Sunday, July 20, 2014

Mark Twain's Colors: 'Following the Equator'

by Bill Doughty


This is a book by one of America's greatest writers. Mark Twain's "Following the Equator" takes the reader not just to different places around the globe but also back in time. Volume I covers the Pacific Ocean – to Hawaii and Fiji, to Australia and New Zealand. Volume II continues into the Indian Ocean from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and India to Africa.

"Following" is fun, fantasy and philosophy. It's storytelling, daydreams and nostalgia.
"On the seventh day out we saw a dim vast bulk standing up out of the wastes of the Pacific and knew that that spectral promontory was Diamond Head, a piece of this world which I had not seen before for twenty-nine years. So we were nearing Honolulu, the capital city of the Sandwich Islands – those islands which to me were Paradise; a Paradise which I had been longing all those years to see again. Not any other thing in the world could have stirred me as the sight of that great rock.  In the night we anchored a mile from shore. Through my port I could see the twinkling lights of Honolulu and the dark bulk of the mountain-range that stretched away right and left."
More than a century later, during this summer of 2014, thousands of Sailors from nearly two dozen countries are discovering Diamond Head and Honolulu during the world's largest maritime exercise: Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC 2014). They may be seeing the same kinds of vistas as Twain describes:
"We had a sunset of a very fine sort. The vast plain of the sea was marked off in bands of sharply contrasted colors; great stretches of dark blue, others of purple, others of polished bronze; the billowy mountains showed all sorts of dainty browns and greens, blues and purples and blacks, and the rounded velvety backs of certain of them made one want to stroke them, as one would the sleek back of a cat. The long, sloping promontory projecting into the sea at the west turned dim and leaden and spectral, then became suffused with pink – dissolved itself into a pink dream, so to speak, it seemed so airy and unreal. Presently the cloud-rack was flooded with fiery splendors, and these were copied on the surface of the sea, and it made one drunk with delight to look upon it."
Alfred Thayer Mahan
Mark Twain
Twain transited the Pacific in 1895, the same year that then-Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, intellectual father of the industrial-age Navy, commanded USS Chicago and sailed the Atlantic. Twain's "Following" was published in 1897, the same year as Mahan's "The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future" and "The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain."

Twain visits Nelson, New Zealand. Two years earlier that country established women's right to vote, a right that would take 25 more years to become a reality in the United States, much to Twain's chagrin.

The shadow of Captain Cook, Admiral Nelson and Great Britain looms throughout Twain's travels. Just three decades after the Civil War, he eviscerates imperialism and racism. Using a virtual magnifying glass, he examines his world  introspectively and actually.

A statue after an ice storm.
He describes the duckbill platypus in Australia, the crow in India and a chameleon in Africa. He is enthralled with funeral rituals, religious traditions and how people treat each other. His greatest reverence is for nature. To Twain, the Taj Mahal is no more beautiful than an ice-storm, "Nature's supremest achievement in the domain of the superb and the beautiful":
"The ice-storm occurs in midwinter, and usually its enchantments are wrought in the silence and the darkness of the night. A fine drizzling rain falls hour after hour upon the naked twigs and branches of the trees, and as it falls it freezes. In time the trunk and every branch and twig are incased in hard pure ice; so that the tree looks like a skeleton tree made all of glass – glass that is crystal clear. All along the under side of every branch and twig is a comb of little icicles – the frozen drip. Sometimes these pendants do not quite amount to icicles, but are round beads – frozen tears.
"The weather clears, toward dawn, and leaves a brisk, pure atmosphere and a sky without a shred of cloud in it – and everything is still, there is not a breath of wind. The dawn breaks and spreads, the news of the storm goes about the house, and the little and the big, in wraps and blankets, flock to the window and press together there, and gaze intently out upon the great white ghost in the grounds, and nobody says a word, nobody stirs. All are waiting; they know what is coming, and they are waiting – waiting for the miracle. The minutes drift on and on and on, with not a sound for the ticking of the clock; at last the sun fires a sudden sheaf of rays into the ghostly tree and turns it into a white splendor of glittering diamonds.  Everybody catches his breath, and feels a swelling in his throat and a moisture in his eyes – but waits again; for he knows what is coming; there is more yet. The sun climbs higher, and still higher, flooding the tree from its loftiest spread of branches to its lowest, turning it to a glory of white fire; then in a moment, without warning, comes the great miracle, the supreme miracle, the miracle without its fellow in the earth; a gust of wind sets every branch and twig to swaying, and in an instant turns the whole white tree into a spouting and spraying explosion of flashing gems of every conceivable color; and there it stands and sways this way and that, flash! flash! flash! a dancing and glancing world of rubies, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires, the most radiant spectacle, the most blinding spectacle, the divinest, the most exquisite, the most intoxicating vision of fire and color and intolerable and unimaginable splendor that ever any eye has rested upon in this world, or will ever rest upon outside of the gates of heaven."
Twain can be serious, but the author of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" was in his orbit when he used whimsy and wit to describe his world. 

His power of observation extends to other languages, accents and people, often in sharp, tongue-in-cheek ways, such as his description of a Boer traveler on a train in South Africa:
"One man had corduroy trousers of a faded chewing-gum tint. And they were new – showing that this tint did not come by calamity, but was intentional; the very ugliest color I have ever seen. A gaunt, shackly country lout six feet high, in battered gray slouched hat with wide brim, and old resin-colored breeches, had on a hideous brand-new woolen coat which was imitation tiger-skin – wavy broad stripes of dazzling yellow and deep brown. I thought he ought to be hanged, and asked the station-manager if it could be arranged. He said no; and not only that, but said it rudely; said it with a quite unnecessarily show of feeling. Then he muttered something about my being a jackass,and walked away and pointed me out to people, and did everything he could to turn public sentiment against me. It is what one gets for trying to do good."
When Samuel L. Clemens as Mark Twain ends his 13-month global circumnavigation and feels very proud, his pride is quickly extinguished when he is forced to consider his place and time in the Cosmos after hearing about the latest astronomical discovery. "Human pride is not worth while; there is always something lying in wait to take the wind out of it."

Read "Following the Equator" to discover more – in time.

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