When the Howells letter was read to him he is reported as having sat with his hands on his knees, his head bent forward--a favorite attitude--repeating at intervals:
"Howells said that, did he? Old Howells said that!"
There have been many and varying opinions since then as to the literary merits of 'A Tramp Abroad'. Human tastes differ, and a "mixed" book of this kind invites as many opinions as it has chapters. The word "uneven" pretty safely describes any book of size, but it has a special application to this one. Written under great stress and uncertainty of mind, it could hardly be uniform. It presents Mark Twain at his best, and at his worst. Almost any American writer was better than Mark Twain at his worst: Mark Twain at his best was unapproachable.
It is inevitable that 'A Tramp Abroad' and 'The Innocents Abroad' should be compared, though with hardly the warrant of similarity. The books are as different as was their author at the periods when they were written. 'A Tramp Abroad' is the work of a man who was traveling and observing for the purpose of writing a book, and for no other reason. The Innocents Abroad was written by a man who was reveling in every scene and experience, every new phase and prospect; whose soul was alive to every historic association, and to every humor that a gay party of young sight- seers could find along the way. The note-books of that trip fairly glow with the inspiration of it; those of the later wanderings are mainly filled with brief, terse records, interspersed with satire and denunciation. In the 'Innocents' the writer is the enthusiast with a sense of humor. In the 'Tramp' he has still the sense of humor, but he has become a cynic; restrained, but a cynic none the less. In the 'Innocents' he laughs at delusions and fallacies--and enjoys them. In the 'Tramp' he laughs at human foibles and affectations--and wants to smash them. Very often he does not laugh heartily and sincerely at all, but finds his humor in extravagant burlesque. In later life his gentler laughter, his old, untroubled enjoyment of human weakness, would return, but just now he was in that middle period, when the "damned human race" amused him indeed, though less tenderly. (It seems proper to explain that in applying this term to mankind he did not mean that the race was foredoomed, but rather that it ought to be.)
Reading the 'Innocents', the conviction grows that, with all its faults, it is literature from beginning to end. Reading the 'Tramp', the suspicion arises that, regardless of technical improvement, its percentage of literature is not large. Yet, as noted in an earlier volume, so eminent a critic as Brander Matthews has pronounced in its favor, and he undoubtedly had a numerous following; Howells expressed. his delight in the book at the time of its issue, though one wonders how far the personal element entered into his enjoyment, and what would be his final decision if he read the two books side by side to-day. He reviewed 'A Tramp Abroad' adequately and finely in the Atlantic, and justly; for on the whole it is a vastly entertaining book, and he did not overpraise it.
'A Tramp Abroad' had an "Introduction" in the manuscript, a pleasant word to the reader but not a necessary one, and eventually it was omitted. Fortunately the appendix remained. Beyond question it contains some of the very best things in the book. The descriptions of the German Portier and the German newspaper are happy enough, and the essay on the awful German language is one of Mark Twain's supreme bits of humor. It is Mark Twain at his best; Mark Twain in a field where he had no rival, the field of good-natured, sincere fun-making-ridicule of the manifest absurdities of some national custom or institution which the nation itself could enjoy, while the individual suffered no wound. The present Emperor of Germany is said to find comfort in this essay on his national speech when all other amusements fail. It is delicious beyond words to express; it is unique.