The Middle East has often influenced the better writers of American literature. In the 1920's, for instance, Ernest Hemingway provided early sketches about the "magic" of the East for the Toronto Daily Star, and earlier a subtle Islamic influence affected the allegorical poem, Al Aaraaf, by Edgar Allan Poe (See Aramco World, March-April 1983). More recently we have Norman Mailer's Egyptian odyssey Ancient Evenings , and John Updike's humorously cynical Henry Bech sneering his way through the Holy Land.
Much more important, however, was the impact of the Middle East on the two acknowledged giants of American letters, Herman Melville and Mark Twain - giants because each contributed one novel which has a lasting place among the greatest novels ever written: Melville's Moby Dick and Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .
As an admirer of geographically vivid literature, I have frequently consulted - for pleasure and instruction - the Middle East accounts left by Melville and Twain: the daily journals of their travels and the published books based on their observations. One is Melville's book, Clarel, a tragic narrative poem that came out of his now-published diary, Journal Up the Straits, and the other is Twain's classic, The Innocents Abroad, which followed his jaunt through Europe and the Middle East. A look at the two writers' experiences provides an illuminating array of comparisons and contrasts.
Melville, the bearded, wavy-haired melancholic who embarked on his voyage in the fall of 1856, seemed to be traveling out of some degree of personal desperation. At 37, he was hardly an old man, yet in the manner of the child prodigy burnout he seemed "washed up" before his time. As a writer, his South Seas travel books, which had made him a literary force, were long behind him, and even his largely-ignored masterpiece, Moby Dick lay in five years of accumulated dust. In addition, domestic disappointments had contributed to a deep depression that, one biographer suggested, might have affected his sanity. Nevertheless, Melville expressed excitement at the prospect of "this glorious Eastern jaunt":
This afternoon... I sketched a plan for going down the Danube from Vienna to Constantinople; thence to Athens on the steamer; to Beyroot and Jerusalem and Alexandria and the Pyramids... Think of it!
Twain, 11 years later, was even more excited when he steamed out of New York City on a pleasure boat with 65 other passengers: doctors, military personnel and others, who had answered newspaper ads promoting "the great pleasure excursion" to Europe and the Middle East.
It was June 1867, and though Twain was only five years younger than Melville had been in 1856, he seemed far more a novice in terms of experience and achievement. Where Melville had already produced his best work, Twain, a moustached, Roman-nosed 32-year-old, had published but one small volume, a collection of humorous sketches. His masterpiece, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn , was still almost 20 years in the future and on the domestic side he was still unmarried.
Thus, where Melville began his journey as the emotionally-askew yet worldly-wise veteran, Twain began his as the brash youngster. And where Melville can be seen as the experienced, if somewhat distraught, judge of people and culture, Twain can be viewed as the inexperienced, befuddled upstart sending out his befuddlement under the guises of humor, wry insight, causticity and gullibility.
It was Twain, for instance, who, upon arriving in Constantinople, complained about the streets in the old city as being "crooked, rudely and roughly paved, and as narrow as an ordinary staircase," adding that "the streets uniformly carry a man to any other place than the one he wants to go to, and surprise him by landing him in the most unexpected localities.. ." Already the humorous twist, the exaggerated spatial descriptions - elements that would become trademarks in Twain.
Melville, by contrast, had injected his characteristic melancholia into the same scene: intimations of personal despair, a sense that things were on the verge of closing in or falling apart, written in ungram-matical personal scribblings. "Intricacy of the streets. Started alone for Constantinople and after a terrible long walk, found myself back where I started. Just like getting lost in a wood. No plan to streets. Pocket compass. Perfect labyrinth. Narrow. Close, shut in. If one could but get up. Aloft, it would be easy to see one's way out. If you could get up into tree. Soar out of the maze. But no."
Melville, of course, did not intend to publish such journal entries in their raw form, but they reveal fragments of the crude poetic way his mind worked - and show an intrinsic alliterative flair in describing places and routine happenings. While crossing Turkey's Bosporus straits, for instance, he wrote: "You lie in the Boat's Bottom. Body Beneath the surface. A Boat Bed, Kaik (caique) a Sort of Carved Trencher or Tray. Fleet of Fishermen, at mouth of Golden Horn. Calm of water. Tiderips. Sun shining on Sultan's palaces. Sunrise opposite the Seraglio."
Twain, who, to the contrary, had little use for verse, drew out his geographical descriptions with a characteristic verbosity. A writer who would one day confess that he used "three words where one would suffice," Twain gave a preview of his later style in his description of Beirut:
The rest of us had nothing to do but look at the beautiful city of Beirut, with its bright, new houses nestled among a wilderness of green shrubbery spread abroad over an upland that sloped gently down to the sea; and also at the mountains of Lebanon, that environ it, and likewise to bathe in the transparent blue water that rolled its billows about the ship...
Twain liked to sing glibly about landscapes, whether he was drifting past sloping banks on the Mississippi River or riding camel-back in the Syrian desert. He had a way of moving casually along, describing the commonplace and narrating the routine and then suddenly throwing out one of what the late novelist John Gardner once termed the revelatory insights that all writers long for. Twain's first look at beautiful Damascus seemed to provide such an inspiration:
As the glare of the day mellowed into twilight we looked down upon ... a level desert of yellow sand, smooth as velvet and threaded far away with fine lines that stand for roads, and dotted with creeping mites we know are camel trains and journeying men; right in the midst of the desert is spread a billowy expanse of green foliage; and nestling in its heart sits the great white city, like an island of pearls and opals gleaming out of a sea of emeralds. This is the picture you see spread far below you, with distance to soften it, the sun to glorify it, strong contrasts to heighten the effects, and over it and about it a drowsing air of repose to spiritualize it and make it seem rather a beautiful estray from the mysterious worlds we visit in dreams...
To some degree, Melville too shared in an intoxication of profuse descriptions. Steaming up the Bosporus he reveled in the "contest of beauty" waged by each shoreline, and described the scene as "a challenge of continents, whereby the successively alternate sweeps of the shores... seem to retire from every new proffer of beauty." In Cairo, he gushed over the glory of an Egyptian dawn, writing: "In morning, golden sun through foliage. Soft luxurious splendor of mornings. Dewy. Paradise melted and poured into the air. Soft intoxication..."
More often, though, Melville seemed predisposed to ascribe a kind of imaginatively generated anguish to geographical points of interest. In the same "luxurious" Cairo, he observed legions of flies as they collected around the eyes of the blind, evaluating the setting as "nature feeding on man." In the heat of the Egyptian desert, he agonized over what he interpreted as "too much light and no defense against it." He judged certain Cairo buildings as having a "dusty, cadaverous look." And while in Palestine, he took note of weeds growing on Mount Zion, bemoaning the scene with this lament: "The mind cannot [but] be sadly and suggestively affected with the indifference of Nature... to all that makes the spot sacred..."
Since Nathaniel Hawthorne once described Melville as one who could "neither believe nor be comfortable in his unbelief," the Holy Land probably exerted an ambiguous influence on him, and yet certain places in Palestine seemed to kindle his philosophical confusion over life-and-death matters. Of the shores of the Dead Sea, for instance, he wrote: "... foam on beach and pebbles like slaver of mad dog - smarting bitter of the water - carried the bitter in my mouth all day - bitterness of life - thought of all bitter things - Bitter it is to be poor and bitter to be reviled and bitter are these waters of Death, thought I."
Granted, it has always been difficult for travelers to pass the Dead Sea without some thoughts on the desolation of the spirit, but Twain managed it - softening the region's biting visual impact with his usual levity: "... we were marching down a close, flaming, rugged, desolate defile, where no living creature could enjoy life except, perhaps, a salamander." Even Twain, though, succumbed to the harsh realities. "It is a scorching, arid, repulsive solitude. A silence broods over the scene that is depressing to the spirits."
Both Twain and Melville railed continually about the graffiti left by American and European travelers on structures of cultural importance in the Middle East. Melville grumbled when he noticed a Bostonian's name scribbled on the wall of a mosque in ancient Smyrna, and Twain, when he saw scribblings on the ruins of Baalbek in Lebanon, expressed a hope that one day such a monument would collapse on a pack of such engraving "reptiles." Captured by his first brush with Eastern culture, each writer resented its desecration by insensitive tourists.
Melville, especially, seemed taken with the grandness of Islamic monuments. He spoke admiringly of the arches, domes and cupolas which adorned various mosques and, always the analyst of forms, entertained the idea - incorrectly - that perhaps the mosque had descended directly from the tent.
Twain, who had frequently alluded to his boyhood appreciation of The Arabian Nights , viewed the mosques he visited in other terms. "These [walls], stained and dusty with age, dimly hint at a grandeur we have all been taught to regard as the princeliest ever seen on earth; and they call up pictures of a pageant that is familiar to all imaginations..."
Indeed, Twain seemed to be living out a kind of personal fantasy. From Constantinople and Damascus to Cairo and Algiers he carried his fascination like a boy wandering through an enchanted forest. And when harsh cultural realities intruded, he complained: "Travel and experience mar the grandest pictures and rob us of the most cherished traditions of our boyhood." As to such unpleasant scenes as poverty and hunger he simply ignored them, much preferring to dwell on the lighter side. He liked to talk about the peculiarities of donkeys and camels, the latter of which he claimed "would eat a tombstone if they could bite it."
Twain also commented on Eastern attire, which he admired for its dignity of appearance. "No Arab ... uses an umbrella or anything to shade his eyes or his face," Twain wrote, "and he always looks comfortable and proper in the sun."
Melville, on the other hand, seemed drawn to scenes of poverty. Concerning animals, for instance, he saw misery where Twain saw humor. Of the stray dogs in Constantinople, he remarked somewhat stolidly: "Scavengers of the city. Terrible outcries at times ... some much scarred, others mangy. See them lying amidst refuse, hardly tell them from it."
In the same city, Melville also wrote about "the horrible grimy tragic air of the streets." He seemed peculiarly at home in locations that heightened his sensitivity to civic defilement. It represented a weird sort of beauty to him, as he suggested in his journal: "Heaps of old traps, old capotes being cut up by beggars... Pile of old hoops rusting. Pile of old haversacks and belts and spoons and kettles. Grated windows look between the double galleries. Beautiful effect."
If Melville seemed preoccupied with negative aspects of Eastern culture at large, however, his appreciation of individuals seemed positive to the opposite degree. Most of his observations of Eastern men, for instance, were delightful. In Egypt he described the Arab guides as "tender" individuals whom he likened to "angels in flowing white mantels (sic.)" In Turkey he found himself impressed with qualities of steadfastness and humility. On a cold drizzly day, he met an elderly Turkish man and said, "Old Turk, this [weather] is very bad." The Turk answered, "God's will is good," and then, said Melville, he "smoked his pipe in cheerful resignation."
He also admired what he had interpreted as the dignity of Turkish and Arab women. While on board a ship off the Greek coast, he had observed "Turkish women among others. Went right aft on deck and spread their carpets. One prayed, bowing her head." There was a certain posture of humility that captured Melville's compassionate eye. In Constantinople he had observed a woman standing over the grave of a loved one and wrote: "Such abandonment of misery! Called to the dead, put her head down as close to it as possible; as if calling down a hatchway... 'Why don't you speak to me? It is I!'"
The beauty of such women had also impressed Melville. "Ugly" faces were a rarity in the Middle East, he suggested in his journal, adding: "...these races exceed ours in this respect. Out of every other window look faces... which in England or America would be a cynosure in a ballroom."
He seemed prone at times to draw comparisons between Eastern and Western values - and to agree with the unspoken maxim: "East is East, West is West, and never the twain shall meet." In the bustle of Constantinople, for instance, he wrote: "Curious to stand amid these millions of fellow beings, some of whom seem not unwilling to accept our civilization, but with one consent rejecting much of our morality and all of our religion." This caution toward Western ways seemed continually to intrigue Melville.
Twain, on the other hand, less mature and more volatile, was often irritated. In Turkey, for example, he felt unwelcome - the Turks thought of America and Americans as "insignificant" in those days - and grumbled about it. "It hurts my vanity," he growled. But he could change his mind suddenly and be just as gracious with compliments. In Damascus he blazed away at the Syrians, but later wrote that "these people are naturally goodhearted and intelligent. .."
Twain also shared Melville's appreciation for the beauty of Eastern women, praised the efficiency and stamina of the Arab guides who accompanied his group through Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and expressed admiration for Bedouins. Twain, moreover, voiced his anger at the carelessness and insensitivity he found among the Americans who entered a mosque and "broke specimens from the walls, though they had to touch and step upon the 'praying carpets' to do it... To step rudely upon the sacred praying mats with booted feet - a thing not done by any Arab - was to inflict pain..."
Like Melville, Twain seemed to have a compassionate awareness of the elderly and those whom he judged as dispossessed. He also was quick to appreciate compassion. On the journey through Palestine, for instance, he presented a moving portrait of the Mar Saba hermits, who lived with a Spartan-like steadfastness in a desolate, isolated region. "They knew we were foreigners..." he wrote. "But their large charity was above considering such things. They simply saw in us men who were hungry and thirsty and tired, and that was sufficient. They opened their doors and gave us welcome. They asked no questions, and they made no self-righteous display of their hospitality..."
One of the most enlightening comparisons of the region's influences on Twain and Melville concerns their reactions to the unfamiliarity of antiquity. As natives of a country that was not yet even a century old, each writer carried twin senses of naivete and boyish wonder on his sleeve. They theorized, compared, analyzed, explicated and ruminated over this, their first authentic gaze into the backward chasm of history.
Twain, for instance, seemed captivated by the Sphinx. And though contemporary analyses suggest that he was being jocular, his comments on the Sphinx echo with a sense of wonder. "The Sphinx," he wrote, had "a dignity not of earth in its mien," and went on, in admittedly purplish prose, to ponder its meaning:
If ever an image of stone thought, it was thinking. It was looking toward the verge of the landscape, yet looking at nothing - nothing but distance and vacancy. It was looking over and beyond everything of the present and far into the past. It was gazing out over the ocean of Time - over lines of century waves which, further and further receding, closed nearer and nearer together, and blended at last into one unbroken tide, away toward the horizon of remote antiquity.
Similarly, the older and wiser Melville seemed stilled by trying to put the ancient into clear English. "[Their] simplicity confounds you," he wrote about the pyramids. "[They] refuse to be studied or adequately comprehended."
Intentionally or unintentionally, Melville and Twain each found this ungraspable antiquity a stimulation for his imagination. Each tangible reality produced an intangible imagining, and therein lies perhaps the greatest single effect of the region's influence on Twain and Melville.
Melville, for instance, always pursuing the rudiments of good and evil, seems to have been ultimately moved, and in anodd way fulfilled, by the Pyramids of Giza. Once again, perhaps, he could be the creator of a force such as the terrible Moby Dick - but drawing his imaginative force from the Egyptian desert, rather than the vast oceans. "Pyramids still loom before me - something vast, indefinite, incomprehensible, and awful," he concluded. "Line of desert and verdure, plain as line between good and evil. An instant collision of alien elements. A long billow of desert forever hovers as in act of breaking, upon the verdure of Egypt."
And Twain, the local-color realist who needed but a push to enter a mystical realm of reflective judgment, continued to be stimulated by the Sphinx. It was "grand in its loneliness," he said, and "imposing in its magnitude; it is impressive in the mystery that hangs over its story. And there is that in the overshadowing majesty of this eternal figure of stone, with its accusing memory of the deeds of all ages, which reveals to one something of what he shall feel when he shall stand at last in the presence of God."
Like Melville, Twain had expressed midway through his journey the difficulties a 19th-century American faced in trying to grasp history. "I cannot comprehend this," he said. "The gods of my understanding have always been hidden in clouds and very far away."
In their unique ways, both writers set about trying to probe such "clouds," but where the experience seemed to expand the rapidly-maturing Twain, it appeared more as a thoughtful reminder to Melville that, even amid the waves of his turbulent mind, a measure of security existed, and he could rest, if he so desired, in the solidification of his knowledge.
Much, regarding Twain's and Melville's travels in the Middle East, remains open to debate, of course, yet each journey must be viewed as a positive experience, Twain returning to America on the verge of immense literary success and Melville, biographers feel, to a healing of sorts despite a growing obscurity.
A year later, in any case, Twain felt that the trip had been valuable. "Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things," he said, "cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime." It was a truism that Melville knew well, and one that Twain was still learning. And in this sense, the Middle East - its people, land, history and culture - provided a most satisfying classroom for the two outstanding authors that America has produced.
Daniel Pawley, who free-lances out of Minnesota, is a graduate of the University of South Florida and earned an M.A. at Northern Illinois University.