Archaeology Odyssey 2:2, May/June 1999

Past Perfect: Under The Volcano

America’s foremost humorist, Mark Twain, views ancient Pompeii through the sardonic eye of a 19th-century Midwesterner.

Archaeology Odyssey

In 1867, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835–1910), better known as Mark Twain, embarked on a journey throughout the Mediterranean and Palestine. Until this point, the 32-year-old Missourian had done more adventuring than writing; he could boast only one wee book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and other Sketches—consisting of an amusing story about a frog-jumping contest with some incidental pieces about his travels, mostly in the American west. But his popular account of that 1867 overseas journey, Innocents Abroad (1869), set in motion a remarkably inventive career. During the next two decades, Twain created such immortal characters as Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, the Connecticut Yankee, Pudd’nhead Wilson, the Prince and the Pauper. Much of Innocents Abroad reads like an exercise in which Twain, still wet behind the ears, sharpens his eye—as well as his tongue. The following excerpt, however, suggests what our foremost satirist could do once he got his dander up. Twain’s prose, barbed and bright, spares no one: not ancient Pompeiian Street Commissioners or their American counterparts, the do-nothing bureaucrats; not innocent theater-goers or menacing policemen, ancient or modern. Only the salacious paintings on the walls of some of Pompeii’s rooms leave him mute, paintings that “no pen could have the hardihood to describe.”—Ed.

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