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,