Works in Progress - Summer 2011

Twain Abroad

By Will Yandik | June 24, 2013


Probably no American author can claim to stir as much homegrown patriotic prose as Mark Twain, whose very name seems to encourage passages about red sunrises, white clapboards, and broad blue waters. It turns out, however, that much of the rest of the world claims to own a piece of Twain as well.

Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a Stanford University Twain scholar and cofounder of the Journal of Transnational American Studies, likes to demonstrate that Twain saw more of the world than any other American writer of his era—and the world saw more of him. Since 2008, when Fishkin began to compile work for the Library of America’s Mark Twain Anthology, she had her pick of historical critical essays about the author that had originally been written in Chinese, Danish, Italian, and Yiddish.

Twain continues to travel abroad. You can now read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in Assamese, a a language of northeastern India, and the Chuvash of central Russia can read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in their mother tongue. Nearly everywhere that Fishkin lectures—in Mexico City, Moscow, Lucknow, and Seoul—she finds audiences navigating through translations of backwater American slang to uncover Twain’s observations of a universal humanity. “I’m fascinated by the question of how Twain’s travels enlarged his perspective, his compassion, and his empathy, and led him to be highly skeptical about any kind of American exceptionalism,” she says.

At the end of Twain’s career he was no longer considered solely an American author, and a contemporary introduced him as “originally from Missouri … and now ultimately of the solar system.” After spending a third of his life abroad, Twain began to see travel and its broader perspective as an antidote to his nations’ recurring prejudice and provincialism—a long leap from Calaveras County.

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