Dreams: Imagining the Mississippi before Mark Twain and Brian Yothers's The Romance of the Holy Land in American Travel Literature, 1790-1876. Harold Hellwig's Mark Twain and Travel Literature: The Odyssey of a Mind joins this growing list of studies.
In his preface, Hellwig claims to compete directly with Melton's Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement -- "While Melton describes quite appropriately the conventions of tourism as they apply to Twain's works, Melton does not discuss the phenomenological structures that I have explored, nor does Melton apply his observations to Twain's fiction" (3); and indirectly with Bridgman's Traveling in Mark Twain, claiming that "his analysis tends to be as desultory as his assumption about Twain's travels" (4). Hellwig's research into the travel narrative derives from more cultural studies, particularly Percy Adams's Travel Literature and the Evolution of the Novel (1983), a work dedicated to the connections between travel literature and fiction; Paul Fussell's Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars (1980), in which Fussell claims that the writing of travel books did not preclude a "serious literary career" (8); Dean MacCannell's The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class (1999), a sociological review of modern travel literature that examines, among other things, the 'staged authenticity' of cultural locations, the difference between truth and fiction in tourist settings, and the notion of 'genuine' experience that a traveler seeks" (9). Beyond these obviously more general and more modern studies of travel, Hellwig's plan is to "find phenomenological structures that further explain Twain's themes in these travel works, because, while these useful sociological structures help define the nature of tourism, Twain transcends the structures that most travelers expect. He mocks traditional travel accounts; he attacks assumptions of the ordinary traveler; he creates new forms and new concepts to create his thoughts" (13).
Hellwig's book contains a short preface, an introductory chapter titled "Travel as a Quest for Knowledge," chapter 2, which examines travel as a method of "piloting through life" and other chapters which discuss each of Twain's travel narratives. The last two chapters draw conclusions about the travel narratives as a search for identity and Twain's search for stable time in his fiction -- this last draws parallels between the various travel books and Twain's major novels. Hellwig also includes an appendix of travel works that Twain probably read, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Much of the chapter on Innocents Abroad examines letters from the Quaker City voyage that Twain chose not to include in the final text and a discussion of his narrative structures -- Mr. Brown of the original letters, the characters of Jack and Blucher, and the "Mark Twain" persona as it was created for Innocents. According to Hellwig, this structure "helps create the thoughts expressed...the style becomes Twain's way to understand what he sees" (46), and sets up a parody of travel narratives through which Twain evolves the staged authenticity that "fictionalizes" the form. The chapter on Roughing It focuses sharply on shifts in the Mark Twain persona, and Twain's use of this text to define the American West (through its physical and moral boundaries) and find a stable identity for himself from which to narrate memory. Like most scholars of the travel works, Hellwig considers A Tramp Abroad less successful than the earlier works, but he cites several examples of artfully written and developed "stretchers" like "Jim Baker's Blue Jay" sketch and others that "explode notions of his being the instructor or the traveler noting customs of the savages of Europe" (85). He notes parallels between the rafting trip to Heidelberg and Twain's later, more famous and more extensive rafting trip in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Hellwig reads Life on the Mississippi as the travel narrative through which readers can see both Twain's development as a writer (which he also mentions in connection with Roughing It) and as the sometimes tacit and sometimes more explicit methodology for all of Twain's travel books. He conflates the memory of the riverboat pilot and the memory of the author as the defining principles for Twain's identity as traveler and author of fiction. The chapter on Following the Equator concerns mainly the older Twain as an experienced traveler whose work reflects a more pessimistic view of the human race as evidenced by his fellow travelers -- the Captain returning from his last trip under a cloud, having lost his first commissioned ship and the "remittance man" whose family sends him traveling on an allowance to be rid of him -- and in his reflections on colonial treatment of the indigenous people in Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa and the religious intolerance he sees on the journey. The final two chapters align readings of Twain's major fiction with the travel works.
The one drawback to this book is its style and structure, which can sometimes confuse the reader. While the arrangement of the chapters follows chronologically the composition of the travel narratives, Hellwig tends to skip back and forth at the beginning of each chapter to the other texts, sometimes moving forward in time (from Roughing It to Following the Equator, for example) without apparent reasons to do so, and spending a bit too much time analyzing items left out of the final versions of the texts as a part of a formal reading of the narratives themselves.
One of the strong suits of this text is that Hellwig gives a fairly extended composition history of each of the travel narratives. The stories of what went into each book and what got left out takes on some weight as an interesting study of Twain's efforts at composition in this genre. The bibliography, while not exhaustive, gives readers plenty of places to begin a close reading of the scholarship on Twain's travel books, and the index is extensive enough to make it useful. A quick overall reading of the book gives the impression that Hellwig is ultimately not saying much that is "new" in a study of the travel books; however, I found it most noteworthy for the questions that it brings to light without fully answering. For example, in his discussion of the Blue Jay tale, the author suggests that its inclusion is indicative of Twain's difficulty in engaging fully with the Europe he sees on this trip: "The acorns represent minutiae of information, data bit by bit, dropped into the empty recesses of knowledge, knowledge without understanding, information with no framework for memory" (86). The reading is highly original, and begs for a fuller discussion of why Twain should find it so difficult to write about Europe on this trip -- had he said what he wanted to in Innocents and couldn't find a newer or fresher perspective? Or, was he now a more sophisticated traveler and thus could no longer find a humorous tack for this one? Similarly, in his chapter on Following the Equator, Hellwig begins an insightful discussion about memory, selective memory, and reminiscence, but leaves the discussion before drawing any conclusions that might further discussions of the late works. He states that "the reader is reminded that the memory is suspect unless fortified by the knowledge that the traveler is accumulating by the act of traveling, that travel experience itself will provide the answer, not the travel guide" (126). Such a discussion, if taken further, might reveal much about the travel literature of a man who had traveled and written as extensively as Twain had.
And finally, in chapter 6, Hellwig quotes extensively from the autobiographical dictations Twain's idea that reciting from a text to an audience makes readers "an artificiality not a reality" and thus allows the teller of the tale to "absorb the character of a text and presently, absorb the character and become the man himself" (102). In terms of the evolution of the Twain persona in these narratives, a full discussion of this question in light of Twain's theory of composing could be fascinating.