The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

VIII. Mark Twain

§ 9. Travel Books

Let us begin our illustration of his literary character with a review of his five great books of travel. Against every one of them the charge might be brought that it is ill-composed: the chapters follow a certain chronological and geographical order; but the paragraphs frequently seem to owe their juxtaposition to the most casual association of ideas. This license, however, is the law and studied practice of his humour. “To bring incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering and sometimes purposeless way, and seem innocently unaware that they are absurdities, is the basis,” he declares, “of the American art.” He is speaking here specifically of the humorous story; but obviously he applies the same principle to the book of travel, which, as he conceives it, is a joyous miscellany. It is a miscellany but with ingredients preconsidered and formulable. He is as inflexible as Aristotle on the importance of choosing a great subject. He holds with the classicists that the proper study of mankind is man. He traverses in each book territory of world-wide interest. He describes what meets his eye with rapid, vivid, unconventional eloquence. He sketches the historical background in a highly personal fashion and gives to his interlarded legends an individual twist. While he imparts a good quantity of information, useful and diverting, he keeps the thread of his personal adventures spinning, rhapsodizes for a page, then clowns it for another, or introduces an elaborate burlesque on the enthusiasm of previous travellers. It is a prepared concoction.