An Ode To The Innocents Abroad

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.

From Innocent To India: Mark Twain’s Evolving Sympathies

EDITOR’S NOTE: As of earlier this 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.

“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 world all one’s lifetime,” Twain proudly concludes The Innocents Abroad (1869), waxing teary-eyed at the remembered greatness of such sights as “Damascus – the ‘Pearl of the East,’ the pride of Syria, the fabled Garden of Eden, the home of princes and genii of the Arabian Nights.” He has many lovely memories of Italy. France he notes as “pleasant.” Paris, a “splendid” but disappearing meteor: even in a place he would later live for many years, the city’s magnificence is cast in contrast with how he found the Louvre just room after room of important-looking men on big horses, his ambivalence about the figure of Napoleon III, and of course, most infamously by his famous close shave in a French barber shop.

But The Innocents Abroad amply proves his point about travel. If we look at his very first port of call abroad in that book, the Azores Islands, and then turn to his experiences thirty years later in India in a different travel book, Following the Equator (1895), he took his own lesson to heart. From his first travel book to his last, Twain underwent a total reevaluation of himself as a world citizen. His 1895 speaking tour of British colonial possessions in the Southern Hemisphere made him see British and then U.S. imperialism in a strongly different light afterwards, and thus his new role as an opponent of imperialism.

Illustrations of Port of Horta, Fayel by Fay & Cox from 1901 edition of The Innocents Abroad.

​The first port of call in Innocents Abroad is on the Azores’ Fayal Island, anchoring in the town of Horta. Describing the neatly terraced farms and gardens climbing the mountains, Twain’s point of view, when it turns to the people, takes a complete turn. His first remarks about the people are in Chapter 5:

“The islands belong to Portugal [where Twain had never been], and everything in Fayal has Portuguese characteristics about it. . . . A swarm of swarthy, noisy, lying, shoulder-shrugging gesticulating Portuguese boatmen, with brass rings in their ears, and fraud in their hearts, climbed the ship’s sides, and various parties of us contracted with them to take us to shore.”

from The Innocents Abroad (1869)

Once ashore in the town, he observes many beggars: “these vermin surrounded us on all sides, and glared at us.” He describes the women’s hoods as “monstrous, . . . it is just a plain, ugly dead-mass of sail.” In the subsequent chapter he announces that “the community is entirely Portuguese–that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy.” All of this, and just one day ashore. It seems somewhat unfair to speak of boatmen this way, given his funny and sometimes sad portraits of such men on the Mississippi. 

​A striking contrast to arrival in an exotic place occurs in Chapter 33 of Following the Equator, when Twain first arrives in Bombay. He celebrates some of the legends, but he does not describe a landscape. There is none of the horseplay with “Ferguson” and hilarious irreverence as in the Vatican and the Holy Land. His focus is unrelentingly on the people, whose mass and whose lives of struggle for survival become his theme: he falls in love with the jostling lives of people wildly different from himself, and he works hard to try to understand what he can of them. Here are his first impressions:

January 20. Bombay! A bewitching place, a bewildering place, and enchanting place–the ​Arabian Nights come true again! It is a vast city; contains about a million inhabitants. ​Natives, they are, with a slight sprinkling of white people–not enough to have the ​slightest modifying effect upon the massed dark complexion of the public. . . . It does not ​seem as if one could ever get tired of watching this moving show, this shining and shifting ​spectacle. . . . In the great bazar the pack and jam of natives was marvelous, the sea of rich-​colored turbans and draperies and inspiring sight, . . . the passing and ​repassing of ably-off ​Parsee women–perfect flower beds of brilliant color, a fascinating spectacle. ​Tramp, tramp, ​tramping along the road, in singles, couples, groups, and gangs, you have the working-man ​and the working-woman–but not clothed like ours. Usually the man is a nobly-built great ​athlete, with not a rag on but his own loin-handkerchief; his color a deep dark brown, his ​skin satin, and rounded muscles throbbing as if it had eggs under it. Usually the woman is a ​slender and shapely creature, as erect as a lightning-rod, and she has but one thing on–a ​bright-colored piece of stuff which is wound about her head and body down nearly half-way ​to her knees, and which clings to her like her own skin.

from Following The Equator (1897)

One wonders what description he would have made of this scene in 1869. Twain continues to describe her grace as she balances a huge brass water-jar on her head. Most of the lengthy stay Twain records in India contains glowing descriptions of the “splendid show” he enjoys on the crowded streets of cities, in public and at private events: “It is all color, bewitching color–everywhere–all around. This is indeed India. . . . the country of a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race.” However his delirium at the multi-colored reality of the people of Bombay (no complaints about being “swarthy” here) is abruptly interrupted in Chapter 5 as the party are led to their hotel rooms by a train of servants carrying luggage and commanded by a “burly German.” As each man waits for his tip, Twain notes their sense of tranquility and humility: “The seemed a soft and gentle race, and there was something both winning and touching about their demeanor.” Suddenly “a native” engaged in cleaning a door to a balcony is “given a brisk cuff on the jaw” by the German, “without explaining what was wrong.” This shock causes Twain to reflect, “I had not seen the like of this for fifty years. It carried me back to my boyhood, and flashed upon me the forgotten fact that this was the usual way of explaining one’s desire to a slave.”

​Twain’s initial perceptions of India would lead him to travel the subcontinent and spend longer there than at any other place else on his trip, crossing and re-crossing it many times on trains, but never ceasing to marvel at the people he encountered. He met two gods out of the two million. He actually devotes 26 chapters of Following the Equator to India. In The Innocents Abroad he generally does not have much that is nice to say about either the treasures or the personal toilette of Europeans; still, his rapture in India a reader might not predict. It is doubly odd that a man who only a few years earlier was shocked and somewhat disgusted in Hawai’i, as recorded in yet another travel narrative, Roughing It (1870), at the partial nakedness of Hawaiian women and on another voyage have hair-raising frights in the Azores. In India he is a part of those crowds of people of every description. Twain was the “innocent” of The Innocents Abroad

Jeanne Campbell Reesman is the Jack & Laura Richmond Endowed Faculty Fellow at University of Texas, San Antonio. She has authored or edited dozens of books, many related to Jack London, and is currently working on Mark Twain Versus God: The Story of A Relationship.

“Buy It, Laugh, & Grow Fat”: The 1869 Reviews of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad

At the Center for Mark Twain Studies we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s first book. Sales of The Innocents Abroad began on August 10, 1869 and soon thereafter reviews started appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive. Twain was already a well-known writer and lecturer who many journalists regarded as one of their own. This affinity, as well as the aggressive and innovative marketing strategies of the American Publishing Company, may have help secure good press for the book. Many editors expressed their appreciation at being sent gratis copies and many of the same papers which reviewed it also had advertising contracts with the publisher and/or local book agents. That said, the work was clearly capable of living up to the effusion. Many editors chose simply to reprint excerpts from the text.

Below I have collected a series of blurbs from the first wave of reviews which appeared during the remaining months of 1869. This is not a comprehensive collection, but the selections I have made, I hope, demonstrate something of the critical consensus that developed around what many characterized as a groundbreaking travel narrative. I have tried to include excerpts from both metropolitan and small-town papers, and from various regions of the country.

“The propriety of filling a book of six hundred odd pages with mere jokes may be questioned. But it is not questionable that, if this be granted, ‘Mark Twain’ has produced a very laughable and enterprising book. No American book of travels, except Ross Browne’s ‘Yusef,’ is written with the same humorous spirit, and certainly none contains so much genuine fun…The book does not profess to instruct, and it does not. It aims to entertain, and it does. There is a genuine American tone about it which is refreshing to see after the snobberies of some other American travellers.” – Buffalo Morning Express (August 18, 1869)

“Certainly, Mark Twain succeeds is dispelling many of the old traditions which travelers have so long inflicted upon a confiding and long-suffering public. He has gone over the ground with a genuine Yankee spirit; determining to see everything that is to be seen, to see it thoroughly and like a man of sense. To go into ecstasies over but few things, and to speak the plain, unvarnished truth under all circumstances. And this truth is told to us in such a winsome form that we cannot but listen to it with agreeable sensations. Throughout runs an undercurrent of genuine native humor. Not what we are so apt to accept as such, and which is principally remarkable for its vulgarity and insipidity, but a real, crisp, tangible wit, that speaks in every line of the vitality, the vigorous honesty of the man, and of how fully he is imbued with all the better of the national characteristics.” – New York Express (August 20, 1869)

“If any one, troubled with hifaluten notions, contemplates a trip to the old world, he had better read this book before he makes the trip. It will greatly improve his self-respect and make him appear better than if he went and put on the unnecessary airs that many do.” – Rutland Daily Herald (August 23, 1869)

“Mr. Clemens has an abominable irreverence for tradition and authority, – which sometimes unfortunately degenerates into an offensive irreverence for things which other men hold sacred, – and makes not the slightest hesitation at expressing his opinions in the very plainest possible language, no matter how unorthodox they may be. There is nothing he fears to laugh at, and though some people may wish that he had been a little more tender of the romance of travel, it is certainly refreshing to find a tourist who does not care what other tourists have said before him.” – The New York Tribune (August 27, 1869)

“Unlike the majority of American humorists, Mark Twain never indulges in bad spelling and worse grammar, which vulgarities most frequently comprise the joke. He uses nothing but good Anglo-Saxon, and when the readers laugh, as they will many time over and over, merriment arises solely from the subject written of, not from the manner in which it is written, and is therefore all the more enjoyable. ‘The Innocents Abroad’ is undoubtedly an oasis in the desert of works on foreign travel with which we are deluged at the present day. We have read it throughout with great pleasure, and if Mark Twain will do no worse in future efforts at bookmaking we’ll always heartily welcome him to our desk.” – New York Herald (August 31, 1869)

“The volume abounds in pleasant incident, racy description, and incongruous scenes, which, depicted by the pen of one who has so keen a perception of the ridiculous and so bold a purpose to expose it, gives a book unusually readable, and with burlesque enough in it to satisfy the veriest lover of the grotesque in Christendom.” – St. Louis Globe Democrat (September 6, 1869)

“Mark Twain always interesting, in this book has outrivaled himself. It is instructive, humorous, racy, full of quaint expressions that make you laugh unexpectedly, and before you are quite ready; critical, sometimes caustic, but always good natured; never prosy or wearisome. You begin the book and do not want to leave it till the last line is reached. Mark never describes a place or sees a sight as others do. His is intensely original; and for us there is where the charm lies.” – New Jersey Standard (September 24, 1869)

“There is no writer of the present day who can begin with Mark Twain in weaving into a story fact and fiction, philosophy and humor, so as to excite the risibles beyond control, and at the same time without violating the rules of good taste, in either the orthography or syntax of our language. Mark is a trump, and his book is a gem of the first water. – Buy it – laugh and grow fat.” – Wyndette Commercial Gazette (September 25, 1869)

“We must truthfully say that we had no idea so much humor, wit, geniality, fine description and good sense, could be contained within the covers of any one book…Our sides ache, and we lay aside the book to rest, and to advise our friends and readers, one and all, to buy the book at the first opportunity, and read it through.” – Monmouth Inquirer (September 30, 1869)

“Criticism of the work is almost impossible; as sufficient gravity of countenance for the purpose can hardly be maintained over the volume. To think of, or look at it, is to smile, but to read it is to overwhelm all criticism with uncontrollable laughter.” – Public Weekly Opinion (October 5, 1869)

“The standard shams of travel which everybody sees through suffer possibly more than they ought, but not so much as they might; and on readily forgives the harsh treatment of them in consideration of the novel piece of justice done on such a traveller as suffers under the pseudonym of Grimes. It is impossible also that the quality of the humor should not sometimes be strained in the course of so long a narrative; but the wonder is rather in the fact that it is strained so seldom.” – William Dean Howells, Atlantic Monthly (December, 1869)

150 Years of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad

On August 11, 1869, Samuel Clemens received his first copy of Innocents Abroad while visiting the Langdon home in Elmira. He signed it and presented it to Olivia Langdon, his fiance. The book described the inaugural cruise of the Quaker City steamer, aboard which Sam had met Charley Langdon, Olivia’s brother, as well as first laid eyes upon her visage, in a photo Charley carried with him.

Livy’s approval of this book would signal that Sam had succeeded in making himself respectable, or respectable enough. During the composition, he had been determined to create from the trip something more than the humorous sketches which he had published as newspaper dispatches. Something less vulgar and cynical, but also something which would demonstrate his ability to use his literary talent and celebrity to provide a stable, comfortable lifestyle for his new wife, as she was accustomed to.

Clemens wrote to his publisher, Elisha Bliss, the next day: “I was at Elmira yesterday and saw the book, and my faith in it has all come back again. It is the very handsomest book of the season and you ought to be very proud of your work. It will sell. Between us we will make it sell.”

Sell it did. More than 70,000 copies in the first year. Though Twain would write a series of bestsellers, none would surpass the total sales of Innocents, which remained a reliable money-maker for the remainder of his life.

Over the next several weeks, we will continue celebrating the anniversary of this work.