Review by Lory Widmer Hess
In the expansive days of summer, what better book could there be to read than a classic of travel literature, Mark Twain’s career-making account of a cruise through Europe and the Holy Land? And how much better to enjoy the journey in the form of a beautiful new edition from the Folio Society, which forms part of their Summer Collection. This latest eclectic gathering of illustrated editions includes favorites from Dodie Smith, Stephen King, Ian Fleming, Ursula K. Le Guin, Jhumpa Lhairi, Anthony Burgess, and much more, but Twain’s travelogue was the one that caught my eye, and made me want to learn more.
It’s not that I’m a big Twain reader — I think I’ve only read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in American lit class, and maybe some essays or short stories. But The Innocents Abroad proved to be an excellent way to get more acquainted with the author. Originally written as a series of articles for a newspaper in California, the missives encapsulated an emerging writer’s voice and perspective, making him a byword for dry American humor, and widening his audience. When published in book form, with plentiful illustrations, it was his first big success, and was followed by more works of travel and regional exploration like Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi, before he moved into writing novels.
At the time, such a narrative of famous Grand Tour destinations would likely have been written in an inflated nineteenth century style, pompous and reverent. Twain, as a fine introduction by the acclaimed modern travel writer Paul Theroux informs us, poked all kinds of holes in such expectations, making clear his disdain for European sacred cows. He felt free to focus on what was of most interest to him, taking more pages to comically describe a haircut than the halls of Versailles. But in this midst of such debunking, he could also create scenes of beauty and poignancy. In one such passage, after describing the city of Venice as a dilapidated wreck, devoid of its former glory, he sees it transformed by light and music during an all-night festival on the canals, and conveys a sense of its enduring magic.
The reporter’s bent for disillusionment is thus combined with glimpses of what is still worthy of awe and respect, an essential element of true comedy. The comic spirit, if it is to be a positive influence, can never be one that only tears down and destroys; it has to bear a vision of wholeness that remains at least potentially achievable. For all his satiric and critical remarks — which do sometimes verge on “ugly Americanism” — Twain could still refer to himself, along with his fellow travelers, as “innocent,” and innocence always retains a sense of wonder. Twain lets us experience this wonder along with him, as well as criticizing and poking fun abundantly.
The illustrator, James Albon, last illustrated an American classic for Folio with Of Mice and Men. His style in Innocents is very similar, with a few full-page color plates in vivid tones, complemented by integrated black and white woodcuts scattered through the text. His stylized, modernist work, with its broad strokes and the use of exaggeration and distortion for emotional effect, stands in sharp contrast to the fine-grained, naturalistic Victorian images that peppered the first edition. This emphasizes the ways in which this edition wants to position Twain’s work as a book for our time, rather than a period piece, although I admit that I hankered somewhat after an approach with more period detail, and especially with more illustrations.
That would have made the book longer, though, and it’s already a large and weighty volume. I personally prefer books that are easier to hold and read, and would willingly sacrifice a bit of paper thickness or margin width to that end. However, there’s no denying that this is a handsome volume, if difficult to take along on a journey. For armchair traveling, it’s perfect to keep you glued to your seat for hours of pleasurable reading. Its picaresque, episodic series of vignettes can be dipped into or sampled at will, or sailed through slowly over the course of weeks or months, taking the pace of the tourists themselves. I certainly have enjoyed the trip.
Lory Widmer Hess is an American reader and writer currently living in Switzerland. She blogs about life, language, and literature at enterenchanted.com.
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, illustrated by James Albon (The Folio Society, 2023). 592 pp., hardback.
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