BOOK REVIEW: ‘American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad’

While I’m on a Mark Twain kick, I am adding this book review too though had to look up this word:

  1. the body of work of a painter, composer, or author.
    “the complete oeuvre of Mozart”
    • a work of art, music, or literature.
      “an early oeuvre”
      Ok. So here it comes.

      If there has ever been a writer whose works speak for themselves — and for him — it is Mark Twain, and nowhere in his oeuvre is that as apparent as in his prodigious travel writings. Critics and fans can dispute whether “Tom Sawyer” or “Huckleberry Finn” is his magnum opus, but his literary fame certainly rests with those twin giants of American fiction. Which of them one prefers in the end comes down to personal taste, as is the case with those twin pillars of the 19th century English novel, “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights.” Of course, they were written by sisters Charlotte and Emily Bronte, while Twain managed to produce both of his seminal works by himself. His artistry and imagination were a miraculous combination that was at once protean while preserving a uniquely distinctive character instantly recognizable as Mark Twain, something certainly reflected in the priceless accounts of his voyages, which first brought him fame and fortune and continued for much of the rest of his life.

      Mark Twain American Vandal Book

      If you want a guide through those travelogues or through the experiences that produced them, then you could not find a better one than Twain biographer Roy Morris Jr. He is not merely well-informed about his subject, he is truly attuned to the mind and sensibility of the man. Whether it is analyzing the various factors — domestic and psychological, financial and professional — that impelled Twain to range so frequently and so far or showing how he remained himself (in the words of his friend and admirer Rudyard Kipling to “walk with kings — Nor lose the common touch”), “American Vandal” shows a consistently sure and wise touch. ” ‘I am wild with impatience to move — move — Move!’ Twain, still in his 20s, wrote to his mother in 1867. ‘My mind gives me peace only in excitement and restless moving from place to place. I wish I never had to stop anywhere.’ He seldom did … Nearly a dozen years, or some sixteen percent of his life was spent abroad. He seemed always to be crossing or recrossing the ocean.” Explaining how that restlessness and what it impelled became encapsulated in the amber of his prose is perhaps the greatest achievement of this book.

      Mr. Morris points readers to the persona adopted by Twain in his “first great book length success,” an account of a cruise to the Mediterranean and the Near East: In “‘The Innocents Abroad,’ he introduced readers to the American Vandal, a broadly drawn burlesque figure representing the best (and worst), of the national character. The American Vandal, male or female, was a brazen, unapologetic visitor to foreign lands, generally unimpressed with the local ambience — to say nothing of the local inhabitants … Literally nothing was sacred to the Vandal … It was a role he would continue to play, when the mood struck him, for the rest of his life, long after the new had worn off and he had become, as most people do, a sadder and a wiser man.”

      Of course, clinging to this persona made good artistic — and economic — sense, a surefire way of maximizing readers eager to laugh at — or with — the vandal. And wearing that mask suited him just fine as a way of making him popular the world over.

      When he received an honorary doctorate of literature from England’s Oxford University in 1907, his fellow honorees included royalty, politicians (including the prime minister of the day), a British field marshal and the founder of the Salvation Army, sculptor Auguste Rodin and composer Camille Saint-Saens, but on the streets and in the hall, cheers, applause, and the clicking of cameras were loudest for him, “the lion of the occasion” in the words of The New York Times. Earlier, he had delighted in playing the vandal with King Edward VII at Windsor Castle, breaking protocol by shaking his hand and tapping his arm several times and offering to buy the castle from him. But there is no doubt that the monarch and his wife Queen Alexandra were charmed by their guest, with whom they chatted at length; and such was Twain’s fame that Edward had to remind him that they had already met long ago in Germany when he was Prince of Wales, rather than the other way around. On the page or in person, the vandal was too valuable and useful to the man who had by now become so worldly-wise and sophisticated to be discarded.

      “American Vandal” has another virtue in that those who have not already read Twain’s travelogues may well appreciate them all the more, despite their self-evident qualities, after reading Mr. Morris‘ intelligent, intuitive book. If he has not whetted their appetites to experience the man himself writing about his domestic and foreign voyages, they would be among the very few for whom Twain in motion has no appeal and so his marvelous accounts would probably be wasted on them anyway.

      Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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