Twain’s playful exuberance and remarkable storytelling gifts are on full display as he regales readers with his real-life adventures, some of them so outrageous they cannot be true – or can they?
As Richard Russo says in his fascinating introduction, Twain was an 'inspired, indeed, unparalleled, bullshitter’ who himself cheerfully relates how as a cub reporter out West he had elevated a routine Indian attack on a wagon full of immigrants to a battle that 'to this day has no parallel in history’ – once he knew he could get away with it.
There is drama as well as comedy in his account of life on the Mississippi, and great sadness too when his younger brother Henry is killed in a steamboat explosion – all the more poignant for the restraint with which he describes it. In The Innocents Abroad Twain the gleeful iconoclast is a passenger on a cruise ship to Europe and the Holy Land, poking fun at European snobbery and pretension and refusing to be overawed by all that History – but fully prepared to aim his satirical barbs at his fellow-tourists and indeed, squarely at himself.
He also proves to be a deeply compassionate writer, as fierce in his condemnation of injustice as he is skilful in mining the humour of human folly. He brought to literature a new, distinctly American voice – and he harboured as rich and fertile a blend of contradictions as the dynamic nation he came to embody and define.