In 1895, in debt after the failure of a pet project, a new literary work and several investments, Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain, embarked on a lecture tour of 150 performances on five continents. To each of these, he brought his humour, his outrageous observations, and the lively, witty persona of ‘Mark Twain’. But he worked in the other direction too. He took away in equal weight lively anecdotes, humorous facts, tall tales and remarkable histories, all for the consumption of an American public curious for news of the world. Extracted from Following the Equator, the account of this journey first published in 1897, The Wayward Tourist publishes Twain’s writings about Australia.
In an extensive introduction by Don Watson, Twain’s droll observations of Australia are framed by Watson’s account of Twain’s life, politics and reputation. As a historian, a satirist, and a renowned speechwriter, he is unreservedly qualified to comment on this larger-than-life personality. Painting a vivid backdrop of literary America in the latter half of the 19th century, Watson aligns himself with Twain against the literary Brahmins and mandarins back home who never accepted him or his work. The introduction alone is worth the price of the book.
Through Watson’s distinctively Australian voice, we become re-acquainted with the American humorist, who was, in Watson’s words, “not only a performer but a performance artist….America’s first great star”. And he also remarks on Twain’s continuing magic: “In the discursive, eccentric, intimate account of the journey, he glided around the colonies like a man on roller skates, and more than a century later his prose is still fresh enough to take his readers with him, including those in need of re-enchantment with their country’s past.” In such company, it’s a journey well worth taking.
The Wayward Tourist: Mark Twain’s Adventures in Australia, Introduction by Don Watson, Melbourne University Publishing, $29.95.
Review first published in The Courier-Mail in 2006.