150 Years of Innocents Abroad: The American Vandal in Venice

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.[1] 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.[2] 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 beautiful

Innocents 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.[3] 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[4]).  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).[5] 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)


[1]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.

[2]“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.

[3]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).

[4]Nathalia Wright, in American Novelists in Italy, Michael L. Ross, in Storied Cities: Literary Imaginings of FlorenceVenice, 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.

[5]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).  

Works Consulted

PRIMARY SOURCES

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.

SECONDARY SOURCES

Beauchamp, Gorman. “Mark Twain in Venice,” Midwest Quarterly: A Journal of Contemporary Thought.” 38.4 (Summer 1997): 397-413.

Buzard, James. “A Continent Of Pictures: Reflections On The ‘Europe’ Of Nineteenth-Century Tourists.” PMLA: Publications Of The Modern Language Association Of America 108.1 (1993): 30-44. 

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.

Madigan, Francis V.  “Mark Twain’s Passage to India: A Genetic Study of Following the Equator.”  Ph.D. diss., New York University 1974.

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. 

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.