EDITOR’S NOTE: As of last month, it has been 150 years since the publication of Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad. We are marking the occasion with a series of short essays from Twain scholars who have written about the travel book and the voyage it describes.
The Innocents Abroad changed everything.
In context with the vast and often energetic public dialogue built around American travelers to the Old World, it signaled a shift of sensibilities that matched a growing self-awareness—a confidence, a brashness—within the American collective psyche. Twain throughout the text reveals in numerous ways his understanding of a changing national identity, and his narrative announces a new cultural force of American emergence that would demand attention. In the closing pages, he captures the overall tone quite efficiently as he describes the symbolic posture of the American tourists as they moved from site to site: “The people stared at us every where, and we stared at them. We generally made them feel rather small, too, before we got done with them, because we bore down on them with America’s greatness until we crushed them.”
The narrative engages with a formidable range of travel writing tropes and successfully takes readers on a rollicking tour of a world in transition and does so with a voice both reverent and scornful, staid and boisterous. Readers, then and now, find more rewards, per pound, in The Innocents Abroad than any other work in his canon. That statement is open to debate, but I like my odds. To be sure, Mark Twain was not the first to mock elite devotion to European cultural icons or to manipulate touristic conventions; rather, he simply did it much better than anyone else. This statement is not open to debate; it is a nonnegotiable fact. Anyone with an inclination to adopt a contrary position should be forced to read a healthy sampling of the other travel books of the time. I’ve been there before.
The Innocents Abroad also changed everything for Mark Twain. At the time he secured his place among the “select” aboard the tour, Twain was in his early thirties and was as yet unsettled in a path for his life. Having earned modest and likely temporal successes as a journalist and sketch writer, he most certainly had plenty of indication of his writing skills and his ability to please audiences. With the Quaker City Pleasure Excursion, he found (stumbled upon) a perfect platform to transform himself into an author of undeniable potential and with a clear path to a lucrative future working within a writing genre that would perfectly match his talent and temperament.
While waiting to depart from New York aboard the Quaker City, Twain wrote to his mother: “All I do know or feel, is, that I am wild with impatience to move, move–Move! Half a dozen times I have wished I had sailed long ago in some ship that wasn’t going to keep me chained here to chafe for lagging ages while she got ready to go.” Twain was bothered by the weather delays in the ship’s embarkation, and that frustration underpins the irascibility of the letter, but the statement also implies a larger issue: his impatience to get on with his life. Indeed, Twain was ready to “move,” lamenting that he had not “sailed long ago.” He may have chafed at the too-long delays, but as the history of this first journey to the Old World would play out for Twain, the Quaker City was most certainly the right ship at the right time. Moreover, for American readers, it carried aboard the right man.
His letters during the Quaker City Pleasure Excursion created a sensation back home, finding appreciative audiences on both coasts. Once back home, he culled together those letters and added a substantive portion of new material and completed the narrative that would if not guaranteed his future most certainly clarified its trajectory. With the ultimate publication of the full narrative in 1869, Mark Twain’s career, if you will pardon the pun, set sail. For the next forty years he maintained a place at the center of American literary energy and popular culture relevance. The Innocents Abroad made possible the Mark Twain for whom so many readers have harbored deep devotion for the ensuing 150 years, and it stands as a marvelous representation of his mastery of language and wit.
Inexplicably, however, The Innocents Abroad remains woefully underrepresented in anthologies and classrooms, and, as a result, far too many potential readers have yet to encounter it. A travel narrative firmly entrenched within its historical context while also demonstrating a keen intuition for the coming age, it remains lively for modern readers, and it plays well in the classroom. In celebration of the nineteenth century’s best American travel book, I would like to highlight a few passages to as representative of the balance of the text and as a glimpse into what makes traveling with Mark Twain such a fine experience.
In the passage below taken from Chapter 12 while the merry band of tourists are in Paris, Twain provides a sharp—tongued dissection of the arrogance of people he calls “the Old Travelers.” There is no better illustration of the refreshing contrast that Twain was offering his readers in stark opposition to the standard fare of travel writing:
The Old Travelers–those delightful parrots who have “been here before” and know more about the country than Louis Napoleon knows now or ever will know,–tell us these things, and we believe them because they are pleasant things to believe, and because they are plausible and savor of the rigid subjection to law and order which we behold about us every where.
But we love the Old Travelers. We love to hear them prate, and drivel and lie. We can tell them the moment we see them. They always throw out a few feelers; they never cast themselves adrift till they have sounded every individual and know that he has not traveled. Then they open their throttle-valves, and how they do brag, and sneer, and swell, and soar, and blaspheme the sacred name of Truth! Their central idea, their grand aim, is to subjugate you, keep you down, make you feel insignificant and humble in the blaze of their cosmopolitan glory! They will not let you know any thing. They sneer at your most inoffensive suggestions; they laugh unfeelingly at your treasured dreams of foreign lands; they brand the statements of your traveled aunts and uncles as the stupidest absurdities; they deride your most trusted authors and demolish the fair images they have set up for your willing worship with the pitiless ferocity of the fanatic iconoclast! But still I love the Old Travelers. I love them for their witless platitudes; for their supernatural ability to bore; for their delightful asinine vanity; for their luxuriant fertility of imagination; for their startling, their brilliant, their overwhelming mendacity!The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 12
The next passage is part of perhaps the most popular sequence in The Innocents Abroad, the running joke that captures Twain as fun-loving and a bit raucous and mischievous. Thirty years later, as Twain reports in his final travel book Following the Equator (1897) which derived from his around the world lecture tour, audiences in Australia called out a simple question which was a request of sorts: “Is he dead?” Twain claims in Following the Equator that he did not understand the reference or the underlying intentions of the shouts. This is a shame, but in any case, the episode is a nice testament to the staying power of the sequence and its core humorous quality:
We have made it interesting for this Roman guide. Yesterday we spent three or four hours in the Vatican, again, that wonderful world of curiosities. We came very near expressing interest, sometimes–even admiration–it was very hard to keep from it. We succeeded though. Nobody else ever did, in the Vatican museums. The guide was bewildered–non-plussed. He walked his legs off, nearly, hunting up extraordinary things, and exhausted all his ingenuity on us, but it was a failure; we never showed any interest in any thing. He had reserved what he considered to be his greatest wonder till the last–a royal Egyptian mummy, the best preserved in the world, perhaps. He took us there. He felt so sure, this time, that some of his old enthusiasm came back to him: “See, genteelmen!–Mummy! Mummy!”
The eye-glass came up as calmly, as deliberately as ever.
“Ah,–Ferguson–what did I understand you to say the gentleman’s name was?”
“Name?–he got no name!–Mummy!–‘Gyptian mummy!”
“Yes, yes. Born here?”
“No! ‘Gyptian mummy!”
“Ah, just so. Frenchman, I presume?”
“No! not Frenchman, not Roman!–born in Egypta!”
“Born in Egypta. Never heard of Egypta before. Foreign locality, likely. Mummy–mummy. How calm he is–how self-possessed. Is, ah–is he dead?”
“Oh, sacre bleu, been dead three thousan’ year!”
The doctor turned on him savagely: “Here, now, what do you mean by such conduct as this! Playing us for Chinamen because we are strangers and trying to learn! Trying to impose your vile second-hand carcasses on us!–thunder and lightning, I’ve a notion to–to–if you’ve got a nice fresh corpse, fetch him out!–or by George we’ll brain you!”
We make it exceedingly interesting for this Frenchman. However, he has paid us back, partly, without knowing it. He came to the hotel this morning to ask if we were up, and he endeavored as well as he could to describe us, so that the landlord would know which persons he meant. He finished with the casual remark that we were lunatics. The observation was so innocent and so honest that it amounted to a very good thing for a guide to say.
There is one remark (already mentioned,) which never yet has failed to disgust these guides. We use it always, when we can think of nothing else to say. After they have exhausted their enthusiasm pointing out to us and praising the beauties of some ancient bronze image or broken-legged statue, we look at it stupidly and in silence for five, ten, fifteen minutes–as long as we can hold out, in fact–and then ask: “Is–is he dead?”[i]The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 27
This nicely crafted scene subverts all expectations of normal, gentile behavior for tourists, and the interaction serves as a proper vehicle for Twain to slice away at pomposity and all forms of arrogance and condescension so firmly embedded in basic touristic interactions. Twain and his fellow sinners, “lunatics” according to the guide, refuse to play along with such social norms and are intent on not performing as “Old Travelers.” This is fun segment for readers, which is the primary reason it was able to earn interest with audiences thirty years after its publication, but, as so much of Twain’s humor overall, it slyly undercuts the power of those who would demand conformity to the rules of society as a way to assert control. How do you fight such entrenched power? Well, in this case, you dismantle it by simply by “exhausting their enthusiasm” for asserting it. Is it dead yet?
Although the two fun examples above fairly represent the overarching theme of The Innocents Abroad and suggest the types of episodes that have made the narrative so pleasing to readers, I hasten to add that Twain does not dismiss the potential benefits of travel. This first travel book is also filled with moments of reverence and true enthusiasm from Twain himself. At the beginning of his career and as a result of his first substantive travel abroad, Twain gains a transformative experience that shaped him for the remainder of his life. The Innocents Abroad changed everything because the five-month tour changed Twain, setting him on an odyssey of discovery for the next forty years.
In the closing pages of The Innocents Abroad, he writes perhaps his most important observation: “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.” This is beautiful and ever-hopeful statement asserts the core conceit of travel: when we travel, we can grow and expand our minds and our hearts and gain appreciation of a vast and complex world around us. Travel affords us that opportunity like nothing else. Mark Twain grabbed at the chance to move, and he never stopped.
Jeffrey Melton is Associate Professor of American Studies at University of Alabama. He is author of Mark Twain, Travel Books, & Tourism (2002) and co-editor of Mark Twain On The Move (2009). He has also published numerous essays on Mark Twain, American humor, and travel writing.