EDITOR’s NOTE: August of 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad. We celebrate the occasion with a series of short essays by Twain scholars who have done extensive research and writing about the travel book and the voyage it describes.
“Travel has no longer any charm for me. I have seen all the foreign countries I want to except Heaven and Hell and I have only a vague curiosity about one of those.”Mark Twain, Letter to W. D. Howells (May 20, 1891)
Well, perhaps Twain changed his mind about travel later in Following the Equator (1897), having discovered the cultural diversity and charm of India, particularly the clothing and color of Ceylon. When I traveled to Venice, Italy during a sabbatical in April of 2017, at about the same age of Twain in his journey around the world, I wanted to experience what I could of Twain’s first visit to Venice. I wanted to find the charm and the culture of Italy and see for myself the decline of Venice. I hardly had the time to experience the clothing and color of Venice, because within a week of my arrival I delivered a talk at the University of Venice before faculty and students. I tried to tailor my discussion toward Innocents Abroad, which all had read closely in terms of Twain’s chapters on Venice. Everything I said to this Venetian audience was of the abstract type one gleans from reading without knowing. I probably said something to the effect that the culture of Italy influenced Twain in a number of ways, first through his satire on art, second in his recognition of the decline of Venice as a global force, third in his reflections on Italian lifestyle as a tranquil unity of nature and civilization, and finally in his acceptance of some of the religious and family values that Italian culture promotes. I do know I tried to cover the history of the text, some of the insights about the excursion on the Quaker City cruise ship, some of the comparisons made between Europe and America, and some of the comments made on the decline of Venice along with its historical charm and glory. Twain writes a good deal of material that might annoy a modern Venetian, so I looked at Innocents Abroad for material that would demonstrate the charm and glory of Venice for my audience. Twain himself does mute his observations that Venice has become something of a mausoleum for tourists:
I began to feel that the old Venice of song and story had departed forever. But I was too hasty. In a few minutes we swept gracefully out into the Grand Canal, and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry and romance stood revealed. Right from the water’s edge rose long lines of stately palaces of marble; gondolas were gliding swiftly hither and thither and disappearing suddenly through unsuspected gates and alleys; ponderous stone bridges threw their shadows athwart the glittering waves…Music came floating over the waters – Venice was complete. It was a beautiful picture – very soft and dreamy and beautifulInnocents Abroad, 218-219
This glittering vision of Venice is one that I had to find, and did, on a charming island, San Giorgio Maggiore, which I had almost all to myself, within sight of the St. Mark’s Square. Twain finds Venice to be a place for ghosts, as did I some nights while on my private island:
Yes, I think we have seen all of Venice…We have stood in the dim religious light of these hoary sanctuaries, in the midst of long ranks of dusty monuments and effigies of the great dead of Venice, until we seemed drifting back, back, back, into the solemn past, and looking upon the scenes and mingling with the peoples of a remote antiquity…A part of our being has remained still in the nineteenth century, while another part of it has seemed in some unaccountable way walking among the phantoms of the tenth.Innocents Abroad, 216
The culture of Italy influenced Twain in a number of ways, though I took some time understanding how the Italian lifestyle could mirror a unity of nature and civilization while in Venice, and I really did not see for several years how Twain might accept some of the religious and family values that Italian culture promotes. Twain clearly had some difficulties with organized religion, and outright hostility toward Catholicism, so changing my mind took time, the time I needed to think about the Venetian excursion I had made. I believe that Twain found common ground between the secular world of Venice and its long historical religious perspective. It’s there in Twain’s words. But I as a traveler needed to experience how that might work. One can still visit Venice and be impressed with the merger of art, religion, and architecture. Twain writes of the chiesa (church) Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari:
Among a long list of churches, art galleries, and such things, visited by us in Venice, I shall mention only one -the church of Santa Maria dei Frari. It is about five hundred years old, I believe, and stands on twelve hundred thousand piles. In it lie the body of Canova and the heart of Titian, under magnificent monuments…In the conventional buildings attached to this church are the state archives of Venice. We did not see them, but they are said to number millions of documents. “They are the records of centuries of the most watchful, observant and suspicious government that ever existed – in which every thing was written down and nothing spoken out.” They fill nearly three hundred rooms. Among them are manuscripts from the archives of nearly two thousand families, monasteries and convents. The secret history of Venice for a thousand years is here – its plots, its hidden trials, its assassinations, its commissions of hireling spies and masked bravoes – food, ready to hand, for a world of dark and mysterious romances.Innocents Abroad, 235-236
This dark Venice is not something I found at the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, but I did stand awed by the overwhelming grandeur of the place, by its scale, and by its presence as one of the chief monuments to the Catholic religion in Venice (among the other 56 or so churches that I have on my to-do list, having evaluated only about 16 of those that Hemingway, James, Howells, Hawthorne, Pound, and others visited). The State Archives of Venice are still near the Frari, though not public; some material is online. Twain writes a good deal more about Frari (as it is generally referred to now) and I can only add my own tourist’s amazement to his. Twain’s merger of the secular history of the Machiavellian Venice with the religious importance of Frari emphasizes the sense that Venice challenges the tourist as a mystery that can only be solved by way of continued meditation on how art reflects religion.
Religion in Italy means a daily awareness of the imminent death of the physical being, with a promise of an afterlife of eternal glory, with the promise of redemption and salvation. One is saved from sin by continual reflection on one’s relationship with God; Mary, Christ’s earthly mother, is a key to that daily prayer. Virtually every chiesa or church in Venice reminds the worshipper of that promise. The general design of a Catholic church depends on the cruciform shape, a transept crossing a longer nave, the building’s shape resembling Christ’s cross. The ceiling often represents Heaven, a tower pointing toward the afterlife. Most Venetian churches demonstrate the wealth of Venice in its prime, with art symbolic of the unity of purpose between the earthly and the divine (economic dominance and religious zeal); Tintoretto’s Last Supper in the chiesa of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, aside from being a didactic religious portrayal, captures the sense of the worldly domain (resembling a Venetian inn, with servants) watched over by a heavenly realm (a radical use of light, with God’s servants, angels, overhead). I have no evidence that Twain saw that kind of symbolism in his travels. Twain recognized that daily devotion to one’s faith but found organized religion of any kind a hindrance to the human spirit, relying in part on a devotion to his family and to places he called home; he openly mocked the religion and the art of Venice:
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.Innocents Abroad, 258
Twain ridicules great art when it represents an imperialist culture that exaggerates its own importance, an art that fails to recognize the vernacular values of life, the vernacular vandal that Twain often represents in his own work. But then there’s that pause in his words, the “princeliest land on earth,” that “one vast museum of magnificence and misery,” a backhanded compliment to the competence and capacity of a country that can sacrifice so much for the sake of art. Twain complains about the acres of paintings by Tintoretto, yet he admires it. In A Tramp Abroad (1880), he even comes around to openly praising that monumental painting in the Doge’s Palace, presumed to be the largest oil painting in the world, Il Paradiso. (There’s a larger one now in India, painted by Sandeep Sinha, completed in 2018.) I found, and later recognized fully, the integration of art with family and religion by being in Venice, by being in Carlo Goldoni’s home (playwright, his home now a shrine and museum), by being enveloped by the small museums that dot Venice (the Querini Stampalia Foundation Museum, for example) that capture the sense of living at home while living within art.
Twain first toured Italy in 1867, returning with his family in 1878, later in 1892-93 living at the Villa Viviani in Florence, and his last lengthy visit at the Villa di Quarto in Florence in 1903-04, where his wife Livy died. Italy had, over about seventy years, begun to find its place in the global marketplace of ideas and politics, becoming a more or less unified country by 1871. Twain, however, found Venice in 1867 a political mirror of the potential disunity of the aftermath of the American Civil War, a perilous and complicated period of time for America. Italy is something of a mirror for America at that point, an America mired in racism and doubt. The 1867 trip to Venice, in particular, suggests that the corruption and decay of Venice, long considered a major and global force, could well be the fate of an America on the verge of becoming a global power. He begins to modify that position in 1878, and finally accepts a new vision of Italy in 1893 as the potential future of an America that, while still struggling with its past, can yet find a unity of nature and civilization. He may have found that unity already in Quarry Farm in Elmira, New York:
“But we are housed here on top of the hill, now, where it is always cool, & still, & reposeful & bewitching.”Letter to W. D. Howells (June 14, 1877)
Quarry Farm represents the kind of Italian vista that he and his family later enjoyed at the Villa Viviani, and he perhaps recognizes how well Italy can be a place of tranquility, having enjoyed that tranquility in America.
Twain’s contrasting image of the glories of the Doge’s palace in Venice with the desperation of those who suffered under the rule of the Venetian government emphasizes his revulsion at what Venice has become:
The walls and ceilings were bright with gilding, rich with elaborate carving, and resplendent with gallant pictures of Venetian victories in war, and Venetian display in foreign courts, and hallowed with portraits of the Virgin, the Saviour of men, and the holy saints that preached the Gospel of Peace upon earth – but here, in dismal contrast, were none but pictures of death and dreadful suffering! – not a living figure but was writhing in torture, not a dead one but was smeared with blood, gashed with wounds, and distorted with the agonies that had taken away its life!Innocents Abroad, 224
This museum that Venice has become suggests that the emergent capitalism of the era will produce faceless individuals, people without identities, a crowd of tourists who lack a purpose within this new world of global commercialism, tourists who lack empathy of those prisoners of the long-gone Venice. These lost souls represent the new modern citizens, citizens who have no appreciation for the past or for what culture means. This Venice creates tourists without purpose and becomes a museum that shows an appropriation of culture without a real meaningful context. Venice, once a commercial and vital city state, is now a vast souvenir shop. The search for the authentic experience for Twain illuminates the decline of American commercial enterprises, the Grand Tour of Europe becoming a way to export the robust and corrupt American system of exploitation and the inflated sense of Empire that England imagined for its global domination. Twain sees what has happened to Venice and imagines what it would be like for America to disintegrate in the same way that Venice had.
However, Twain is charmed by the tranquil social life that he imagines Italy represents. Venice is a city of art; paintings are everywhere; the 56 churches all contain art; even the people of Venice seem to be part of an artist’s palette. Perhaps the light of Venice and Italy changed his perspective on how he might live out the last years of his life, surrounded by members of the Angelfish Club at Stormfield. But Venice also represents a lost vista, one that had power as a commercial and vital city state and now has become a vast souvenir shop, a powerless icon of politics, a magnificently ruined city-monument, a collection of tourist sites and museums.
Quarry Farm, for a time, recaptures that lost vista, a restful and secure place for the simultaneous acts of vacationing and working. Nature surrounds the family with a fusion of a civilized wilderness and a view of the urban landscape that can provide a social environment esteemed by the Clemens family, reminiscent of the idealized Italian vistas that his family will enjoy. Later, Twain returns to the play on words that “Innocents/Innocence” conveys. In a letter dated October 7, 1908 to Dorothy Quick, one of his Angelfish, he suggests that she might visit him in at home in Redding, Connecticut, then called “Innocence at Home”: “We are putting glass in the arches of the loggia now, & turning it into a winter parlor, so that we can sit there with our knitting & watch the snowstorms” (MarkTwain’s Aquarium, 218). It was a house that reflected the architecture of Italy, a reflection of Livy’s death in Florence and more likely the earlier memories of Villa Viviani. “Innocence” evokes the memory of Twain’s first travel book, The Innocents Abroad. “Innocence” is also a common concept in the letters he writes to his young members of the Angelfish Club. He writes, for example, that he has followed the suggestion of Marjorie Breckenridge: “the house has two names: ‘Innocence at Home’ for the Aquarium girls, and ‘Stormfield’ for the general public” (December 1, 1908).
I was certainly innocent in my stay in Venice. I came to see what Twain had intuitively captured, that the city has a duality of souls, one seemingly mired in the past and one that continues to celebrate the secular reality of its religion. The memories that haunt me now are those I did not know I had, that I lectured a group that knew Venice all too well, and that I needed to reflect on my experience there for a long two years before I got what Twain found in just a few days in that city. His was an insightful journey, one I am beginning now to appreciate. I accept the decline of the city, but now I am also finding Twain’s words about the actual experience of travel also true:
I began to feel that the old Venice of song and story had departed forever. But I was too hasty. In a few minutes we swept gracefully out into the Grand Canal, and under the mellow moonlight the Venice of poetry and romance stood revealed.Innocents Abroad, 218
Harold H. Hellwig is Associate Professor of English at Idaho State University and author of Mark Twain’s Travel Literature: The Odyssey of a Mind (2008)
Susan Gillman in “Mark Twain’s Travels in the Racial Occult: Following the Equator and the Dream Tales” writes that Twain’s travel book and a number of dream tales, which includes The Mysterious Stranger, “invoke and adapt the notions of spirit communication and disembodied space-and-time travel…as a means of revisiting the old terrain of U.S. slavery and linking it to the newer global imperialism, the worldwide nationalism, nativism, and racism of the late 1890s” (194). Gillman writes that when Twain goes to Ceylon “we have clearly arrived at the very center of the voyage, Twain’s own paradoxical heart of darkness, where this remote orientalized land of dream and romance merges, both pleasurably and disturbingly, with memories of Twain’s boyhood in the antebellum South” (202). However, Twain’s “heart of darkness” becomes a testament of faith that the racial differences that exist will, with an effort of memory, disappear within the context of a timeless moment when these differences will vanish.
“Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad: Among the Monuments of Time.” Presented to the faculty and students at the University of Venice. April 10, 2017. Ca’ Bernardo, Sala B. Organizzato da Daniela Ciari Forza. Universta Ca’Foscari Venezia. Dipartimento di Studie Linguistici e Culturali Comparati.
I was enabled in my stay in Venice by way of being a resident at the Vittore Branca International Centre for the Study of Italian Culture, sponsored by the Fondazione Giorgio Cini, April 3 through April 27. I spent a good deal of time at the Nuova Manica Lunga (library system with an emphasis on the history of Venice, literature, music, theatre and opera; the relations between Venice and the East, and Venice and Europe).
Nathalia Wright, in American Novelists in Italy, Michael L. Ross, in Storied Cities: Literary Imaginings of Florence, Venice, and Rome (with a focus on British writers), and Van Wyck Brooks, in The Dream of Arcadia, are among those who discuss some of these Italian travelers. Single-figure critics include Dennis Berthold’s American Risorgimento: Herman Melville and Cultural Politics of Italy. Venice represents for most a combination of the secular and the religious, for Twain a central locus of meaning on art, nature, and family.
Twain is pleased with the “roomy Italian villa which John Howells has built for me on lofty ground surrounded by wooded hills and valleys, and secluded by generous distances from the other members of the human race” (Autobiography, Volume 3, 239).
A Tramp Abroad. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1880.
Autobiography of Mark Twain. Vol. 1. Ed. Harriet Elinor Smith, et al. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2010.
Autobiography of Mark Twain. Vol. 3. Ed. Benjamin Griffin & Harriet Elinor Smith. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2015.
Innocents Abroad. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1869.
Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1897.
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Gillman, Susan. Dark Twins: Imposture and Identity in Mark Twain’s America. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1989.
—–. “Mark Twain’s Travels in the Racial Occult: Following the Equator and the Dream Tales.” The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain, 1995. Cambridge UP.
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Salmoni, Steven. “Ghosts, Crowds, And Spectacles: Visions Of Venetian Travel In Henry James’s Italian Hours.” Journal Of Narrative Theory 35.3 (2005): 277-291.