Saturday, June 2, 2012

An irreverent pilgrim

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain

The subtitle to this book, an account of a voyage in 1867, is "The New Pilgrims' Progress; Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City's Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land; With Descriptions of Countries, Nations, Incidents and Adventures, As They Appeared to the Author."

Many years ago I watched a TV adaptation of The Innocents Abroad. It featured a handsome young Sam Clemens making friends on the voyage with two shipmates, one a beautiful young woman. The three shared many adventures together as the inevitable romantic tensions developed, both young men falling in love with the heroine, who was then forced to choose between them. I can't find this version listed anywhere, but I have the clearest memory of watching it, and under its spell I quickly went looking for the book at the library. Reading it was a complete disappointment. Not only was there no shipboard romance, which I'm sure was my primary interest at that age, but I thought Twain's humor labored, his language verbose, and the book dauntingly long. I gave up after only a few chapters and mentally filed it away as unreadable.

Recently I've had a recurring feeling that I should try reading this book again. I looked for it at the library last weekend, and then remembered that I'd downloaded a copy to my new Nook. So that Saturday I sat down with it, and by the end of the first chapter I was hooked. In the years since I first tried to read this, I've read a lot of Victorian writers, and what then seemed liked overly ornate language now feels very familiar and comfortable. In fact, Twain's narrative voice here reminded me of George Templeton Strong's diaries, the last volume of which I recently read. (I can't find any mention of Twain in the diaries, but I think Strong would have enjoyed this book.) I have also read quite a few traveler's tales lately, including Isabella Bird and Anthony Trollope's books on America, and it was an interesting contrast to read about Americans abroad, though Twain's tour didn't take him to Britain. And then of course in those years I have traveled myself, though not as widely as Twain.

The Quaker City was set to sail from New York in early June of 1867. This first organized American tour of Europe and the Middle East made headlines across the country. But the ticket price of $1250 (almost $20,000 in 2012 dollars, six times the passage on a Cunard liner) put it out of most Americans' price range, even without the recommended $5 per diem for tours and other expenses when the ship was in port ($77 in today's money). I learned from the introduction that Twain traveled as a correspondent for the Daily Alta California of San Francisco. General William Sherman and Rev. Henry Ward Beecher were supposed to join the excursion, but they both had to cancel, leaving Twain, already known as a journalist and humorist, the big celebrity draw.

The bulk of Twain's narrative focuses on the time he spent in France, Italy, Constantinople, Palestine, and Egypt. He was very impressed with the order and prosperity that he found in France, comparing it favorably with Italy and almost every other place he visited. Italy was a big disappointment to Twain, its Roman glory buried under centuries of dirt, poverty and ignorance, much of which he attributed to the Roman Catholic Church (a criticism he repeated constantly during his Italian stay). He was also underwhelmed by Italian art and architecture, and he suspected that his fellow travelers were just parroting guidebooks in their admiration.

There are constant tensions in this book that make it unsettling reading at times. Twain and his fellow pilgrims sailed with high expectations, based on years of reading, of both literature and history, ancient and modern. Through illustrations in the books they read, they had clear pictures in their minds of what they were going to see, and of course the reality often failed to meet their expectations. (I remember finally getting to the front of the crowd before the Mona Lisa, and my first reaction: "It's so small!") Though they wouldn't have used this term, the travelers also suffered from burnout, trying to see too much in too short a time. As Twain wrote, "One can gorge on sights to repletion as well as sweetmeats," and he also perfectly captured "museum fatigue." Writing about Raphael's Transfiguration, he said,
"Is it not possible that the reason I find such charms in this picture is because it is out of the crazy chaos of the galleries? . . . If this were set in the midst of the tempest of pictures one finds in the vast galleries of the Roman palaces, would I think it so handsome?"

Twain's narrative also shows the tension of the New World meeting the Old, not to mention the Ancient. Like other Americans abroad, he reacted by asserting the superiority of the United States, its scenery, religion, politics, education, and commerce. Perhaps he was reacting in part to travelers like Frances Trollope and Charles Dickens, with their very unflattering pictures of America. Yet at the same time, Twain mocked himself and his fellow pilgrims for their provinciality, their inability to speak foreign languages, their unthinking assumptions. He was particularly embarrassed by the sight of his fellow tourists in Palestine, "this fantastic mob of green-spectacled Yanks, with their flapping elbows and bobbing umbrellas," desecrating the "impressive religious solemnity and silence [that] rest upon the desert and the mountains that were upon them in the remote ages of antiquity . . ."

A third source of tension is suggested in the book's subtitle, "The New Pilgrim's Progress." For many of those on board the Quaker City, this was indeed a modern pilgrimage, and they tried to maintain a proper atmosphere, with prayer meetings and hymn singing. For them, the real goal and purpose of the trip was Palestine, with its myriad Old and New Testament scenes. Twain, though well-versed in the Scriptures and raised a Protestant, took a much more secular and worldly approach. He gathered around him a few fellow "sinners" who sometimes enjoyed baiting the pilgrims and mocking their enthusiasms. He was particularly horrified and mortified by their brazen theft of relics, and their willingness to damage ancient structures.
The incorrigible pilgrims have come in with their pockets full of specimens broken from the ruins. I wish this vandalism could be stopped. They broke off fragments from Noah's tomb; from the exquisite sculptures of the temples of Baalbec . . . Heaven protect the Sepulchre when this tribe invades Jerusalem!"

I hope that his account of a pilgrim climbing up the Sphinx with a little hammer was apocryphal.

I had forgotten how funny Mark Twain can be, though sometimes the joke is barbed. This was not always a comfortable book to read, and far from "politically correct" (though there was much less anti-semitism than I expected). In his conclusion, Twain wrote that
"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."
I think it's time for another look at Mark Twain. I will be looking for his other travel writings, including Life on the Mississippi, which I read and enjoyed years ago.

On a side-note, I started reading this on my new Nook, and after the first couple of chapters, I headed off to Barnes & Noble to find the actual book (it was a pleasant surprise to find two copies on the shelves). The main drawback I'm finding with the Nook is the difficulty of flipping back and forth, and the slowness of "turning" the pages back frustrates me. I have yet to read a complete book on it, though I expect that will change when I get around to reading the ebooks that aren't readily available in print.


  1. I always cringe a little when reading about Americans abroad. I think Twain's opinions about this sound fascinating - and also his views on the looting of relics. Interesting stuff.
    I've had a Kindle for a couple of years now and have only read a handful of books on it. I really do prefer reading print books - I find the experience so much more enjoyable in paper!

  2. There are definitely a few cringe-worthy moments here - sometimes with Twain and sometimes for him.

    I was thrilled to find so many free versions of classic novels, but I'm not so excited about reading them on a screen. But I haven't really given it a fair trial yet.

  3. As a book lover I was really surprised how quickly I took to reading a Kindle but it does annoy me that you can't easily flip back. Somehow when I'm looking for a particular bit in a book I always have a good idea of exactly which part of the page it will be on. I went through a Twain phase years ago and I thought I had read this one but now I'm not so sure. I do have a copy though so I'll try a re-read.

  4. Yes, I can often picture where something is on the page, when I'm looking back, and I also have an idea of how far back in the book it was - which help me find it. But it's the slowness of the "back" feature that frustrates me the most. I do need to give it a fair trial, though - and I do have lots of ebooks loaded on it. I've noticed though that it's easier to overlook, compared to the books on the shelves, even in its jazzy cover.

  5. I'm not sold on the e-readers yet, though my daughter just got one. I guess I'm just old-school.

    I bought Mark Twains Letters from Hawaii when I was there a couple of years ago, but I still haven't read it. I also have a copy of Pictures from Italy by Dickens which I was going to read in July, as my other daughter is going there (without me).

  6. I know I need to give mine a fairer trial, but I'd rather be reading a real book. Maybe we'll bond on my next airplane trip.

    I saw a combined edition of Twain's later travel writings (Following the Equator is the one I remember) at Half Price Books the other day, and I left it on the shelf - now I'm wishing I'd gotten it.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!