Tag: Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Literary luminaries on their Atlantic crossings

I recently returned from a trip across the Atlantic on the only true ocean liner sailing today, Cunard’s Queen Mary 2. The trip from Southampton to New York was nothing short of magical, however (isn’t there always a however?) we did pass through strong storms for a good portion of the voyage. I am prone to exaggerate for the sake of a good tale, but even the captain declared them strong and the Beaufort scale set the winds at Force 11, violent storms. That’s proof enough for me!  While crossing I came across three other Cunard passengers of historical interest. Each was a literary luminary of his era and each had a slightly different view of the crossing. During my trip, I had moments of agreeing with all three although I had no complaints with the ship, which was glorious, they’ve come a long way since poor Charles Dickens suffered. “She stops,” wrote Dickens about his crossing, “and staggers and shivers as though stunned and then, with a violent throbbing in her heart darts forward like a monster goaded into madness, to be beaten down and battered, and crushed and leaped on by that angry sea.” He spent ten days of his 1842 Atlantic crossing on the Britannia in a seasick coma. This was his first experience of the new steamship and after a journey fraught with seasickness, hallucinations, and a constant terror of fire, he decided to return by the more traditional sailing ship.  He declared that his cabin had a bed resembling a “muffin beaten flat,” with pillows “no thicker than crumpets” and the mattress “spread like a surgical plaster on a most inaccessible shelf.”  His second trip to the United States was in 1867 on the Russia. Although a pleasanter crossing than his first, he did declare his fellow passengers “Jackasses.”   Henry James had a very different memory of his time on the Servia in 1883. “She was slow, but she was spacious and comfortable and there was a kind of motherly decency in her long, nursing rock and her rustling old fashioned gait. It was as if she wished not to present herself in port with the splashed eagerness of a young creature. I had never liked the sea so much before, indeed I have never liked it at all, but now I had a revelation of how, in a midsummer mood, it could please. It was darkly and magnificently blue and imperturbably quiet – save for the great regular swell of its heartbeats, the pulse of its life and there grew to be something agreeable in the sense of floating there in infinite isolation and leisure that it was a positive satisfaction that the ship was not a racer.”  Mark Twain was an experienced sailor having served as a Mississippi riverboat pilot. After traveling as a passenger on the Batavia in 1872 he wrote to the Royal Humane Society to commend the captain and crew in rescuing survivors from a shipwreck.  “Our boat had a hard fight, for the waves and wind beat it constantly back. I do not know when anything has alternatively so stirred me through and through and then disheartened me, as it did to see the [other, wrecked] boat every little while, get almost close enough, and then be hurled three lengths away again by a prodigious wave, and the darkness settling down all the time.” On my voyage last week, as we crossed the Atlantic the captain announced the moment we passed within fifty or so nautical miles of the place where the Titanic struck an iceberg.  This was a moment to remember the role of Cunard’s Carpathia in rescuing the survivors of that terrible tragedy.  I set foot on shore in New York delighted to have crossed in such a fashion, but didn’t have the courage to pass through customs and immigration with words first said by Oscar Wilde upon arrival in New York 1882: “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”  

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Literary Pilgrimages

  Michele: I once went to a mediation conference in San Francisco determined to find Barbary Lane from Tales of the City series by Armistead Maupin. It wasn’t easy, especially with a foreign cab driver thinking he had a nut case for a passenger, but I did it. It felt like a religious experience when I finally came upon those long steps. Another time, a friend and I forced my husband to drive through a tiny Cape Cod village in search of the scene of the crime where the murder in a true crime book we both were reading occurred. I’m not sure whether these qualify as literary pilgrimages, but they were definitely pursuits of passion!I also seem to find myself touring writers’ homes wherever I travel. One of my favorites is the Mark Twain Home in Hartford, Connecticut where you can now write in the same room he did (for the price of a donation, of course)  So, the question of the week to my fellow Miss Demeanors is, what literary pilgrimages have you gone on, or if you’ve resisted the urge thus far, where would you venture?  Robin: That’s an easy one for me. I went to New York and stayed at the Algonquin Hotel to soak in the literary history and see the Round Table before the hotel remodeled and removed it. A year later I went to Pere Lachaise in Paris to pay homage to the cultural and literary luminaries buried there, like Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein. I planned the trip when I heard Jim Morrison’s grave was going to be moved to the States. It’s still there but the threat got me to Paris.Fun fact: after I rocked the New York Pitch conference and knew I’d be signed by a rock star agent in the next few days, I celebrated with a glass of champagne at the Blue Bar at the Algonquin.   Oh, and I’m fortunate that living in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are lots of local pilgrimages, too. Last summer I joined my local chapter of Sisters In Crime on a walking tour of Dashiell Hammett’s homes and haunts in San Francisco.  Paula: When we first moved to New England, my son and I took a literary pilgrimage to Concord, Massachusetts, and toured Walden Pond, Emerson’s house, and Louisa May Alcott’s house. It’s one of our favorite memories together. I try to find a literary pilgrimage wherever I go. My friend Susan Reynolds and I have been to Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, my daughter and I went together to the Dublin Writers Museum, I’ve been with my fellow writers to visit such places as Jack London’s house, the Algonquin Hotel, the House of Seven Gables, the Globe Theater, and all the haunts in the French Quarter where the likes of Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner, and Anne Rice have written great work.I loved them all. But the most moving place I’ve ever visited was in Amsterdam, where Anne Frank and her family hid from the Nazis. I was 12 years old and I still remember that terrible empty space vividly. I went home and read her diary for the first of many times.   Susan: Robin, I would love to go on a walking tour of Dashiell Hammett’s homes. How wonderful! I have a lovely book called Seeds by Richard Horan in which he goes to various writers’ homes and takes seeds from their trees and tries to plant them. I was so inspired that I resolved to get pine cones from various writers’ homes, but so far I’ve only made it to Mark Twain’s library in Redding, but I did get a pine cone! I did once spend a considerable amount of time tracking down the composer Alexander Scriabin’s home in Paris. It was very moving to see where he lived. I had used him as a character in one of my novels. Alison: I love this question, Michele, but I have no answer. The fact is, I’ve never made a specific literary pilgrimage. I don’t know why I haven’t. Reading about yours, Robin’s, and Paula’s journeys, I want to start. Count me in for the Dashiell Hammett tour!  Tracee: I’m with Alison! Maybe I should plan a few.  Cate: Ditto. Though I am going to Ireland In August and plan to visit some of Oscar Wilde, Yeats and James Joyce’s haunts.   Alexia: I haven’t been on any literary pilgrimages, probably because most of my favorite novels are set in fictional places, like Wonderland, Midsomer County, and St. Mary Mead. I do go to places where I’m thinking of setting stories, like Irish villages, English inns, and ancient churches. I rode the train from Chicago to West Virginia (the Greenbrier resort) because Nero Wolfe traveled by train to a fictional resort based on the Greenbrier. I seek out existing pieces of Route 66 to travel because of the song, Route 66. Writing this reminds me of one trip I took that might count as a literary pilgrimage. I went to Vassar College, which is in the Hudson Valley, Washington Irving country. So, one summer, when my parents came to pick me up to take me back home to Maryland for summer break, I made them drive through Sleepy Hollow and stop at all the places associated with Irving’s short story. I still think it’s hysterical that Sleepy Hollow High School’s team is named the Horsemen.          

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