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Mark Dawidziak <[log in to unmask]>
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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 31 Mar 2008 23:11:00 -0400
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    Challenging question, and I'm loathe to single out any work, simply 
because a writer's failures or missteps often tell us as much as their 
triumphs. And sometimes, the road to those triumphs are paved with the 
failures. Steinbeck hated repeating himself, so he purposely reinvented 
himself. The critics would say he had lost his way, but, in reality, he 
was finding his way, and the experimenting would culminate in some 
landmark work very different from an earlier masterpiece. When you step 
back and examine Steinbeck's career with a little perspective, you can 
sense this happening, work to work. So you often find yourself embracing 
the lesser works, accepting that, without those missteps, you don't 
reach the higher literary plane.
    I'm absolutely fascinated by failure, probably because, when you 
push nouns against verbs for a living, you realize how most of the time, 
execution fails to match ambition. So I'm not sure that I would change a 
thing about Twain's career, because, remove one card, and the whole 
structure collapses. But since we're playing with the posterity bank's 
money here, I'll take a swing.    
    You know, I was going to say "Christian Science," because so much of 
it is a really tough slog. But the withering blasts in that mercilessly 
padded book are so good, I couldn't happily go without them. So my 
candidate is "Tom Sawyer Abroad," because it's difficult to believe 
that, even allowing for the pressing financial need, this book emerged 
from the same pen that gave us "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and 
"Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." In tone and plot, it so far removed 
from the original books, it seems little more than a distant relation.
     I actually have a fondness for "Tom Sawyer, Detective." It's hardly 
first-rate Twain or a first-rate mystery, but I enjoyed it as an 
entertaining encore for Tom and Huck. I read both "Tom Sawyer Abroad" 
and "Tom Sawyer, Detective" as a teenager, after blazing through all the 
major titles I could find in Signet or Dell paperback editions. I was 
delighted to find these two stories in one paperback (the Airmont 
Classic edition for a whopping sixty cents), and I settled down on a 
sunny Long Island summer day to more travels with Tom and Huck. Before I 
got my hands on my first collected works edition, this was pretty heady 
stuff, let me tell you.
     I had just passed through a major Conan Doyle phase, so "Tom 
Sawyer, Detective" landed in the wheelhouse as an amusing tidbit. I 
realized that Twain was investing Tom with the charismatic authority of 
a Sherlock Holmes, and, while a leap, he had established a bit of this 
at the end of "Huckleberry Finn." I went with it. But "Tome Sawyer 
Abroad" . . . the balloon, the professor, the goofy arguments. . . I 
wasn't willing to go that far.  
    "Tom Sawyer, Detective" had its charm, but, as a budding Twain fan, 
I thought "Tom Sawyer Abroad" was just weird. Twain described Fenimore 
Cooper's "Deerslayer" as "just simply a literary delirium tremens." His 
Verne-ish balloon adventure is like a Tom Sawyer fever dream, cooked up 
in a swirl of stale cigar smoke after too many hot Scotches. Returning 
to Arkansas soil for "Tom Sawyer, Detective" literally grounds Tom and 
Huck, getting their feet back on familiar territory. Many of Twain's 
wilder flights of fancy linger in the imagination, from the time-travel 
satire of "Connecticut Yankee" to the re-imagining of Eden for the 
diaries of Adam and Eve to the nightmarish strangeness of "The Great 
Dark" to the ultimate far-out journey in "Captain Stormfield's Visit to 
Heaven." What seems tired about "Tom Sawyer Abroad" is its lack of 
imagination. I tried it again when the University of California Press 
issued the restored text. Still couldn't warm up to it.
     If there is an upside to "Tom Sawyer Abroad," it might be that the 
balloon trip idea was borrowed and put to far better use in Will 
Vinton's delightful 1985 claymation film "The Adventures of Mark Twain."
    And I agree on Dickens falling short as a travel writer in "The 
Uncommercial Traveler." His "American Notes" is a better book, with 
several memorable stretches about his 1842 visit, but compare both to 
"The Innocents Abroad" or "A Tramp Abroad," and Boz comes up lacking. 
Still, it's interesting to see how Dickens and Twain had almost 
identical responses to Italy.

Carmela Valente wrote:
> Dear Twain Group:
> Obviously, this list is in existence because all of us love and appreciate 
> Mark Twain's works.  Is there any book of Twain's that you could happily do 
> without?  I thought of this as being on the Dickens list, I happened on my 
> own to come upon his "The Uncommercial Traveler", and I didn't really care 
> for it.  As a child, I didn't like the Prince and the Pauper, though 
> shamefully, I have not revisited it as an adult.
> The sacrilegious twainiac,
> Camy