Mark Twain, “A Tramp Abroad” (1880): Part Two

“In German, all the Nouns begin with a capital letter. Now that is a good idea; and a good idea, in this language, is necessarily conspicuous from its lonesomeness.” (379)

Something I thought about often while reading A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain was the fact that just because someone observing absurd customs is a foreigner and does not understand those customs, does not mean that those customs are not indeed objectively absurd. I am not here talking about the real oppressive aspects of foreign cultures that need to be struggled against, but the day to day absurdities that it sometimes takes a foreigner to point out. This can be true even if that observer is from a rising, arrogant, imperial nation.

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It seems we live in a much more defensive age than Twain did, and, without a doubt, over a century of Europeans and Americans telling others how to live had contributed to this sensitivity. In some cases, it may even be justified. It seems Americans have little to teach the world about high finance, for instance, and should probably stop speaking on the question in order to avoid certain humiliation. But that aside, I find I miss the good-natured ridicule of foreign cultures we see in A Tramp Abroad. Germany, like the United States, was a rising imperial and industrial power in the 1870s, fighting for a place in the sun in a world crowded out by British dominance, yet significant enough to enjoy being part of the ruling civilization. If any two nations were equals at the time, it might have been Germany and the United States. This makes what I am trying to say a bit awkward. There is thus not the imperial overtones in A Tramp Abroad that there may have been in Innocents Abroad, when Twain toured parts of the decaying Ottoman Empire.

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I wonder how an essay entitled “The Awful Chinese Language” would be received today (especially in China). Or take this bit from Twain’s comments on German journalism. “What can be found in [German newspapers]? It is easily answered: A child’s handful of telegrams, mainly about European national and international political movements; letter-correspondence about the same things; market reports. There you have it. That is what a German daily is made of. A German daily is the slowest and saddest and dreariest of the inventions of man. Our own dailies infuriate the reader, pretty often; the German daily only stupefies him.” (399) I choose this because it is a two-way ridicule, but I still wonder if set the critique elsewhere if we would read it the same way. This is one of the cost of empire, perhaps. After over a century of benefiting from colonialism and now global capitalism, the West lost the rights to ridicule.  It must be said, that one reason that A Tramp Abroad works so well is Twains honest attempt to understand the United States through his time in Europe. We see this through the many asides Twain writes on American folklore and customs (sometimes critical, often praising).

From "A Tramp Abroad"

From “A Tramp Abroad”

The second half of A Tramp Abroad covers more or Twain’s time in Germany, his travels through Switzerland and through the Alps, and finally his time in Italy. It also includes some appendices on aspects of German life. Twain is still fully in character as a humorist at this stage of his career, although this came of his (in some ways) more serious The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. (That is, if endlessly funny, Tom Sawyer is completely serious about the meaning and actualization of freedom.)

Readers of A Tramp Abroad will find plenty of evidence of what it means to live in a still monarchical and hierarchical society. It goes beyond the conspicuous castles and enduring power of royalty. The Bavarian king’s ability to demand a private showing of Wagner’s operas is one examples. Other examples of the simply more democratic society in the United States includes the personal relations between people on the streets. In regards to women on the streets of Europe he writes: “[A] lady may traverse our streets alld ay, going and coming as she chooses, and she will never be molested by any man; but if a lady, unattended, walks abroad in the streets of London, even at noonday, she will be pretty likely to be accosted and insulted—and not by drunken sailors, but by men who carry the look and wear the dress of gentlemen. . . . Even the most degraded woman can walk our streets unmolested, her sex and her weakness being her sufficient protection. She will encounter less polish than she would in the old world, but she will run across enough humanity to make up for it.” (830–831) This is a nice thought, but perhaps runs too close to the nose of how Americans liked to think about themselves: vulgar, unrefined, but good-natured. Yet, throughout A Tramp Abroad runs a deep feeling that Twain is living in a class society (of the old rigid type that is remnants of slave societies, peasant societies, and monarchies).

An interesting thing about Twain’s approach in this book is that he often gets things wrong in an interesting way, in that he observes a phenomenon that is real enough (the higher death rate in European cities for instance), but then fumbles the explanation (European preference for ice water). The observation is correct and worthy of investigation and perhaps suggestive of something deeply wrong in European society. Hitting the solution too much on the nose would have moved Twain out of his comfortable position as a humorist.

Mark Twain, “A Tramp Abroad” (1880): Part One, Germany

Mark Twain wrote many travel narratives throughout his career. There were five, if we include the somewhat more autobiographical Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi. Three are committed to documenting his travels abroad. The Innocents Abroad looked at the experiences of a more casual tourist. Following the Equator is more of a tour of empire, something I will say more about when I get there.  A Tramp Abroad is the second of these are about the year and a half he spent in Europe in 1878 and 1879. It shows Twain making a more serious attempt to get to know a place well, by living there with his family for a prolonged period. Notably, he is no longer “innocent.”

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The sections of the book devoted to his experiences in Germany and Italy are broken up with bits of real American literature, short stories constructed by Twain, set in America. These provide nice juxtaposition between American life and Europeans and their attitude toward folklore and tradition. Some are Twain’s attempt at writing original German folklore. I suspect they are attempts to be failures.

I was very much attracted to how much effort Twain put into understanding the world he was put into it. Unlike the “innocent,” he did not just look at Europe through the lens of being an American. He spends little time seeing the sights (the formal, must-see tourist locations). This gives him time to smell the roses, so to speak. He gets to understand the culture of German students, the tradition of dueling and student clubs, he sees a Wagner opera, visits out of the way castles, and makes friends in the places he lives. He even tries learning German (the subject of his famous essay on the German language).

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Although it is less acute than in The Innocents Abroad we are expected to take Twain’s observations with skepticism. A veil stands in the way of Twain’s understanding despite months of residence in Germany. While we see more of everyday life than in his earlier works, it is no less plagued with misunderstanding. (Partly blamed on language.)

From his famous description of student dueling

From his famous description of student dueling

As an opera fan, I will simply use his experiences watching Lohengrin as an example of this, in part because he uses it to strike home what appears to be his main point. The operas of Richard Wagner, and by extension all German opera we suppose, are horrible to Twain’s ears. “A German lady in Munch told me that a person could not like Wagner’s music at first, but must go through the deliberative process of learning to like it,—then he would have his sure reward. Is this the same as for visiting and encountering other cultures? Once you endure all the painful aspects of a foreign culture, all the annoyances, bizarre ways of looking at the world, then—and only then—could it be appreciated.

If we read the text, it does seem that Twain is making an effort at understanding things, although he never gets very far beyond the surface unfortunately. Whether it is on the attitude of shopkeeper and their distinctive ways of swindling people, the German attitude toward Sundays, or the student’s tendency to form organizations, Twain hovers just on one side of understanding. As a good foreigner he learns just enough to get by, never allowing the experience to change his fundamental assumptions about life. He (at least the persona in the book) will never allow himself to learn enough to be assimilated or even to have a proper understanding of the phenomenon he observers.

I do not suppose this teaches us much, but it does perhaps lead us to a certain attitude that someone in a foreign land should have. Perhaps we could call this a humble objectivity. We can trust our eyes, but with an acceptance of their limitation. But like Twain we should not that censor our comments and observations, for these is much joy to be had in looking at the world through some tinted glasses. Sure, there are real problems with looking at the world from an American frame of reference, but as Twain shows us, this may not always be imperial or full of prejudice. Sometimes, it is just a matter of allowing the tinted gaze to create new perspectives and experiences, as in Twain’s attempts to write new German legends. There is space for creative freedom here that we cannot get by looking at other cultures with absolute fidelity.

Higher education in Germany

Higher education in Germany