Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism
The Tide of a Great Popular Movement
By Jeffrey Alan Melton
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
The Success of Travel Books and the Failure of Tourism
Captain Duncan desires me to say that passengers for the Quaker City must be on board to-morrow before the tide goes out. What the tide has to do with us or we with the tide is more than I know
The Travel Writer
For readers in the late nineteenth century, Mark Twain was first and foremost a travel writer instead of a novelist. He earned the greatest patronage from his contemporaries as the endearing narrator of The Innocents Abroad, his most popular book and the best-selling travel book of the century, rather than as the author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, as most modern readers assume. Excluding collections of short stories and sketches, four of Twain's first seven books published in the United States were travelogues: The Innocents Abroad (1869), Roughing It (1872), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Life on the Mississippi (1883). He would bring out his fifth and last travel book, Following the Equator, in 1897.
It was no coincidence that Twain made such extensive use of the genre or that so many readers loved these narratives. Twain recognized early the lucrative sales potential of travel books and capitalized on it throughout a varied and formidable career. Consistently, his travel books proved to be his best-sellers, especially in his formative years as a professional author. In its first three years of publication, The Innocents Abroad sold over 100,000 copies, just over 70,000 of them in the first year (Hill, Twain and Bliss 39). Roughing It sold over 76,000 copies in its first two years and 96,000 by 1879 (63), and A Tramp Abroad sold 62,000 in its first year (152). Life on the Mississippi was the only one of the four to struggle — but only comparatively, selling over 32,000 copies in its first year (Hill, Twain's Letters 164). The popular success of his three fictional works of the same period varied, but none matched that of his travel books. The Gilded Age (1873), co-written with Charles Dudley Warner, took more than six years to sell 56,000 copies (Kaplan 167-68), and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) sold only 24,000 copies in its first year (200). The Prince and the Pauper, published in 1882, sold around 18,000 copies in its first few months, according to Twain's estimate, but sales dropped off dramatically soon after the brisk start and became so disappointing that Twain was uncharacteristically tempted to abandon subscription sales and dump the work on the trade market (Salamo 17).
For a writer who had earned worldwide acclaim with his first travel book, the reception of his fiction must have been a letdown. The Innocents Abroad sold well over three times as many copies in its first year as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer sold in its first year, yet Twain's best-selling book in his lifetime has been largely forgotten by most current readers. This is a shame and a loss to our understanding of both Twain's literary craft and the genre that made his career possible.
Always highly conscious of the desires and expectations of his readers, Twain confidently believed, for the most part, in his ability to fulfill them. Many of his genteel contemporaries criticized him for being irreverent, indecent, and even vulgar, and he proved sometimes sensitive to such assertions, but he understood well the tastes of those who read his works. In an often-quoted letter to Andrew Lang, Twain commented on his intended audience: "Indeed I have been misjudged, from the very first. I have never tried in even one single instance, to help cultivate the cultivated classes. I was not equipped for it, either by native gifts or training. And I never had any ambition in that direction, but always hunted for bigger game — the masses" (Paine 2: 527) Throughout his career Twain sought to capture the devotion of "the masses," and despite occasional bouts of insecurity regarding his literary reputation among "cultivated" readers (the Whittier birthday speech episode being the best-known example), he carefully established and nurtured a rapport with "uncultivated" readers, who, in turn, made him world-famous. Referring to a critic's comment that his work was not "high & fine," Twain, in a letter dated 15 February 1887, admitted to his longtime friend and literary confidante William Dean Howells that "high & fine literature is wine, and mine is only water; but everybody likes water" (Smith and Gibson 2: 586-87). Twain's assertion that "everybody" liked his work is not simply a clever or defensive retaliation to criticism; it directly reflects how he perceived his art and, more importantly to Twain, how he consistently valued the patronage of the masses over that of the highbrows.
Modern critics have yet to examine the expectations of Twain's contemporary readers or how he carefully catered to them. Throughout his career, he successfully stalked his "bigger game" by capitalizing on the vastly popular genre of travel literature, which proved an ideal vehicle for his wit and literary propensity. By studying how Twain used the formulas of the travel book, we can understand better how he fulfilled his readers' common expectations. In other words, we may learn how he created that liquid sustenance everybody liked to drink. Moreover, our grasp of Mark Twain as an author would benefit from examining his travel narratives from two perspectives: first, how he sought to please his contemporary readers with a finely tuned adherence to travel-book conventions, and second, how he sought to fashion his work within the inextricable context of an emergent Tourist Age.
Scholars have not ignored Twain's travel writing by any means, and a formidable body of scholarship exists that illuminates it. Richard Bridgman's Traveling in Mark Twain (1987) is the only published book-length examination of Twain's travel writing. In this insightful study, Bridgman considers how the travel texts reflect the psyche of their author; as such, he does not concern himself with the contexts of the genre beyond the narrative freedom the form allows writers. Within this specific focus, Bridgman correctly points out which features of travel writing allowed Twain to tap into his native talent: "All that the form demanded Twain had in abundance: curiosity, a reactive intelligence, and stamina" (3). Although Bridgman may oversimplify the demands, his framework nonetheless allows for helpful readings of how travel encouraged Twain's powerful associative ability, which in turn led him to produce his most compelling writing. In Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing, 1780-1910 (2000), Larzer Ziff places Twain in context with other travel writers, and although he has only a chapter with which to examine Twain, he offers a strong overview of Twain's travel books. Ziff follows Bridgman by emphasizing Twain's personal recollections, noting that "travel writing was a perfect vehicle for Twain's imagination" (174). Both of these scholars, among many others over the years, have elicited from Twain's travel writing a wealth of insightful and often provocative interpretations.
The problem remains, however, that no critics have analyzed Twain's travel books as products of a specific genre with its own demands and expectations. Too often travel books have been lumped together with novels and criticized according to novelistic conventions rather than those of travel literature. This is not to say that Twain's travel books should never be discussed in relation to his novels and other works; such criticism has been and continues to be highly beneficial. It is unfair, however, to place demands on Twain's travel books that were simply foreign to his understanding of the genre itself. After all, he wrote to sell books, and his contemporary readers, it seems clear by their purchasing fervor, accepted that quite well.
To ignore the conventions of the genre is to invite misunderstanding. Since twentieth-century readers preferred fiction, it is not surprising that the travel books have generally been seen as failing to meet inapplicable standards. In short, Twain's travel books have been analyzed as failed examples of fiction or as practice pieces that served only to illustrate his development into a "better" writer — that is, a novelist. Twain himself recognized the inability of many critics to take into account the expectations of his intended audience. In the letter to Andrew Lang quoted above, Twain also claimed that he always wrote for the "Belly and the Members" rather than for the "Head," and closed with a plea that "the critics adopt a rule recognizing the Belly and the Members, and formulate a standard whereby work done for them shall be judged" (Paine 2: 528). The time has come to grant Twain his wish by reading his most popular works along the same lines that his contemporary audience did. The present study endeavors to begin this process.
In addition to his role as a travel writer, Twain also serves as a prototypical modern tourist, and it is this controlling identity that provides the figure in the carpet of his work. In the opening chapter of The Innocents Abroad, Twain rejoices in his upcoming journey to the Old World. "During that memorable month," he writes, "I basked in the happiness of being for once in my life drifting with the tide of a great popular movement. Every body was going to Europe — I, too, was going to Europe" (27). In addition to its purpose of creating enthusiasm for the narrative and setting up a central theme of disappointed expectations, this comment reveals an important cultural context. This "great popular movement" into which Twain insinuates himself and his readers parallels the beginnings of what can be termed the Tourist Age. Americans were on the move, and Twain was caught in their growing tide. He notes that "steamship lines were carrying Americans out of the various ports of the country at the rate of four or five thousand a week, in the aggregate" (27). Although Twain depicts himself as "drifting" with this tide, his travel books and his tourist experiences clearly indicate he was more accurately riding the crest of a tourist wave — in the forefront both as a travel writer helping to popularize its seductive, engulfing power and as a tourist participating in one of its earliest leisure cruises, a form of tourism that has since become definitive of mass touristic behavior. The inevitable drag swept along everyone in what amounted to a large-scale cultural shift. As the tide swelled, Twain, ever an astute and opportunistic writer, quickly recognized a way to capitalize on the movement. He thus gives us a record of the birth of the Tourist Age for which he was both a creating, defining force and a prototypical participant.
The Tourist Experience
"Don't be a tourist," advises a high-rotation commercial for The Travel Channel, a popular cable television network that offers travel documentaries, promotions, and information. These words convey two messages simultaneously: the more direct one encourages viewers to tune into The Travel Channel to learn about foreign cultures and thereby avoid mistakes and embarrassing situations while traveling; the indirect one encourages viewers to stay at home and watch the rest of the world from the comfort of their armchairs. "Don't be a tourist," indeed. We need also to consider a third implication, a message that has been intertwined with tourist mentality since the beginning of that boom in the mid-nineteenth century. The subtext of the direct message reads: by learning of foreign cultures — by watching television, in this case — one can transcend being a "tourist" (a lowly creature) to become a "traveler" (an altogether impressive creature). The promotion is a clever one; it easily taps into one of the most pervasive and powerful sentiments of this touristic era: everybody wants to travel, but nobody wants to be a tourist, at least conceptually. And there is the rub — a "great popular movement" in which hordes of people want to participate but for which the same people refuse to admit their participation. As Dean MacCannell, in his seminal study The Tourist (1976), wryly states, "tourists dislike tourists" (10).
Tourism continues to thrive and reshape the world's economic and social makeup, and the tide shows no sign of abating well over a hundred years since Mark Twain heralded its beginning. Our cultural ambivalence toward tourism — embracing the trappings of it in practice while denying our complicity in theory — has engendered, then, an ongoing battle between "travelers" and "tourists," a struggle for self-identification that ultimately exists only semantically. For most people, there is no resolution in the foreseeable future.
It is important to remember, however, that this phenomenon is not a late-twentieth-century (or twenty-first-century) creation; the conflicts over travel identity were well in place by the time the tourist boom in America began in earnest after the Civil War. The word tourist itself has been around for quite awhile (the Oxford English Dictionary cites the earliest reference in 1780), yet it did not begin to take on widespread negative connotations until the mid- to late nineteenth century, thereby coinciding (it should come as no great surprise) with the increased numbers of tourists moving energetically around the globe. Blackwood's Magazine in England, for example, provides one of the most aggressive attacks upon this supposedly new breed of traveler. In an article titled "Modern Tourism" (1848), the editors note that technological advances in travel have had beneficial social effects but have also initiated a decidedly unfortunate one: "They have covered Europe with Tourists" (185). The article continues by noting that this mass traveling "spoils all rational travel; it disgusts all intelligent curiousity [sic]; it repels the student, the philosopher, and the manly investigator, from subjects which have been thus tramp led into mire by the hoofs of a whole tribe of travelling bipeds, who might rejoice to exchange brains with the animals which they ride" (185). In short, tourists are mindless, brutish "bipeds" with an undeniable herd instinct and "hoofs" that trample underfoot places that more properly exist as "subjects" for true-thinking travelers. In an effort, it seems, to be fair to other herd animals, the editors generously imply that tourists are less intelligent than the quadrupeds upon whose backs they ride. A generation later, as the tourist movement became firmly rooted in the United States, cultural critics echoed Blackwood's disgust. Henry James, in his "Americans Abroad," regrets the tourist boom and laments how, in his view, it reflects poorly on the nation as a whole. "A very large proportion of the Americans who annually scatter themselves over Europe are by no means flattering to the national vanity," he writes. "Their merits, whatever they are, are not of a sort that strikes the eye — still less the ear. They are ill-made, ill-mannered, ill-dressed" (209). Thus begins the notion of the "ugly American." Interestingly, James goes on to note that the American tourist travels to Europe as "a provincial who is terribly bent upon taking, in the fulness of ages, his revenge" (209). Perhaps James is correct; if so, the American "revenge" upon Europe in the Tourist Age continues well over a hundred years later, perhaps best evidenced by Euro-Disney. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism by Jeffrey Alan Melton. Copyright © 2002 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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