I know everyone except me read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at school. Somehow I missed out.
I’ve jumped straight into Mr Twain’s travel writing, starting with A Tramp Abroad (1880), his account of his ‘pedestrian journey’ through Germany, Switzerland and Italy.
I love it, mostly. I didn’t know Mark Twain could be so damn funny!
It isn’t a well organised literary masterpiece; he’s a great wordsmith, but there is no discernible theme, argument, or even a consistent point of view.
It’s an account of his travels with his friend ‘Harris’, who I’d heard, and Wikipedia reliably confirms, is a character invented for purposes of narrative and humour. Of course ‘Mark Twain’ is also a nom-de-plume, taken by Samuel Clemens for imaginative literary purposes.
What I enjoy about A Tramp Abroad is the way the author feels free to go off on tangents, to tell invented, or at least wildly exaggerated, stories. He acts as a second in a duel in France. He watches ants at work and marvels at their stupidity. He learns when to bow to Germans, and has a run-in with annoying Swiss touts (things have changed in Geneva since). I love his description of his epic expedition to scale a Swiss mountain, finally arriving in the lobby of the hotel on its peak.
He goes into great detail about the movement of glaciers and relates tales of tragic alpine disasters, next his hilarious account of his own valiant attempt to climb Mont Blanc ‘by telescope’ from the safety of Chamonix.
‘There is probably no pleasure equal to the pleasure of climbing a dangerous Alp; but it is a pleasure which is confined strictly to people who can find pleasure in it.’
There are detailed descriptions of scenery and architecture that I admire, but skip through. Then suddenly, unexpectedly, I’ll find him describing a place I know – the covered porticos of Turin or the grand arcade of Milan – and my interest is sparked again.
In matters of navigation and distance calculation on a hike, it seems not much has changed in 130 years. I remember once being disappointed that the map did not agree with my Garmin GPS that I’d walked a record-breaking 1500km in a day along New Zealand’s Caples Track.
Twain had the same problem…
‘At half past eight we stepped into Oppenau…(having walked) a hundred and forty miles. This is the distance by the pedometer; the guidebook and the Imperial Ordinance maps make it only ten and a quarter – a surprising blunder, for these two authorities are usually singularly accurate in the matter of distances.’
A Tramp Abroad would have been a fantastic, free-ranging travel blog, and in the 19th century I suppose that’s just what it was. Like any good blog, you can read it for free these days (downloaded from Amazon to the Kindle: $0.00).
And what a tweeter Mark Twain would have been! Who could ever forget his legendary telegram after reading his own premature obituary in a newspaper, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated”? That one went viral long before the invention of Twitter.