Sunday, May 24, 2020
Twain in the Sandwich Islands
Longtime friends and readers know I love Twain (Mark, not Shania, although she's OK too). I just finished reading his Letters from Hawaii, a series of reports he wrote for the Sacramento Union in his early thirties before he'd become a literary big shot.
Twain was about as fair-minded and humanitarian a writer as you'd find in the mid-19th century, but read from 150 years later he's still pretty racist. Not a criticism--he was a man of his time, not ours--just an observation. He's quite pro-colonialism and pro-missionary, seeing them as having saved the native Hawaiians from their benighted savage ways. Even when he's complimentary to native people or culture, it's in terms of their simple innocent naivete.
At the same time, he acknowledges that something very precious has been lost, and mourns the ancient paradise corrupted by commerce and Christianity. I was reminded of present-day people who moan, "Oh, Hawaii is ruined now, you should have seen it in the 1960s!" According to Twain, it was already mostly ruined by the 1860s (just as Italians have been complaining that tourists have ruined Venice since at least the 1700s).
Still, Twain is Twain. Nobody else would write: "At noon I observed a bevy of nude native young ladies bathing in the sea, and went down and sat on their clothes to keep them from being stolen." Or: "...the red sun looked across the placid ocean through the tall, clean stems of the cocoanut trees, like a blooming whiskey bloat through the bars of a city prison..." That's good stuff.
A note on the edition I read, pictured here. I bought it cheap: cover price $5.95 marked down to $3, and I barely got my money's worth. It was bad, with transcription errors and chopped-up paragraphs. This particular book was poorly put together and I don't recommend it, which is too bad. One of the beauties of old public-domain work is that it can be republished inexpensively, but it still ought to be done right.