I love certain travel books, ones that give you an inspiring window on places you’ve never been or want to revisit while holding a humbling mirror up to the perspective and culture of the traveler. “Innocents Abroad” is a classic that fulfills this goal nicely and a fun read to boot. In 1867, the nearly unknown journalist Mark Twain set out at age 32 on a chartered ship from New York with a group of Americans for a three-month tour around the Mediterranean with major overland side-trips. His iti
I appreciate the combination of self-deprecation, wonder, slapstick humor and cynicism represented in Twain’s writing. The following quotes capture his nobler sentiments:
The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass.
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.
Human nature appears to be just the same, all over the world.
For his sense of wonder, here are a few examples of his eloquence from experience of people in the streets of Constantinople, of the ruins of the Appian way, and of the ancient Sphinx in Egypt:
People were thicker than bees, in those narrow streets, and the men were dressed in all the outrageous, outlandish, idolatrous, extravagant, thunder-and-lightning costumes that ever a tailor with the delirium tremens and seven devils could conceive of.
Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchres and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks or lay still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned, and fallen; where glory has flamed, and gone out; where beauty has dwelt, and passed away; where gladness was, and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity. His coat is the color of ashes: and ashes are the symbol of hopes that have perished, of aspirations that came to nought, of loves that are buried. If he could speak, he would say, Build temples: I will lord it in their ruins; build palaces: I will inhabit them; erect empires: I will inherit them; bury your beautiful: I will watch the worms at their work; and you, who stand here and moralize over me: I will crawl over your corpse at the last.
I gave it up and walked down to the Sphynx. After years of waiting, it was before me at last. The great face was so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient. There was a dignity not of earth in its mien, and in its countenance a benignity such as never any thing human wore. It was stone, but it seemed sentient. If ever 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 every thing 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.
Humor is tucked into every page, providing comic relief without dominating the story. Galloping pell-mell on donkeys through the streets of a town in the Azores is one example that stands out for me. The humor often barbs both ways, as in this example
In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.
Another vein of humor comes from playing practical jokes on the tourist guides, which in every country they call “Ferguson” to save on mastering a foreign name. In one case, after getting tired of too much hype over Michelangelo’s creations, the travelers keep pestering their guide with questions about his responsibility of ancient structures like the Roman Forum. For a similar deflation of their guide’s pressures to revere Columbus, here is a joke they played on him:
He took us to the municipal palace. After much impressive fumbling of keys and opening of locks, the stained and aged document was spread before us. The guide’s eyes sparkled. He danced about us and tapped the parchment with his finger:
“What I tell you, genteelmen! Is it not so? See! handwriting Christopher Colombo!–write it himself!”
We looked indifferent–unconcerned. The doctor examined the document very deliberately, during a painful pause.–Then he said, without any show of interest:
“Ah–Ferguson–what–what did you say was the name of the party who wrote this?”
“Christopher Colombo! ze great Christopher Colombo!”
Another deliberate examination.
“Ah–did he write it himself; or–or how?”
“He write it himself!–Christopher Colombo! He’s own hand-writing, write by himself!”
Then the doctor laid the document down and said:
“Why, I have seen boys in America only fourteen years old that could write better than that.”
On the negative side, personal cultural bias comes out in many places. References abound to the dirtiness of the people in many countries, hygiene issues such as mustache hair on the women, and the rapaciousness of the beggars. The great efforts to find soap at hotels throughout the journey is funny at times, but overdone. I sympathize with Twain over his cynicism over the obsessive collection and promotion of holy relics by Catholic churches. There are just too many nails he was crucified with on display and too many bones of saints honored in shrines to foster meaningful spirituality. Aristocratic excess is a perennial target for American sensibility, and so is the contrast between religious pomp of prelates and the poverty of the people. While his meeting with the Russian Czar in Yalta made Twain recognize his ordinary humanity, just thinking about the Muslim Caliph in Constantinople with hundreds of wives makes him see hypocrisy in the whole religious enterprise. Here is his anti-Catholic rant on Italy
As far as I can see, Italy, for fifteen hundred years, has turned all her energies, all her finances, and all her industry to the building up of a vast array of wonderful church edifices, and starving half her citizens to accomplish it. She is today one vast museum of magnificence and misery. All the churches in an ordinary American city put together could hardly buy the jeweled frippery in one of her hundred cathedrals. And for every beggar in America, Italy can show a hundred – and rags and vermin to match. It is the wretchedest, princeliest land on earth. …
O, sons of classic Italy, is the spirit of enterprise, of self-reliance, of noble endeavor, utterly dead within ye? Curse your indolent worthlessness, why don’t you rob your church?
Despite this apparent cynicism, it was fascinating to experience Twain’s underlying reverence with respect to the sites of the Holy Land. In Jerusalem, you can feel his underlying judgment of commercial hype over supposed sites where Mary supposedly stood or stayed, where Christ rested a moment as he bore his cross toward Calvary, etc. But at many other points his awe comes through over sites that remind him how an ordinary fisherman from Nazareth who sailed the Galilee with his brothers came to change the world through his spiritual vision. In process of this read, I came to appreciate the evolution of Twain’s own sensibilities and the story-telling skills that would shape the landscape of American literature.