Tramps and Tourists: Europe in Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad

By Messent, Peter | Yearbook of English Studies, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

Tramps and Tourists: Europe in Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad


Messent, Peter, Yearbook of English Studies


ABSTRACT

This is a re-reading of Mark Twain's neglected travel book, A Tramp Abroad (1880) which explores the title pun, paying particular attention to Twain's highly ambivalent attitude to tramps as represented back home in America. The essay also examines the book's self-conscious concern with tourism as a subject, Twain's own depiction as tourist rather than sensitive traveller, and his awareness of the way mass tourism affects, and promotes a false version of, the countries it colonizes. The final suggestion is that, as parasites on their cultural hosts, tramps and tourists are not finally as different as they might at first appear.

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A Tramp Abroad (1880) is normally considered one of Twain's less successful books, seen as a rather tired attempt to follow up the success of his earlier The Innocents Abroad (1869). In Innocents, conventional assumptions about Europe, its traditions, and the value of its artistic heritage, were subjected to the iconoclastic eye of 'Mark Twain', playful and 'free-talking American frankly sizing up the Old World'. (1) The comic energy and innovatory cultural impact of this text made it both 'the most successful travel book in [the] country's literary history' and a benchmark in the history of American travel writing. (2)

A Tramp Abroad has suffered in critical comparison from the time of its first publication. The reviewer of 'New Publications' for the San Francisco Evening Bulletin in May 1880 confessed 'to a feeling of disappointment. [...] It lacks the freedom, the lawless abandon, the sublime audacity, the [...] spontaneous humor, the irresistible drollery of [The Innocents Abroad]'. (3) Few modern critics would argue with Forrest Robinson's more recent assessment that this is 'the least interesting of [Twain's] travel books'. Robinson sees 'something fundamentally distracted' about it, a recurrent gap between the account of the trip itself and the real subjects of the narrator's interest that occur on some other (mental) level. With good cause, given the content of Twain's letters at the time, he judges the making of the book 'a trial to its author, both in the travel itself and in the writing about it'. (4)

This is a patchy book, and one in which narrative shape and sustained thematic focus waver, and especially in its final Italian section and the series of six appendices (fifty pages of material) that follow. Twain clearly had difficulty making up his mind just what should go into his text, indicated by the fact that, in The Stolen White Elephant, Etc. (1882), four pieces, including the title story, were specifically identified as having been carried over from A Tramp Abroad. (5) But the book is of considerably more interest than its current reputation indicates. We should not forget that this was a best seller too, with sixty-two thousand copies sold in its first year of publication in the United States alone. It outsold Twain's travel book about the American West, Roughing It (1872), and would be the most popular of all his books in England in his lifetime. (6) There were also positive comments on first publication to balance the negatives: 'plenty of passages [...] which are delightfully bright and clever'; 'a good deal of fun for [the public]'; 'Mark Twain [...] is the greatest writer living of travels containing an odd mixture of sober truth, droll exaggeration, and occasional buffoonery, all mixed together in the most incongruous way imaginable'. (7) And in his introduction to the 1899 Uniform Edition of Twain's works, Brander Matthews praised A Tramp Abroad as 'a better book than The Innocents Abroad [...] Twain was [now] master of his method'. (8) Such responses suggest that a critical re-evaluation of this unusual and often intriguing book may be overdue.

My approach here is necessarily selective but focuses on two related areas. First, I discuss the pun in Twain's title, concerning the different meanings of the word 'tramp' and their resonance, both in terms of the Europe through which Twain travels and the America that serves as his cultural and geographical point of departure.

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