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.
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.