One result of the pandemic: I’ve been re-reading what feels like everything on my bookshelves. And I have a lot of bookshelves.
When I was a teenager, I think it was, I loved The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. I just finished re-reading it. It’s an account of his trip to Europe and the Middle East in 1867 on the Quaker City with about sixty other Americans– most of them, by his count, old fogeys “between 40 and 70”. He was 32 at the time, a failed miner and riverboat pilot, but a rising newspaper humorist. His fare ($1250) was paid by a California paper.
The Quaker City advances on Europe
His account is mostly an extended comedy routine, though he’s also attempting to convey to his readers what it was like to travel to these places, and that involves quite a bit of serious description and retelling of stories he’s read, or heard from his guides. It’s clear that he read a lot of contemporary travel guides, and that those told visitors what things to see, what they meant, and what their dimensions were, information he sometimes regurgitates half-chewed.
A lot of the comedy holds up. I like his gentle parodying of his favorite traveling companions. E.g. the Oracle tries to get as many learned words as possible into every sentence, while knowing the meaning of none of them. Then there’s what he calls the “pilgrims”: fellow passengers who are far more religious than he is, and yet have a positive mania for cracking off mementos from famous places. He has a chapter where the subhead “The Ascent of Vesuvius– continued” is repeated at least half a dozen times, as he keeps digressing far away from the volcano. He and his closest companions loved to tease guides, calling them all Ferguson, and tormenting them by asking of any historical figure or statue, “Is he dead?” He’s amusing and drily ironic about Catholic relics, counting how many places had the same bones or the same pieces of the Crown of Thorns.
Comedy these days is mostly fast: one-liners or back-and-forth repartee. Twain, like his English counterpart Jerome K. Jerome, is more a fan of the extended bit, a long anecdote full of buildup and color. He was highly in demand as a lecturer, and I picture him acting out the physical comedy and doing all the voices.
Though he grew up in Missouri and set his most famous novels there, here he presents himself as a Westerner, and indeed is a little too quick to compare all mountains to the Rockies and all lakes to Lake Tahoe. Cities are compared to New York (and he was also contributing dispatches to NY newspapers).
He’s obviously well read, and honestly appreciates a lot of what he sees. Though what he appreciates is a little random. He is completely unimpressed by the Last Supper (probably with reason– it was in bad shape) and in fact by most paintings. He is rapturous about the Pyramids and the Sphinx, mostly because they’re so ancient, and because their hardness resists the hammers of the pilgrims.
Sometimes the country bumpkin act gets a little old. A particularly annoying sort of traveler (often but not exclusively American or British) complains at finding things done differently than they are at home. A little too often Twain is that sort of traveler. That business about Tahoe, for instance. Probably he had read too many guidebooks that depicted everything in Europe as uniquely magnificent, but c’mon, Sam, a two-page encomium of Lake Tahoe back home is not necessary. Similarly, though it’s fascinating that the one town he finds “just like an American city” and wholly approves of is Odessa, it’s extremely provincial to only like things you liked before.
Twain has complicated feelings about poverty. On the one hand, he has a hearty distaste for oppression, and (e.g.) castigates the Catholic Church in Italy for living in luxury while the peasants are miserable. On the other, well, he hates seeing poor people– their rags, their diseases and deformities, their neediness. This particularly applies to all the Muslim cities he sees, but also to Naples, and for that matter to Native Americans. He’s not immune to pity (when the tourists are mobbed by people asking for baksheesh, he and the others give them money), but he can’t get past the feelings of repulsion at the people themselves, and he sometimes expresses the wish to get rid of them.
Such thoughts provoke an aggrieved response in some people, so if you’re thinking of that, just don’t go there. There was a lot to like about Twain, and there are things to dislike. He is not immune to be criticism, and frankly anyone who thinks he is hasn’t really understood him. He was an acerbic critic himself when he wanted to be, which was usually. He himself claims that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness”, and it’s hardly unfair to ask him to live up to his own ideals.
(One possible defense is worth a response: that he was joking. First, it’s usually quite clear when he’s joking and when he’s not, and a lot of the xenophobia is not jokes. And second, pretending to be a bigot is not actually a laff riot; all too often, it’s just bigotry hiding behind facetiousness.)
Readers should also be aware that Twain’s description of Palestine as a desolate and barren place has done some real harm, by allowing some moderns to discount the rights or the very existence of the people who lived there. This article is a corrective. It should be noted that Twain visited in the dry season, when the country presented its worst aspect; also that one of his major themes was the discrepancy between romantic or ancient accounts and present realities, and he was not above exaggerating this for effect. He says about the same thing of Greece, by the way– “Greece is a bleak, unsmiling desert, without agriculture, manufacturing, or commerce apparently”. I’m sure he didn’t mean to deceive, but this sort of analysis isn’t any more reliable than modern columnists’ assessment of national opinion based on talks with their cab drivers.
Something that might be surprising is Twain’s small but real piety. I’ve read other books by him that are far more skeptical. But at this point he seemed to be a faithful Protestant, though not a zealous one. He listened courteously to the “pilgrims” (who loved nothing on shipboard more than an evening of religious talks), he knows his scripture, and there is really nothing in the book that could offend a Christian. He criticizes hypocrisy and a few logical errors, and he’s not going to allow the pilgrims to put him off drinking and smoking, but he says nothing against the religion itself.
The best modern travel writing aims at not just describing the sights, but the people. This requires at least knowing the local language, and access to more than tour guides and waiters. Twain does not achieve this. He knows a little French, but by his own account none of the Americans could make their efforts understandable to a Frenchman. The structure of his tour means that he spends almost all of his time in Touristland, and though he freely talks about national character, this is mostly based on meeting people in the tourist industry.
If you can get past all that, the book is still pretty funny; it’s also quite interesting as a portrait of the times. The non-comedy bits– the places where he rhapsodizes over a building or some scenery he happened to like– are not greatly informative. But you get a good idea, I think, of how a smart but not college-educated American of the 1860s would react to the sights and the slights of the Old World. (His advice on Turkish baths: don’t bother.) Even the mechanics of tourism are worth looking at: obviously a lot of people traveled, because there was a network of guides and hotels and textbooks; but of course you couldn’t call ahead, you had no camera, and you weren’t on a strict schedule: if you could afford the trip at all, you were there for months. You also brought a huge trunk or two of gear– but in Twain’s case, this could be left on the ship, while you made your land excursions with a few suitcases.