Getting Innocent

EDITOR’s NOTE: August of 2019 marked the 150th anniversary of the publication of Mark Twain’s first book, The Innocents Abroad. We are celebrating the sesquicentennial with a series of short essays by scholars who have done extensive research and writing about the travel book and the voyage it describes.

This essay relates how I began my deep study of The Innocents Abroad. This is a bit of a convoluted tale, so I hope readers will be patient.

In April 1986 I participated in a debate sponsored by a college in southern California on how to achieve Israeli Palestinian peace. I was on this panel because I was an outspoken Jewish American critic of Israel’s policies and of Zionism as an ideology. I had written a book of poems and sketches exploring Jewish American experience outside of the typical Zionist framework, engaging in histories of Jews, Native Americans, and Palestinians. Published in 1980, This Passover or the Next I Will Never be in Jerusalem received the American Book Award. As a consequence of writing this book, I was invited to Beirut to meet with Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders on the eve of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, I became an editor and columnist for a periodical advocating Palestinian rights, and I was invited to speak at book events, lectures, panels, interviews, and debates around the country. 

This particular debate was with two extreme rightwing Zionists who advocated expanding Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land. A Palestinian businessman was supposed to join me on the stage, but when it became clear that our two opponents were not just supporters of Israel but extremist settlers, he decided not to participate. He would not argue with settlers; he didn’t want to legitimize them in any way. Besides, what was the point of arguing with people who wanted him to disappear? That left me to grapple with the two by myself.

In the course of the debate, one of my opponents argued that Palestine in the nineteenth century was a barren, backward, underdeveloped country, and Arabs actually benefitted from Jewish colonization, which brought economic development along with productive people to an empty land. This argument that land underutilized by “the natives” is up for grabs has been part of the arsenal of colonizers for centuries, initially termed “The Doctrine of Discovery,” and we are well aware of the results in North America.

In order to bolster the argument that Palestine was empty, my opponent read passages from The Innocents Abroad of Mark Twain’s impressions of the Holy Land. The passages by Twain were themselves incorporated within a demographic study of Palestine by Jane Peters, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine (1984). “Mark Twain,” Peters writes, “in his inimitable fashion expressed scorn for what he called the ‘romantic’ and ‘prejudiced’ accounts of Palestine after he visited the Holy Land in 1867.” She quotes several passages describing desolation and fraud: “’Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes . . . desolate and unlovely . . .’ Twain wrote with remorse.” While the debate moved on to other, more immediate issues, this irked me. I don’t object to using literary texts to make political or cultural points outside of the novel or poem, if done with respect to the original. But in this case Twain was being used for somewhat crude political purposes, and I was enraged. 

Peters’ From Time Immemorial employs other quotations from Twain, along with references to books by William Thomson, William C. Prime, Bayard Taylor and other American and European travel writers in order to assert that the people who are known today as “Palestinians” are in fact Arabs from neighboring states who came to Palestine between 1946 and 1948 because they were attracted to the prosperity of Zionist settlement; consequently, today’s latter-day migrants seek to usurp the genuine, ancient Jewish claim to the land through a misconceived national movement. This argument flows from a long-established tradition that justifies Jewish colonization of Palestine at least in part because the land was, in their eyes, virtually uninhabited – “a land without a people for a people without a land,” in the words of the old Zionist slogan. Twain’s authority as an American cultural icon was enlisted to enhance this outlook. 

It’s worth noting that Peters’ book received many glowing reviews among U.S. supporters of Israel, notably Saul Bellow, while other scholars, such as Edward Said and Norman Finkelstein, debunked it thoroughly, dissecting sources and quotations to reveal distortions and outright lies. “There Were No Indians,” New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis titled his January, 1986 column highlighting the book’s fraudulent scholarship and colonialist outlook, while many Israeli scholars dismissed From Time Immemorial as a worthless exercise in propaganda. I was aware of all of this when my opponent deployed Peters’ book as a weapon. But the abuse of Mark Twain grated me the most.

In 1986 the Israeli occupation was trying to recruit mayors and other local leaders on the West Bank to serve in a “civil administration” to maintain the occupation themselves. However, to assist the occupation meant collaborating with the enemy to the PLO, and they threatened severe consequences for whoever joined what they considered the quisling civil administration. The few mayors and others who had joined the civil administration were assassinated to enforce this boycott – and the Israeli effort to bypass the PLO and its own responsibility for ruling over the people collapsed. My opponents spoke of this situation, relating how Palestinians are barbaric, willing to kill their own just because those collaborators wanted to help their people. I answered with sorrow that such killings do happen by people living under occupation of a foreign power. I pointed out that those living under occupation have taken harsh measures, including assassinating collaborators, such as the French resistance during the Second World War. The problem for my opponents was that they regarded the Palestinians as the occupiers and not, as the rest of the world believed, the Israelis.

Then one of the settlers muttered, “Well, you’re a Jew collaborating with the enemy, so . . . “ I took that in with a shock, and a few people in the audience gasped. He didn’t need to finish the sentence. What he was saying was clear: “Are you threatening to kill me?” I asked. My opponent was wise enough to keep his mouth shut at that point, but the not-so-subtle threat remained. Now, in addition to abusing Twain, he actually threatened to kill me in front of hundreds of people and on a live college TV broadcast. I was astonished – and pissed off.

After the event I decided to read The Innocents Abroad. I had read much of Twain’s work but not this travel book. I was driven to read it to seek revenge for the literary crime that was committed by misusing Twain – and for the death threat. The book delighted me, I loved Twain’s satirical laughter, and I realized the book was incredibly complex, more than a source for quick political or cultural swipes. I wrote an essay for a literary magazine that lacerated From Time Immemorial and began a discussion of Twain’s journey through the Holy Land.

The rage against Peters’ abuse of Twain propelled me to dig into all of Twain’s work, as well as to discover the breadth of Holy Land travel books in the nineteenth century, especially Herman Melville’s neglected poem-novel Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage in the Holy Land, the other focal point of a study that ended up being my late-in-life dissertation at Stanford University, eventually published as American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania (Princeton, 1999). 

I won’t repeat the analysis in American Palestine – I urge you to read it, if you haven’t already – except to say that much of Twain’s satire is fueled by rejection of the sentimental religiosity of the era’s typical Holy Land authors, such as William Prime (who was ridiculed as Grimes in Twain’s book). Palestine was, to be sure, an undeveloped backwater of the Ottoman Empire, but like most tourists, Twain had little idea what he was observing. For example, he did not realize that a boom in cotton due to the American Civil War had collapsed after the war came to an end and the American South’s crops returned to the market, plus locust plagues had caused the harvests for the last three years to fail. He regarded an Arab guard who had to accompany his party as a nuisance and a fraud, not realizing that the presence of a guard was part of a political agreement between factions negotiated by the Ottoman authorities, a symbolic presence with no expectations of actual violence. Even when he complained of the lack of roads, “he was unaware of the Ottoman policy, mistaken as it may have been, which preferred Jerusalem’s isolation to allowing troops of Europeans to turn the Holy City into ‘a Christian Madhouse’” (American Palestine, 163-164). 

American Palestine was well received, and as an indication of the soundness of its scholarship, Israeli scholars with whom I have sharp political or philosophical disagreements have drawn from it as a source. That was a test: even my (less extremist) political adversaries respected my study, even if they reached completely different conclusions. By the time American Palestine was published, I had no need to mention the 1986 debate 13 years earlier, and my interest and involvement in Twain, Holy Land Studies, American literature more broadly, and settler-colonial studies went far beyond that first clash. After publishing American Palestine I was invited to write chapters in scholarly journals and books about other works by Twain, as well as about Melville and American Holy Land studies and settler colonialism, including “Better Dreams: The Philippine-American War and Twain’s ‘Exploding’ Novel,” “‘Pluck Enough to Lynch a Man’: Mark Twain and Manhood,” “Going to Tom’s Hell in Huckleberry Finn,” “Naturalizing Cultural Pluralism, and Americanizing Zionism: The Settler Colonial Basis to Early-Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought,” and “American Palestine: Mark Twain and the Touristic Commodification of the Holy Land.” 

As I tell friends: If anyone abuses an author that I love and then threatens to kill me, I will exact revenge by writing a book.

One final note: I am purposely vague about other people and institutions so they can decide how much to reveal of their identities and actions for themselves. 

Hilton Obenzinger is a poet, novelist, historian, and critic. He is currently Associate Director of The Chinese Railroad Workers of North America Project at Stanford University, where he has also served the American Studies, Modern Thought & Literature, and Writing programs. His most recent of his ten books is the poetry collection Treyf Pesach (2017)

Works Cited:

Obenzinger, Hilton. American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999.

____. “‘Pluck Enough to Lynch a Man’: Mark Twain and Manhood.” In Critical Insights: Mark Twain, ed. R. Kent Rasmussen (Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2011).

“Naturalizing Cultural Pluralism, Americanizing Zionism: The Settler 

Colonial Basis to Early-Twentieth-Century Progressive Thought.” South Atlantic Quarterly. 107.4 (2008).

“Better Dreams: The Philippine-American War and Twain’s ‘Exploding’ Novel.” Arizona Quarterly 61.1 (Spring 2005).

“Going to Tom’s Hell in Huckleberry Finn.” In Blackwell Companion to Mark Twain, ed. Peter Messent and Louis J. Budd. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

“American Palestine: Mark Twain and the Touristic Commodification of the Holy Land.”  In The United States & the Middle East: Cultural Encounters.  Ed. by Abbas Amanat and Magnus R. Bernhardsson. New Haven: The Yale Center for International and Area Studies, 2002.

Peters, Joan. From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.