Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Twain at Sea, edited by Eric Paul Roorda

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Twain at Sea: The Maritime Writings of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Edited by Eric Paul Roorda. University Press of New England, 2018. Pp. 263. Hardcover $65.00. ISBN 9781512602722. Paperback $19.95. ISBN 9781512601510. Ebook. ISBN 9781512602739.

Mark Twain was a man of the waters. His nom de plume signifies two fathoms–safe water when navigating out of the shallows–dangerous water under other circumstances. He spent his boyhood just a few blocks from a steamboat landing, dreamed of becoming a steamboat pilot (or else a pirate) and realized that dream for a time. He lost childhood friends to drownings and lost a beloved brother in a steamboat accident. His first piece of writing to be published in a nationally recognized publication was about a disaster at sea, his first best-selling book was the result of a four months voyage with stops on several continents, and his literary masterpiece takes place on the dangerous waters and shores of the Mississippi River. When his second daughter died (in water) and he was suffering from late stage congestive heart failure (edema), he lit out for the island of Bermuda for his last months of life, and when Paine was bringing him home to die he begged for a fatal dose of morphine to end his life while at sea.

Mark Twain may have been the most widely travelled man of his times. He travelled by foot, train, automobile, stagecoach, horse, wagon, donkey, donkey cart, steamboat, ocean steamer, sailboat, yacht, and motorboat. He paddled his own canoe at Lake Saranac and even rode a bicycle–very briefly. He spent more time on land than on water, but he travelled more miles on water. He crossed deserts and climbed in the Alps, and traversed several oceans, and he once flirted with the notion of writing a novel while staying on board a ship the entire time, going back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. He never visited the north or south poles, but seems to have visited just about everywhere else in between. It is a challenge to think of any author or explorer who saw as much of the world in the nineteenth century as Mark Twain. From his childhood to his final days, water was a presence in Twain’s life and a metaphor in his writings. Metaphorically he could be explicit: In an 1887 letter to Howells he echoed an 1885 entry in his notebook when he compared his writings to water, admitting that great literature was fine wine, and that what he wrote was merely water, “but everybody likes water.”

Twain’s travel writings have attracted a steady stream of readers and scholars since the beginning. The Innocents Abroad (1869) was quickly imitated by Twain’s Hartford neighbor, Charles Dudley Warner, and a host of others. Others retraced his steps during his lifetime, including his official biographer, Albert Bigelow Paine, and wrote travel narratives of their own, a tradition that has continued to the present. While most readers think of The Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad, and Following the Equator as Twain’s trio of “travel books,” travel is a critical element in many of his other writings: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (time travel), Roughing It, and many shorter works.

Writings about Twain’s time in foreign lands (England, Europe, Australia, Bermuda, India, the Middle East) are too numerous to enumerate here, as are the book-length treatments of his major travel books. More general accounts of his travels and travel writings form an entire genre. A representative sampling of the latter are Charles Neider’s Travels of Mark Twain (1961), Arthur L. Scott’s Mark Twain at Large (1969), Robert Cooper’s Around the World With Mark Twain (2000), Jeffrey Melton’s Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism (2002), Peter Kaminsky’s Chicago of Europe and Other Tales of Foreign Lands (2009), Gribben and Melton’s Mark Twain on the Move (2009), and Roy Morris’s American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad (2015).

Into this crowded genre comes Eric Roorda’s Twain at Sea, an anthology of Mark Twain’s maritime writings. The title evokes oceanic writings, but Roorda begins with Twain’s accounts of his experiences on “brown” (fresh) water before moving to “blue” (salt) water writings. The excerpts are arranged more or less chronologically, moving from the Mississippi River to Hawaii and the Pacific, then on to New York and the Quaker City excursion, followed by letters from his trans-Atlantic trips and side-trips of the 1870s and 1880s. Finally comes his round the world tour, which is then followed by shorter extracts from throughout his life at sea. The familiar and expected travel writings are all included, but even a well-read Twainian will find pleasant surprises and some unfamiliar pieces. Roorda casts a wide net that yields a harvest of letters, maxims, autobiographical writings, and forgotten short extracts. His introduction, notes, and afterward are both well-informed and informative, and his map of most of the routes followed and the appendix listing the ships (not steamboats) upon which Twain sailed are excellent, but the book suffers for lack of an index. Roorda’s assessment of Twain’s relationship with the sea reflects both his familiarity with Twain’s writings and his own maritime expertise, which transforms what otherwise could have been just one more anthology of Twain’s writings into a valuable contribution to Twain studies.

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