Book: A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain
A GUEST POST by Mark Heers
Today a passionate Australian traveler shares his favorite travel literature. We are honoring Mark Twain all year, on the 100th anniversary of his death, and 175th anniversary of his birth.
A Tramp Abroad is a wonderful account of Mark Twain’s journey through Germany, Switzerland and Italy some 130 years ago. In the centenary of his death, it is worth noting that it is possibly the most quoted travel book in history with Twain’s fine observational writing providing any number of inspirational quotes encouraging people to travel and explore their world. Travelling via boats, rafts, horse-drawn buggies and on foot, Twain’s witty and keen sense of observation details his efforts to “know Europe” from the point of view of an American. With a healthy helping of fiction (Twain travels with a mythical companion Harris), he mixes interesting descriptions of places still visited by tourists today with elegant descriptions of his interactions throughout his journey.
In my personal highlight, Twain mounts a fictional full scale mountaineering assault on the Swiss Alps with an absurd party of 150 men (including 15 barmen, 22 barrels of whisky and a Latin scholar), fascinated by challenges of climbing these famous peaks. He searches for suitable ascent paths through his telescope and describes interactions with his lead guide, imagining the pressures of such a climb.
In other chapters, Twain offers unparallelled descriptions of well-known sights that capture in descriptive prose their special nature.
The austere sculpture of the Lucerne Lion in commemoration of the Swiss Guard’s bravery defending the French royal family is memorably summarised as “the most mournful and moving piece of stone in the world”. Equally, Twain’s fine description of the formidable Heidelberg Castle overlooking the grand university city captures the essence of the history of the castle.
In between, Twain’s journey meanders along with sharp observations about the seemingly insignificant. Several pages are satirically devoted to the antics of ants erratically carrying their loads back to their nest, while further pages are devoted to the intelligence of blue jays. Even the water is reviewed –
It is served lukewarm, but no matter, ice could not help it; it is incurably flat, incurably insipid. It is only good to wash with; I wonder it doesn’t occur to the average inhabitant to try it for that.
Many situations are treated with animated humour, in turn making light of the differences between Americans and Europeans while making more serious unstated notes about these contrasts. The travelling narrative is interspersed with sparkling anecdotes of hotels, meetings with people and other innocuous events. In the appendices, the German language itself comes under harsh attack, Twain not enjoying the arbitrary nature of gender, the complex grammar of verbs and the uniquely German habit of compounding several words together into single lengthy words.
Behind the stellar writing and scathing witty prose, Twain leaves some enduring advice for travellers today. Indeed, reading it as a teenager (for school) for the first time helped inspire my will to start travelling in my twenties, enjoying a number of places mentioned in Twain’s book on my first trip to Europe. He embraces ideals such as slow travel, taking time to observe, enjoy, appreciate and learn from different cultures. And Twain highlights maybe the best travel lesson of all – to travel with a healthy sense of humour.
Twain’s superb account is more enjoyable and familiar for those who have travelled to the European mainland and experienced some of the subtle differences and surprises that such travel has served up. However, the book’s lush descriptive language and humourous observational writing should be a joy for all readers, celebrating the freedom and pleasure of travel.
Note: Being out of copyright, the good news is that the book is available for free reading through the Gutenberg Project . Note from A Traveler’s Library: If you prefer print on paper, I recommend the Library of America Edition. They also carry reprints of several other Twain travel books.
Mark Heers is a 40-something year old Australian with a passion for travelling and is author of the popular Travel Wonders of the World. The blog captures stories and photos of his travels, describing the inspiring places, incredible people and extraordinary scenery from over 25 years of travel – hopefully to inspire others to discover their own travel wonders. Subscribe to Travel Wonders of the World so you do not miss a single wonder.
Mark has written several times on Travel-Wonders about the influence of Mark Twain, and we are so grateful to him for sharing his thoughts here. Thanks, Mark! The photo of the Lucerne Lion comes from Mark’s site, and the Mark Twain photo is from Flickr via Creative Commons license. Click on either for more information.
Do you have a favorite book by Mark Twain? Let’s talk.