The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain's adventures in Australia
MUP, $29.95 hb, 206 pp, 0522853129
Reading Mark Twain on Australia in the 1890s is a bit like watching Shane Warne bowl these days: you sense the playing up to the audience and an undignified element of hustle; a tendency to rely on the old tricks to fill the space and manufacture the laughs/wickets. And yet there’s no doubting the copiousness of the art, no resisting the tarnished genius on display. Sure, it would be nice to have more of the early Twain’s concentrated wit, and less reliance on showmanship, but to unwish this account of his antipodean travels would be aesthetically, emotionally, even morally wrong.
Twain came to New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and Tasmania in 1895 as part of a world tour designed to clear debts. He was nearing sixty, with a global literary fame only defeated by the sort of business sense that usually leads people into university administration. Just before he settled near London to write about the whole journey, he learned that his daughter Susy had died of spinal meningitis back in New York. So the biographical evidence suggests that he came to the colonies tired and motivated by a need to turn fame into dollars; that he wrote the passages reproduced in The Wayward Tourist in a state of deep depression. Moreover, the colonies were only beginning to recover from the depression of the early 1890s, and the countryside was showing early signs of the Federation drought, the one whose records are only now being surpassed. All the ingredients for a jeremiad were present.