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.