Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) is one of the least widely read and most critically-reviled books in Mark Twain’s corpus, and justifiably so. It was written under duress, on the brink of financial crisis. Twain sought to stave off disaster by writing a three-quel.
But, while The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) had both been composed and carefully revised over spans of several years, the first half of Tom Sawyer Abroad was written in three weeks, and the entire novel went from conception to completion in five months. It would prove to be one of the final books released by Twain’s publishing house before it succumbed to bankruptcy following the Panic of 1893, forcing Twain, not unlike the characters in the novel, to tour the globe.
The imperfect circumstances of its composition show in the finished product, but Tom Sawyer Abroad is not without its charms, including several laugh-out-loud scenes which demonstrate Twain’s rising outrage at European colonialism and American imperialism.
In the very first chapter, Tom Sawyer, the personification of Americans’ worst instincts, as usual, proposes to Huckleberry Finn and Jim that they mount a crusade to the Holy Land. “What’s a crusade?” Huck asks, setting up the following exchange:
TOM: “A crusade is a war to recover the Holy Land from the paynim.”
HUCK: “Which Holy Land?”
TOM: “Why, the Holy Land – there ain’t but one.”
HUCK: “What do we want with it?”
TOM: “Why, can’t you understand? It’s in the hands of the paynim, and it’s our duty to take it away from them.”
HUCK: “How did we come to let them git hold of it?”
TOM: “We didn’t come to let them git hold of it. They always had it.”
HUCK: “Why, Tom, then it must belong to them, don’t it?”
TOM: “Why of course it does. Who said it didn’t?”
Tom Sawyer Abroad was produced at the very outset of the Zionist movement. In just the year preceding when Twain set this exchange to manuscript, William Blackstone produced “Palestine For The Jews” (1891) and what would become the Israeli flag was hoisted at Zion Hall in Boston.
The emergent Zionism in Europe and the US is explored in great detail in Hilton Obenzinger’s American Palestine (Princeton UP, 1999), a book which was inspired by Zionist’s selective appropriation of Twain’s earlier commentary on “the Holy Land” in Innocents Abroad (1869). Obenzinger detailed the origins of this research for the Center For Mark Twain Studies a few years ago.
As Obenzinger describes it, during a debate with Zionists in 1986, “my opponent read passages from The Innocents Abroad of Mark Twain’s impressions of the Holy Land” which allegedly supported the position “that Palestine in the nineteenth century was a barren, backward, underdeveloped country” and Israel brought “a productive people to an empty land.”
Though Obenzinger’s book unpacks and thoroughly debunks this pernicious myth, it remains a common refrain from Zionists. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has been citing Twain to support this argument since at least 2000, when he mades passages from Innocents Abroad central to his book, A Durable Peace.
Half a dozen block quotes from Innocents Abroad appear in just the preface and opening chapter on “The Rise of Zionism.” Netanyahu positions Twain as not only a happenstance visitor to the now contested region, but as an expert, who “knew the history of the land in considerable detail” and “was up to date on the contemporary conditions of the Jewish people,” unlike, Netanyahu adds, “many of those who shape, and receive, opinions about Israel today.”
Echoing the “productive people to an empty land” slogan, Netanyahu writes, “It is to this land, virtually as barren and lifeless as it was when Mark Twain and Arthur Penrhyn Stanley visited it over a century ago, that Israel is now bringing life.”
In 2009, Netanyahu allegedly gifted a copy of The Innocents Abroad to President Obama, who had, like basically every U.S. president, expressed admiration for Twain. And the pernicious “empty land” myth, with Twain as preferred source, continues to circulate, with what seems like increased intensity since October 7, as I can testify since I have sometimes been tagged in social media posts which perpetuate it.
I am not any kind of expert on the history of the Middle East, but what I can say with expert knowledge is neither is Mark Twain.
The Innocents Abroad is a notoriously unreliable narrative with three consistent objects of satire: evangelical Christianity, wealthy Americans, and popular travel writing. It is not a work of rigorous history or even an earnest effort to record the observations of a 19th-century traveller. It’s a travel book about how people who write travel books are often full of hokum.
As was common in Twain’s works, especially in the 1860s, the burlesque narrator is as much an object of the satire as his fellow “pilgrims,” all of whom are frequently presented as bumptious, ignorant, and careless “American vandals.” Like the rest of his traveling party, the narrator makes numerous mistakes when describing the settings he visits, contradicts himself constantly, harps on logistical trivialities, and entirely omits major sites of interest.
Twain sometimes breaks character to sit in judgment of the pilgrims, but this only confuses things further, as it is difficult to tell whether he is offering a sincere remonstration or performative hypocrisy. And he frequently occupies both positions – proud pilgrim and disgusted critic – in rapid succession. For instance, in a dispatch for the New York Herald on November 20, 1867, he wrote, “The people stared at us everywhere 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 American greatness until we crushed them.” But only five paragraphs later concludes “[I deny] that a party more ill-suited, by age and awful solemnity, for skurrying around the world on a giddy picnic, ever went to sea in a ship since the world began.”
The obvious (and intentional) inconsistency of Twain’s narrative position means anybody who chooses to read The Innocents Abroad as disinterested history is fooling themselves. During one description of Palestine, the narrator exclaims his disappointment with the territory’s prospects for producing timber and coal, the commodities which had made many of the passengers of the Quaker City into nouveau riche cretins. In another, he imagines what kinds of irrigation systems could make it fertile enough to offset the Ottoman taxation structure. These are the parochial wonderings of an American who cannot perceive the world with anything but capitalist calculation and Christian prejudice. He is not an arbitrator of deep historical truths.
In the passages most cited by Zionists, Twain describes Palestine as “untenanted by any living creature and unblessed by any feature that is pleasant.” It is “desolate and unlovely,” “lies in sackcloth and ashes,” and is “inhabited only by birds of prey and skulking foxes.” What they do not acknowledge is how these descriptions are embedded within a satirical conceit targeted at naive Christians and missionary travel writers. The demeaning descriptions of “present Palestine” are juxtaposed with Biblical allusions, one might go so far as to call them cliches.
What Netanyahu misperceives as “the history of the land in considerable detail,” Twain recognizes as a highly suspect literature of Christian missionaries targeted at an audience of (deep-pocketed) American readers, most of whom will never venture across state lines, let alone the Atlantic Ocean.
In a letter to the Alta California Twain describes the “funny library” which had been assembled for the passengers of the Quaker City and which became a central object of his satire:
“We had nothing much on board the ship to read but travels in Palestine, and very naturally we got Palestine drilled into us thoroughly. All these books of travels managed, somehow, to leave with us a sort of vague notion that we were about to enter a modified form of fairy land. And so a bitter disappointment awaited us. The fairy land was modified too much…This has incensed us against all our Holy Land authors, and inclines us to say intemperate things about the land itself.”
There was no way for the reality of Palestine to match “the reading up of Bibles and Palestine travels” which the pilgrims had ecstatically been doing for weeks en route (and in some cases for much of their lives). And the failure of the Bible and the evangelical writers which preceded them to provide an accurate picture of Palestine leads the narrator and his fellow Christians to attribute the gap between what they actually see and what they had imagined to God’s wrath. Palestine only appears “barren and lifeless” if you come to it innocently expecting Eden.
But one need not do even this much interpretive work to reveal that Twain well knew that there were Palestinians in Palestine. In fact, in his dispatch to the New York Tribune titled “First Day In Palestine,” he describes it as a place teeming with indigenous people. He literally compares them to the “noble red man” of North America. With a mixture of pity and disgust, Twain describes the conditions in which they live and particularly the illnesses of their children, some of whom are treated by a doctor among the pilgrims.
With his characteristic blend of sentiment and satire, Twain describes a growing crowd, who “sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous, and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.”
This is Twainian cringe. He reproduces the racism of his American readers, their sense of white supremacy, accurately tinges it with Christian piety, then audaciously names the genocidal bloodlust which is its subtext, and reverses the binary. It is not the “truly Indian,” but the “white man” who is “savage” in his desire to “exterminate the whole tribe.”
With the hope of dispelling the idea that Twain should be held up as a reliable source for estimating the population density, economic development, or cultural practices of what is now Israel and Palestine, the Center For Mark Twain Studies has collected below the newspaper dispatches which describe Twain’s visit to this region in 1867.
All of the narrative inconsistencies of The Innocents Abroad, as I described above, are present in these as well. They are a mirror of the racism of the American pilgrims.