Riding the Waves

Twain on board shipReflecting upon the thousands who “came to shake hands & let me know that they were on deck & all was well,” Mark Twain figured that the American leg of his 1895-96 international lecture tour paid “a compliment worth being in debt for.” But the whistle-stop month had left him with the recurring dream of standing before a packed audience in his shirttail, and the weeks aboard a mail steamer to Australia brought welcome relief. They also allowed Twain the time to keep up with his notebooks, these the source for Following the Equator, published in 1897. The tour book reflects the ‘moral maxims’ theme of the tour talks, but some observations are closer to poetry: “Flocks of flying fish—slim, shapely, graceful, and intensely white. With the sun on them they look like a flight of silver fruit-knives.” And some get worked up for a chuckle:

To-morrow we shall be close to the center of the globe—the 180th degree of west longitude and 180th degree of east longitude. And then we must drop out a day—lose a day out of our lives, a day never to be found again. We shall all die one day earlier than from the beginning of time we were foreordained to die. We shall be a day behindhand all through eternity. We shall always be saying to the other angels, “Fine day today,” and they will be always retorting, “But it isn’t to-day, it’s tomorrow.”

For Twain the ruined businessman, the year’s tour proved more profitable than imagined; for Twain the writer-tramp, it filled notebook after notebook, with the “delirium” of India the jewel of the trip:

This is India! the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a hundred nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods….

But Twain was a world traveler as well as a wide-eyed Missouri boy. The poverty and powerlessness he witnessed in India provoked his recurring anti-colonialism: “There are many humorous things in the world, among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the savages.” And, as his carbuncles persisted, so did his carbuncular moods—this notebook entry the sort that would not make it into the tour book:

It is the strangest thing that the world is not full of books that scoff at the pitiful world, & the useless universe & the vile & contemptible human race—books that laugh at the whole paltry scheme & deride it. Curious, for millions of men die every year with these feelings in their hearts. Why don’t I write such a book? Because I have a family. There is no other reason.

Steve King contributes Daybook to the Barnes & Noble Review and teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at http://www.todayinliterature.com.