Tag Archives: Mark Twain

‘The Innocents Abroad,’ by Mark Twain

Syrian travel has its interesting features, like travel in any other part of the world, and yet to break your leg or have the cholera adds a welcome variety to it.

The organizers of the “Great Pleasure Excursion,” which sailed from New York on the steamer Quaker City in 1867, must have come to regret their decision. I mean their decision to include in their party the journalist Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), who was traveling on assignment for a San Francisco newspaper. This was (I believe) one of the earliest international pleasure cruises in history – made possible by the capacity of a steam ship to travel on a more predictable schedule than a sailing ship. The notes Twain kept on that voyage would emerge as The Innocents Abroad, his most popular book during in his lifetime.

Although described as a pleasure excursion, the main purpose of the voyage was a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, then under Ottoman rule. Along the way, however, they would take in parts of North Africa, Spain, France, Italy, and Constantinople (still called by that name). On the way home they would see the sights of Egypt. It was quite a journey, and physically demanding by the standards of travel in our own day.

Mark Twain, only then becoming a celebrity, was prepared to subject everything he beheld to a typically American scrutiny. It seemed to him that in a lot of cases, when his fellow travelers exclaimed over the beauty or wonder of some piece of art or scenic vista, they were only parroting the responses their guide books had provided them. When Twain found something a disappointment or a humbug he said so – and seems to have delighted in shocking his fellow travelers. Which is not to say he lacked appreciation. When something impresses him, he says it. At some points he grows almost reverent.

Twain divides his fellow travelers into two parties – the “sinners” and the “pilgrims.” That doesn’t mean they broke up into cliques. He has a group of friends he keeps company with, and some of them are pilgrims. He confesses to admiring them in some respects. But when they appear hypocritical to him (as when they lengthen their overland journeys on a couple of days in order avoid traveling on the Sabbath, in spite of inconvenience to fellow travelers and cruelty to their horses), he seems to take satisfaction in pointing it out. The man is clearly keeping score. (He is also frustrated – rightly – by members of the party who insist of chipping pieces off monuments as souvenirs.)

The Catholic Church comes in for a great deal of criticism – he is appalled by the display of wealth in cathedrals, contrasted with the miserable poverty he saw in European streets. However, when he observes real virtue displayed by churchmen, such as the Dominican monks who cared for the sick during a cholera epidemic, or the desert monks who gave his party hospitality in the Palestinian desert, he does it justice. It seems to me (and this is my take on him in general, though I’m not an expert) that he was a man who wrestled with God. He could not be an atheist (in part because he’d have no God to be angry at), but he considered himself too smart to be taken in by any revealed religion. A very American attitude, that, and one that would grow influential.

The humor of The Innocents Abroad arises partly from Twain’s characteristic style – flowery Victorian prose constantly stumbling into premeditated bathos – and his Missourian “show me” attitude. He is not much impressed, for instance, with the artistic works of the Old Masters, but grants that he may have simply been overwhelmed by the numbers of them in places like Rome and Florence. He loves to describe the filth of European cities and is positively scandalized by the tiny size of the Holy Land.

Almost any subject is interesting when described by an interesting man. An expedition like this one, full of material fascinating in itself, can hardly fail to engage the reader when a man like Mark Twain chronicles it. And that’s what we get with The Innocents Abroad.

I read The Innocents Abroad in the linked Kindle edition, which is not a particularly good one. Although it’s described as illustrated, the illustrations in this version are not the ones that properly go with the book. They are images of 19th Century paintings with no particular connection to the text, and even those only show up in the first section. Also there are no proper paragraph breaks.

Don’t Read Newspapers

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to John Norvell:

To your request of my opinion of the manner in which a newspaper should be conducted, so as to be most useful, I should answer, “by restraining it to true facts & sound principles only.” Yet I fear such a paper would find few subscribers. It is a melancholy truth, that a suppression of the press could not more compleatly deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief, that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time; whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.

Did Jefferson go on to summarize his thoughts by saying, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed”? The Quote Investigator explains.

“In Defence of Harriet Shelley,” by Mark Twain

Mark Twain. Photo: Library of Congress

For example, he [William Godwin] was opposed to marriage. He was not aware that his preachings from this text were but theory and wind; he supposed he was in earnest in imploring people to live together without marrying, until Shelley furnished him a working model of his scheme and a practical example to analyze, but applying the principle in his own family; the matter took a different and surprising aspect then.

A few days back I posted a link to an article on the shameful domestic behavior of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. One of our commenters, “Habakkuk 21,” pointed me to Mark Twain’s essay, In Defence of Harriet Shelley. I downloaded it for my Kindle, and it made interesting reading.

As I’ve said before, I have ambivalent feelings about Mark Twain. I yield to no one in my admiration for his gifts as a novelist and humorist. He was one of the greats, and he’s given me plenty of good laughs. I like him less as a man, and when he gets on his Skeptical hobbyhorse he irritates me. On top of that, many of my generation saw Hal Holbrook (at least on TV) doing his Mark Twain show, in which he cherrypicked Twain’s writings to give the impression that he was essentially a man of the ’70s—the 1970s—born before his time.

But in In Defence of Harriet Shelley we see another Mark Twain—the Victorian middle class gentleman, the devoted husband and father, for whom nothing could be more vile than a man who abandoned his family. I expected a little more wit in this essay than is actually to be found here. The primary tone is withering scorn. It appears that Twain had little intention of entertaining the reader in this piece. He was morally outraged, and it’s the outrage that comes through.

I like Mark Twain a little better as a man, after reading A Defence of Harriet Shelley. It’s hardly a classic of Twain’s work, but it’s kind of nice having him as an ally for a change.

Labors of misplaced love

Today’s Word of Wisdom from Walker:

As I look back over my lifetime, I find that I have only two regrets.

The things I’ve done, and the things I haven’t done.

I’m pretty much OK with the rest.

Michael Medved reviewed George Clooney’s new movie, The American, today. He said it’s a beautiful film in which nothing much actually happens.

This reminded me of one of the most surprisingly bad movies I ever saw. My brother and I were in St. Paul one evening a while back with time on our hands, and decided to see a movie. We went to the nearest cinemaplex, and saw it was playing Robert Duvall’s newest film, Assassination Tango. We’re both big admirers of Robert Duvall, so we immediately bought tickets.

It was horrible. Continue reading Labors of misplaced love