I recently read The Innocents Abroad, a travelogue of a journey by ship to Europe and the Holy Land, undertaken by Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known by his pseudonym Mark Twain. When you hear the name Mark Twain, you immediately think of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Not many people know that he was a prolific travel writer well before he published his two famous novels. In 1867, he embarked on a pleasure excursion with a group of fellow Americans from New York aboard Quaker City, a retired Civil War ship, for a five and a half month long trip around the Mediterranean. At the time he was a travel correspondent for the San Francisco newspaper, “The Alta California” and sent dispatches about his travels to them and to “The New York Tribune” and “The New York Herald” too. The Innocents Abroad was published two years later, in 1869. It was a perfect pick for the pandemic as it let me indulge in some armchair travel! It made me reminisce nostalgically about the places I have already visited and compare notes with his experiences and also made me dream of places I have yet to visit.
Mark Twain’s incomparable humor sets this book apart from the countless run of the mill travel guides. I laughed out aloud innumerable times while reading and at times I was practically in stitches. I would say Mark Twain is right up there with Oscar Wilde as one of the wittiest writers I have ever read! Whether the group is traversing through the countryside of the Middle East on recalcitrant donkeys or horses, looking in desperation for soap anywhere in Europe, having a disappointing shaving experience in France, being dragged up the Pyramids by ‘draggers’ asking for ‘baksheesh’, sneaking into the Parthenon at night and stealing grapes along the way, having a private rendezvous with the Czar of Russia or playing pranks on the tourist guides by acting dumb, every experience is recounted with caustic humor.
The group’s language troubles with the French provides a good example of a humorous quip:
“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. One of our passengers said to a shopkeeper, in reference to a proposed return to buy a pair of gloves, “Allong restay trankeel—may be ve coom Moonday;” and would you believe it, that shopkeeper, a born Frenchman, had to ask what it was that had been said. Sometimes it seems to me, somehow, that there must be a difference between Parisian French and Quaker City French.”
I fell over the floor laughing when I read his description of the famed Turkish bath. Turkey was a country that had conjured up visions of the Arabian Nights for him. He had imagined the voluptuousness of the perfumes of Araby, the richness of the silks and carpets and the sensuousness of a luxuriating bath but instead he was in a dark, dingy and slippery corner from where he was taken to a place that resembled a chicken coop and served a Turkish drink which turned out to be the most execrable coffee:
“He took me back and flooded me with hot water, then turbaned my head, swathed me with dry table-cloths, and conducted me to a latticed chicken-coop in one of the galleries, and pointed to one of those Arkansas beds. I mounted it, and vaguely expected the odors of Araby again. They did not come.The blank, unornamented coop had nothing about it of that oriental voluptuousness one reads of so much. It was more suggestive of the county hospital than any thing else. The skinny servitor brought a narghili, and I got him to take it out again without wasting any time about it. Then he brought the world-renowned Turkish coffee that poets have sung so rapturously for many generations, and I seized upon it as the last hope that was left of my old dreams of Eastern luxury. It was another fraud. Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst. “
I have only picked a handful of examples from the book of his scintillating wit. Practically every page is full of bantering remarks and railleries. Unfortunately, some of the humor degenerates into appallingly racist and xenophobic comments. At first I gave him the benefit of the doubt for living in a different time when people were not politically correct and when there was no concept of cultural relativity. But as I continued reading, I felt that some of the racist diatribes were offensive. He is disgusted by the poverty around him in Bashan, Syria and describes the crippled, the lepers, the vermin infested children with eye sores and beggars distressed with hunger in very unflattering terms :“They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.”
Some of his remarks are downright misogynistic. “She was the only Syrian female we have seen yet who was not so sinfully ugly that she couldn’t smile after ten o’clock Saturday night without breaking the Sabbath.” He comes across a ‘monster headed dwarf’ and a ‘mustached woman’ inside a railway car leaving Milan. He makes it clear that they were not show people for “Alas, deformity and female beards are too common in Italy to attract attention.” Along with the misogyny and racism, there is animal cruelty thrown in for good measure. His ingenious and refreshing wit and the fact that he did not spare anyone- not even himself or his fellow Americans made me forgive him for some of the over top comments. Maybe the book is a product of its time but it is as infuriating as it is funny.
He cracked me up with the descriptions of all the artwork he comes across in Europe. He was not that moved by the famous paintings and sculptures of the Old masters. According to him, it is difficult to admire them when the place is full of them from ceiling to walls. He does not think much of the Hagia Sophia either and calls it “the rustiest old barn in heathendom”. He ridicules the inflated tales of travel writers as reality does not meet the expectations you have after reading their accounts. He is scathing in his criticisms about the Catholic Church and their penchant for obsessively collecting relics including skulls many of which are of dubious origin. It is amusing how a part of the original crown of thorns shows up in every church.
The book inadvertently highlights the stereotype of the ugly American abroad. Every tour guide is called Ferguson and every place Jackson because they can’t be bothered learning new names. There are many examples of American ethnocentrism throughout the book. Twain feels the beautiful Lake Como and the Sea of Galilee pale in comparison to Lake Tahoe. I was shocked that the American ‘pilgrims’ chipped away pieces of monuments and ruins to bring back home as souvenirs! What a different time! We even hesitate to pick a seashell from a beach these days. Twain mocks their behavior but suggests that the reverse would never be tolerated. “Suppose a party of armed foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from altar railings for curiosities, and climb and walk upon the Bible and pulpit cushions? However, the cases are different. One is the profanation of a temple of our faith — the other only the profanation of a pagan one.”How preposterous is that statement! The ‘innocents abroad’ even shamelessly flouted quarantine rules. It was interesting that some countries did not allow them to disembark because of cholera or the plague. Living through the pandemic right now made that detail more meaningful to me. Twain makes self deprecating jokes too and lampoons Americans who behave badly abroad: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.”
Twain’s prose is rich and lyrical too along with being humorous. Here’s a poetic description of the Sphinx in Egypt:
“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. It was thinking of the wars of departed ages; of the empires it had seen created and destroyed; of the nations whose birth it had witnessed, whose progress it had watched, whose annihilation it had noted; of the joy and sorrow, the life and death, the grandeur and decay, of five thousand slow revolving years. It was the type of an attribute of man—of a faculty of his heart and brain. It was MEMORY—RETROSPECTION—wrought into visible, tangible form…….The Sphynx is grand in its loneliness; it is 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 awful presence of God.”
I noticed that Twain and his fellow travelers mellowed down towards the end of the journey. They experienced travel fatigue from having traveled so long and extensively. In fact Twain does not linger over his descriptions of Spain or the places they visit on the way back. The book ends with these oft quoted lines: “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 cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” Over time, the memory of disagreeable incidents faded away and Twain states that he would happily undertake the same journey if given a chance again.
I highly recommend this satirically humorous account of Twain’s travels. Make sure you are reading an edition with illustrations by True Williams which are as amusing as the text. This is a long book and I took my time to read it. It is informative and illuminating and Twain digresses at times to regale the readers with interesting legends and stories. Although I found the sojourns in Italy and France to be the most humorous, I enjoyed the parts about the Middle East as I haven’t been there. It was fascinating to journey through Syria and Palestine and see all the Biblical places and people come alive. I interrupted the reading to google some of the information and returned to the page lingering over every detail. At one point in the book, he describes Venetians enjoying granita ( a distant cousin of Italian ice) on a lazy Sunday afternoon and I felt reading this book was like slowing down to savor every bite of the delicious granita offered by Mark Twain.