The following review appeared 3 July 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2000 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any mediumwithout permission.
Jim McWilliams <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
Last summer, as we sat and sunned ourselves aboard the top deck of the Hannibal riverboat, Rick Hill and I talked about how much adventure we could have if we recreated Mark Twain's most famous journeys. We'd begin with an easy trip--from St. Joseph to San Francisco, with maybe a jaunt to the Sandwich Islands if our money held out--but someday we'd try the big one, the circumnavigation described in Following the Equator. Robert Cooper did us one better: He not only duplicated Twain's route, he even left Elmira one-hundred years to the day after Twain himself left Elmira to begin his lecture tour around the world. Cooper then wrote a book about his experience, Around the World with Mark Twain.
While he does occasionally discuss what he saw and experienced on his own trip, Cooper's main focus throughout his book is on Twain's tour. In fact, Around the World with Mark Twain should become the standard biographical source for the year that Twain, his wife, and his daughter Clara followed the equator, 14 July 1895 through 15 July 1896. Cooper's book is meticulously researched, with many citations to document the descriptions of Twain and his travels. An annoying flaw in this documentation, however, is that Cooper eschews the familiar superscript numerals for his endnotes. What he does instead is repeat a few words from the sentence at the beginning of the endnote before giving the citation. Here's an example of what I mean:
At the end of the first paragraph of his book, Cooper writes, "Because he had failed as a businessman, he [Twain] felt he had failed as a father and husband as well." As I began reading the subsequent paragraph, I found myself still puzzling over that assertion; I wondered if it were entirely Cooper's own, or if he could be influenced by a Twain critic since that phrasing sounded familiar. Curiosity finally got the better of me, so I decided to check the notes, and, sure enough, I saw for the second endnote, "he felt he had failed as a father and husband Kaplan (1966:332)." If Cooper had given a superscript numeral directing me to an endnote, I could have known immediately that the assertion was indeed a paraphrase from Justin Kaplan's Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain. As it was, I first felt puzzled, and then I wasted some seconds looking through the first few endnotes until I found the matching phrase so I could see the citation. I admit that the entire process only took me thirty seconds or so, but multiply that thirty seconds by the dozens of times that I wondered if Cooper were citing someone. . . . I suspect that Around the World with Mark Twain is aimed primarily at a general audience (and a fear that a half-dozen superscript numerals swimming on a page would intimidate non-specialists and hurt sales is undoubtedly a well-founded fear), but, nevertheless, I found Cooper's lack of conventional documentation to be cumbersome.
Even with this flaw, however, Around the World with Mark Twain is loaded with fascinating information about Twain's travels and lectures that Cooper has gleaned from newspaper accounts, museum archives, and other primary sources. Some of this information is already known to Twain scholars--Cooper notes when he draws material from Paul Fatout's books about Twain on the lecture circuit or from Miriam Shillingsburg's book about Twain in Australasia, for example--but much is new. In addition to his endnotes, Cooper includes eighteen photographs and illustrations (a few I hadn't seen before), a day-by-day chronology of Twain's trip, a fairly comprehensive bibliography, and an index.
Perhaps just as interesting as the material directly about Twain are Cooper's frequent digressions into background information that puts Twain and his travels into context. A prime illustration of such a digression would be the three pages that he devotes to the 1895 clashes between the Bannock Indians and white settlers in the Jackson Hole area of Wyoming. National newspapers covered the conflict prominently, and Cooper notes that Twain--"an avid newspaper reader"--presumably knew that he and his family would be traveling just two hundred miles north of what threatened to become open warfare. Cooper concedes, however, that Twain never mentioned the Bannocks in his letters or journal, and so he cannot prove that Twain worried about an Indian attack during his train trip.
I suppose these many digressions might irritate a Twain scholar who wants "just the facts," but I found them intriguing. (I should add as a caveat that I'm a sucker for such items in old newspapers. When I was compiling the material for my own Twain book, reports about the Beecher trial, Little Bighorn, Lizzie Borden, Garfield's assassination, and innumerable other scandals constantly distracted me from my work.) The only time I found Cooper's digressions to be a bore was when they covered material that I already knew, such as the four pages that explain the feud between Bret Harte and Twain and the many pages that discuss Twain's attitudes toward colonialism. But these sorts of digressions are essential for the non-specialist, and so I won't complain about them.
As I suggested earlier in this review, Around the World with Mark Twain isn't really a travel book. In fact, it actually gives very little information about the places that Cooper visited and the people that he met. I had just finished reading Bill Bryson's latest travel book, In a Sunburned Land, before beginning Around the World with Mark Twain, and the difference between the two books is striking. Simply put, if you want to read a lively, funny account of what it's like to travel through Australia in the late 1990s, you should read Bryson's book. But if it's information about Twain's trip through Australia in 1896--as well as information about the rest of his circumnavigation--that you want, Around the World with Mark Twain is the book for you.
About the Reviewer: Dr. Jim McWilliams, an assistant professor of English at Shepherd College in West Virginia, is the author of Mark Twain in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1874-1891. He and Rick Hill have edited a collection of essays about contemporary Twain criticism that will be published by Whitston next year. This is his fourth book review for the Forum.