Sunday, January 21, 2007

Finally--TBR/Classics Book One

My first book for the TBR and Classics challenge is Mark Twain’s Letters from Hawaii. These letters were written in 1866 when Twain was a young journalist for the Sacramento Union. This book made my TBR pile a number of years ago when as a tourist in Hawaii I chanced on it. I like to read books about places I visit but never got around to reading it and so it languished until these challenges.
When I was a kid, I did not much like Twain’s most famous works, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer except for reading a bit of the adventures in Tom Sawyer. I rediscovered Huckleberry Finn when it was required for a literature class I took in college. I read the book sitting on the sun-roof of my dormitory and could almost imagine floating down the Mississippi (which I had never seen for myself) as I read.
More than 20 years later, I now have seen the Mississippi and it is as mighty as they say. And I find myself, voluntarily, writing book reports on a blog on the internet. Neither blogs nor the internet existed when I was in college, of course.
I was initially surprised to learn of Twain’s visit to the Hawaiian Islands, known at the time as the Sandwich Islands. I knew he had visited San Francisco due to his famous quote, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” which apparently he never said. But in my ignorance I assumed that Mark Twain was first and foremost a Midwesterner.
One of the first things that struck me about Letters is that Twain would have fit in perfectly in the world of blogging. At times his letters read like a travel blog. He speaks of native Hawaiian culture, plants and animals and makes fun of their political system. He critiques the local water, cigars, wine, and fruit. Of oranges, he says, “I seldom eat more than ten or fifteen at a sitting, however, because I despise to see anybody gormandize (sic).” He also tells us that he thinks bananas are overrated and does not like mangoes and guava.
Twain’s wit ranges from slapstick to dry. Regarding the Hawaiian natives’ lack of western religion until the recent advent of many (oft-competing) missionaries, Twain muses: “How sad it is to think of the multitudes who have gone to their graves in this beautiful island and never knew there was a hell! And it inclines right-thinking man to weep rather than to laugh when he reflects how surprised they must have been when they got there.” I love the impious irony of this statement.
It is sometimes hard to read Twain’s praise of the Chinese as cheap “coolie” labor, his easy acceptance of slavery and his naïve and demeaning comments about aspects of the Hawaiian culture but Twain was a product of his time and perhaps could not think otherwise. He wasn’t all that kind to some aspects of Western culture either.
Twain’s descriptive writing can be quite fine. His account of his visit to Kilauea on the island of Hawaii is well done. “We came upon a long dreary desert of black, swollen, twisted, corrugated billows of lava—blank and dismal desolation! Stony hillocks heaved up, all seamed with cracked wrinkles and broken open from center to circumference in a dozen places as if from an explosion beneath. There had been a terrible commotion here once, when these dead waves were seething fire; but now all was motionless and silent—it was a petrified sea!” How often do we read such descriptive travel writing?
I cannot strongly recommend this book. It is distinctly a lesser work. Some of his letters can be quite tedious but there are moments that shine and are worth the effort. Read this book if you love Twain or love Hawaii; if not, start with Huck Finn or another of his works.


Liza's Eyeview said...

This is very interesting to us. My husband is originally from Connecticut. My in-laws took me to Mark Twain's house when we visited them. We are now living in Hawaii. My husband has been living here for 20 years.

Framed said...

I had never heard of this book. I agree that Twain has a great writing style, but not all his books are great. I enjoyed the reveiw, though. At last, a book I don't feel compelled to add to the list.