Overland Monthly [unsigned; Bret Harte]
1870: January

Six hundred and fifty pages of open and declared fun -- very strongly accented with wood-cuts at that -- might go far toward frightening the fastidious reader. But the Hartford publishers, we imagine, do not print for the fastidious reader, nor do traveling book agents sell much to that rarely occurring man, who prefers to find books rather than let them find him. So that, unless he has already made "Mark Twain's" acquaintance through the press, he will not probably meet him until, belated in the rural districts, he takes from the parlor table of a country farm-house an illustrated Bible, Greeley's American Conflict, Mr. Parton's apocryphal Biographies, successively and listlessly, and so comes at last upon "Mark Twain's" Innocents like a joyous revelation -- an Indian spring in an alkaline literary desert. For the book has that intrinsic worth of bigness and durability which commends itself to the rural economist, who likes to get a material return for his money. It is about the size of The Family Physician, for which it will doubtless be often mistaken -- with great advantage to the patient. The entire six hundred and fifty pages are devoted to an account of the "steamship Quaker City's excursion to Europe and the Holy Land," with a description of certain famous localities of which a great many six hundred and fifty pages have been, at various times, written by various tourists. Yet there is hardly a line of Mr. Clemens' account that is not readable; and none the less, certainly, from the fact that he pokes fun at other tourists, and that the reader becomes dimly conscious that Mr. Clemens' fellow-passengers would have probably estopped this gentle satirist from going with them could they have forecast his book. The very title -- The Innocents Abroad -- is a suggestive hint of the lawlessness and audacity in which the trip is treated. We shall not stop to question the propriety of this feature: it is only just to Mr. Clemens to say, that the best satirists have generally found their quarry in the circle in which they moved, and among their best friends; but we contend that if he has, by this act, choked off and prevented the enthusiastic chronicling of the voyage by any of his fellow-passengers, who may have been sentimentally inclined, he is entitled to the consideration of a suffering world; and it shall stand in extenuation of some mannerism that is only slang, some skepticism that lacks the cultivation which only makes skepticism tolerable, and some sentiment that is only rhetoric. And so, with an irreverence for his fellow-pilgrims which was equaled only by his scorn for what they admired, this hilarious image-breaker started upon his mission. The situation was felicitous, the conditions perfect for the indulgence of an humor that seems to have had very little moral or esthetic limitation. The whole affair was a huge practical joke, of which not the least amusing feature was the fact that "Mark Twain" had embarked in it. Before the Quaker City reached Fayal, the first stopping-place, he had worked himself into a grotesque rage at every thing and every body. In this mock assumption of a righteous indignation, lies, we think, the real power of the book, and the decided originality of Mr. Clemens' humor. It enables him to say his most deliberately funny things with all the haste and exaggeration of rage; it gives him an opportunity to invent such epithets as "animated outrage," and "spider-legged gorilla," and apply them, with no sense of personal responsibility on the part of reader or writer. And the rage is always ludicrously disproportionate to the cause. It is "Mr. Boythorn," without his politeness, or his cheerful intervals. For, when "Mark Twain" is not simulating indignation, he is really sentimental. He shows it in fine writing -- in really admirable rhetoric, vigorous and picturesque -- but too apt, at times, to suggest the lecturing attitude, or the reporter's flourish. Yet it is so much better than what one had any right to expect, and is such an agreeable relief to long passages of extravagant humor, that the reader is very apt to overlook the real fact, that it is often quite as extravagant. Yet, with all his independence, "Mark Twain" seems to have followed his guide and guidebooks with a simple, unconscious fidelity. He was quite content to see only that which every body else sees, even if he was not content to see it with the same eyes. His record contains no new facts or features of the countries visited. He has always his own criticism, his own comments, his own protests, but always concerning the same old facts. Either from lack of time or desire, he never stepped out of the tread-mill round of "sights." His remarks might have been penciled on the margins of Murray. This is undoubtedly a good way to correct the enthusiasm or misstatements of other tourists; but is, perhaps, hardly the best method of getting at the truth for one's self. As a conscientious, painstaking traveler, "Mark Twain," we fear, is not to be commended. But that his book would have been as amusing, if he had been, is a matter of doubt. Most of the criticism is just in spirit, although extravagant, and often too positive in style. But it should be remembered that the style itself is a professional exaggeration, and that the irascible pilgrim, "Mark Twain," is a very eccentric creation of Mr. Clemens'. We can, perhaps, no more fairly hold Mr. Clemens responsible for "Mark Twain's" irreverence than we could have held the late Mr. Charles F. Browne to account for "Artemus Ward's" meanness and humbuggery. There may be a question of taste in Mr. Clemens permitting such a man as "Mark Twain" to go to the Holy Land at all; but we contend that such a traveler would be more likely to report its external aspect truthfully than a man of larger reverence. And are there not Lamartines, Primes, and unnumbered sentimental and pious pilgrims to offset these losel skeptics -- or, as our author would say, such "animated outrages" -- as Ross Browne, Swift, "Mark Twain," et al.

To subject Mr. Clemens to any of those delicate tests by which we are supposed to detect the true humorist, might not be either fair or convincing. He has caught, with great appreciation and skill, that ungathered humor and extravagance which belong to pioneer communities -- which have been current in bar-rooms, on railways, and in stages -- and which sometimes get crudely into literature, as "a fellow out West says." A good deal of this is that picturesque Western talk which we call "slang," in default of a better term for inchoate epigram. His characters speak naturally, and in their own tongue. If he has not it that balance of pathos which we deem essential to complete humor, he has something very like it in that serious eloquence to which we have before alluded. Like all materialists, he is an honest hater of all cant -- except, of course, the cant of materialism -- which, it is presumed, is perfectly right and proper. To conclude: after a perusal of this volume, we see no reason for withholding the opinion we entertained before taking it up, that Mr. Clemens deserves to rank foremost among Western humorists; and, in California, above his only rival, "John Phoenix," whose fun, though more cultivated and spontaneous, lacked the sincere purpose and larger intent of "Mark Twain's."

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