Friday, October 14, 2011

Twain's Ode to Odessa

Some readers of this blog with little in the way of outside interests may recall that I am trying to catch up on great books of the past as part of a self-improvement project. One long-standing desire has been to read Innocents Abroad.

As I had a long-planned trip to Italy, it was perfect timing for me. My local library here in the 8th Dimension was kind enough to lend me a copy, and I took it aboard the plane to read all about Twain's adventures there in anticipation of my own visits to Naples, Pompeii and Capri. For those of you who haven't read it yet, I highly recommend it.

The background is that Twain was in New York City in 1867, planning to return to San Francisco, when he read that the Quaker City would soon be departing for a voyage to Europe and the Levant. Twain quickly arranged for several newspapers to pay his fare in return for the promise of frequent reports by post. Besides the exotic nature of the itinerary (France, Italy and Greece but also Constantinople, Damascus, Tangiers, and Jerusalem), the tour backers had promised a sort of "celebrity cruise" headlined by Gen. Sherman and Henry Ward Beecher (both of whom were no-shows).

Twain then collected all these letters and had them published in a book called Innocents Abroad. Accidentally, though, I picked up Daniel McKeithan's annotated collection from 1958 of the original letters. This turned out to be much more fun. The letters are much more sardonic and acerbic, especially Twain's observations about religious matters, which he toned down quite a bit for commercial reasons in the book itself. McKeithan notes at the end of each letter all the changes Twain made, and there is no doubt that the letters are the unadulterated Twain.

Below is an excerpt of Twain's review of Odessa -- to which he was exceedingly complimentary compared to his other destinations. It originally appeared in the Daily Alta California of Nov. 3, 1867. I write this post in tribute to our fearless blog founder, whose family's ancestral stomping grounds were that same "Pearl of the Black Sea."

It is a free port, and is the great grain mart of this particular part of the world... I have not felt so much at home for a long time as I did when "raised the hill" and stood in Odessa for the first time. It looked just like an American city; fine, broad streets and straight as well... that was so like a message from our own dear native land that we could not refrain from shedding a few grateful tears and swearing in the old time-honored way. Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we saw only America!

1 comment:

Chris Hartman said...

I have wanted to read this book forever. Thanks!

I did a similar thing when we visited Florence and Venice: read Mary McCarthy's Stones of Florence and Venice Observed, first published in 1959 and 1961 respectively. I remember the Florence book in particular as perfectly capturing the dust and the chaotic Vespa-driven noise of the place. (I even bought the book at After Dark, an English-language bookstore at Via del Moro, 86r in Florence! Not too bad, if I do say so myself.)

Also appreciate the shout-out to the Hartmans and Selenskys, late of Katherinenstadt and Liebenthal, Ukraine, now of Grainfield and Park, Kansas!

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