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The following review appeared 15 August 2002 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2002 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.
Mary Leah Christmas
The first thing one notices about Jeffrey Alan Melton's Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism--because it happens in the first two pages--is that Melton twice uses the word "beloved." This is a tip-off that we are entering revered territory and must remove our shoes. Perhaps that is why this reviewer, who compulsively attacks books with her editorial pencil, has made not a single mark in this one, keeping all her notes on a separate pad of paper. This is highly unusual and a tribute to Melton's gentle, though not necessarily uncritical, examination of his subject matter.
As Larzer Ziff did in Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing, 1780-1910 (Yale University Press, reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum on 31 May 2001), Melton uses Mark Twain's travel writings as barometers of his intellectual and emotional growth. Melton, however, does not peer disdainfully through his lorgnette. After all, who among us would be the same person we were at 34 (Innocents Abroad) when we reached 60 (Following the Equator)?
Instead, Melton approaches Mark Twain's Pentateuch of travel writings with great emphasis on "expectations," a word appearing countless times in the book, along with its ubiquitous twin, "authentic." These words appear on many successive pages; at times, more than once on a page; and on occasion even repeated in the same paragraph. The twin drumbeats mysteriously halt about three-quarters of the way through the book, only to sneak up again from behind in the last few pages.
The drumming does not distract so much as herald that Melton is delivering again on his premise. Throughout the book he informs us how Mark Twain sought to meet the expectations of the reading public enamored of travel books, and that
...perhaps the most difficult challenge for the travel writer is to capitalize on those expectations and to mock them on occasion without alienating readers. Twain most often succeeds on both counts. (143)
Mark Twain succeeds because there is "a wealth of pleasure available in pictures, [those] controlled and contrived images of reality" (142), and in the travel books containing them. While plumbing the shallow end of the touristic tidal pool for humorous effect, he takes the opportunity to instruct:
Knowing well the importance of catering to reader expectations, [Mark Twain] carefully incorporated educational material within all of his narratives....choosing often to manipulate expectations for his readers' entertainment and his own satirical interests. He thus achieves a tenuoud balance between following form and snubbing it. (33)
When the drumbeats paused, it was to allow an interlude examining Mark Twain's "dream of color." This term, too, flourishes in its season and has its purpose. While reading these passages, this reviewer was reminded of the many color-laden implications in the film "Pleasantville."
Melton's book addresses the issues of race, imperialism and culture in a measured, thoughtful way. Melton is writing to inspire, not writing to impress. To his credit, there is no academic jargon in sight. His lengthy ruminations do not come across as filler because they aren't. One realizes Melton is making deliberate headway and guiding the reader upstream, not simply allowing the reader to be swept passively along with the tide.
That having been said, Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism can still seem a bit disjointed. The project began as a doctoral dissertation, with some portions previously appearing as separate pieces in scholarly publications. In gathering them together, there may have been created some unintended reiteration of material. For instance, the object called a Claude Glass is defined in full on both pages 63 and 103. (As an aside, the index claims these pages mark the item's only appearances, though it is also on page 162.) Here is another example of repeated material, but this one gets turned on its head:
Any touristic production, in addition to asking for imaginative leaps from the audience, also implicitly asks for what I call touristic faith, a phrase adapted from Coleridge's "poetic faith," wherein readers experience a "willing suspension of disbelief." (12)
In recognition of the play, tourists allow for "a willing suspension of disbelief," to adapt Samuel Taylor Coleridge's well-known description of poetic faith. For my purposes here, this obliging participation in the illusion can be called "touristic faith." (61)
Larzer Ziff's Return Passages gave Mark Twain's wife no more than a nameless, passing reference. Melton mentions Olivia's name, but only to quote from a letter she received from her husband. So in this book, Mark Twain is once again an island with no wife, no daughters, no worldwide lecture tours, and no peripatetic family life overseas.
Versus Ziff, Melton scores a major point for recognizing Mark Twain's laziness claims for what they are:
Twain used laziness as a pose throughout his career, and it is a prominent character trait that he projected both within and outside his books. Yet by combining his feigned inveterate laziness with a vastly popular travel-book persona, he made his joke all the more shrewd and effective. (83)
Mark Twain worked hard, but he also had the good fortune to meet the right people at the right time:
The actual [Quaker City] tour, of course, changed Samuel Clemens forever, giving to him an opportunity that led to financial and literary status he could never have obtained as a roving journalist or newspaper editor... (60)
Opportunity, thy name is Olivia! Unfortunately, there is no mention of her in this passage, or even the fact that her brother was a fellow Quaker City passenger. Samuel Clemens, the brilliant autodidact, would have succeeded eventually by one means or another; but destiny came up the gangway in the form of an ivory miniature portrait in Charley Langdon's pocket.
One must give Melton credit for staying on topic. When he resolves to scrutinize Mark Twain's accepted canon of travel books, he sticks to it: No mention of Mark Twain's other writings set abroad (Tom Sawyer Abroad, Joan of Arc, Connecticut Yankee, The Prince and the Pauper, etc.); no travel-book apochrypha such as "The Great Sea Wilderness"; and again, nary a word about the years the Clemenses lived in Europe--which leads us to a mystery. Melton is so determined to focus only on the travel books, with no mention of the Clemens family's residences abroad, then why does Dr. Carl Dolmetsch's authoritative Our Famous Guest: Mark Twain in Vienna (University of Georgia Press) appear in the bibliography?
One must keep in mind--as if one could forget--that Mark Twain for years lived in the very Europe he had so popularly mocked. Could his "everlasting exile abroad" have contributed to his changing worldview? By the time of Following the Equator, Mark Twain had already lived in Italy, Germany, France, and Switzerland.
A quick survey of Alan Gribben's Mark Twain's Library: A Reconstruction (1980) will show that Mark Twain was also quite the travel reader. Melton cites William Cowper Prime's Tent Life in the Holy Land, yet the book does not appear in the "works cited" bibliography. (Thomas J. Dimsdale's The Vigilantes of Montana and Edward Whymper's Scrambles Amongst the Alps suffer the same fate.) An interesting footnote to the passage about Prime, courtesy of Gribben, would have been that "Mark Twain's unfinished play--'The Quaker City Holy Land Excursion' (MTP), written in 1867--suggests that Prime's book was one of the tiresome volumes in the ship library." (2: 560) This unfinished play, a potential foil in the hands of one Melton has dubbed our "leading actor," goes unmentioned. Also missing is the fact that Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, which Melton cites, was a favorite and significant holding in Mark Twain's personal library, meriting a lengthy entry in Gribben's formidable opus.
Alan Gribben, Melton's mentor and colleague at the University of Alabama, is credited in the acknowledgments for reading and editing the present manuscript over the years (x). So it is likely for space reasons that nuggets such as those in the previous paragraph are not included; and for the same reason, perhaps, that many of the books and dissertations mentioned in the endnotes are not in the bibliography or index. Those who skip reading the endnotes will miss seeing a wealth of bibliographic information.
On a further bibliographic note, the University of Alabama Press's press release blithely asserts that Melton's book is the "first full-length work to treat Twain's travel narratives in depth." Yet Melton himself cites Richard Bridgman's Traveling in Mark Twain (1987) for having done so before him (3). To that, one could add Robert M. Rodney's Mark Twain Overseas (Three Continents Press, 1993). In fact, Rodney's book provides just the sort of biographical water needed to surround, and place in context, Melton's Mark Twain travel-book islands.
Melton throughout the book poses Mark Twain in two ways: as the "leading actor" on a "global stage" (xv); and as a sort of pioneering tourist hanging ten on a monster-sized wave headed for Oahu and...the world. "Mark Twain stands at the beginning of the great social tide of American tourism." (Ibid.)
By design, Melton leaves Mark Twain suspended there, riding that crest. Mark
Twain buffs know the rest of the story. The tourism tsunami first touched Hannibal
in 1935 and by the 1960s resulted in an immigrant community being nearly obliterated
to prepare the way for anticipated hoards of motorized tourists soon to be arriving
for the big show. (See Gregg Andrews, City
of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer and Insane
Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town, both from
University of Missouri Press, reviewed for the Mark Twain
Forum on 11 December 1996 and 30 November 1999). Just as Melton writes, "Tourism is an ever-expanding collection of cultural productions, staged in varying forms and contexts around the globe, all promising authenticity but at the same time remaining unable to provide it." (14)
Had Mark Twain still been around in 1973, he would have learned that Arrow Rock, Missouri, was chosen to represent "St. Petersburg" in a Reader's Digest film version of "Tom Sawyer"--presumably for looking more like Hannibal than Hannibal. Even on our actor-surfer's home turf, "the real never attains the magnitude of the imagined place." (159)