The Innocents Abroad: Mark Twain’s Seminal Narrative


“The Pilgrim’s Vision.” Frontispiece image from The Innocents Abroad.

The Innocents Abroad is Mark Twain’s seminal work, a six-hundred-page narrative of his experiences traveling across the Atlantic and touring around the Mediterranean. His first full-length book and his best seller throughout his lifetime, it launched his wide-spread popularity and gave him a professional identity eventually placing him alongside the literati Brahmins of the nation. Moreover, it secured his role in the public imagination as an uncompromising and authentic American spokesperson. Two key facets of the intertwining of Twain’s career arc with travel are vital to appreciating the centrality of The Innocents Abroad to his success.

First, the opportunity to travel abroad in style was an enormous break for Twain. The “Quaker City pleasure excursion” was a widely publicized event, what Twain would call “a picnic on a gigantic scale” in the opening pages of The Innocents Abroad. Its itinerary promised a grand tour of the Old World for well-heeled tourists to enjoy a five-month experience of a lifetime. In 1867, Mark Twain could not claim the social status or economic security to match those who were being recruited into the cabins of the Quaker City. To be sure, Twain had enjoyed some modest success via his journalistic sketches written in the West, but he was by no means a household name, and his bank account was anemic put up against other tourists signing on with the Quaker City adventure.

Second, this fortunate break not only gave him a job for the duration of the tour, but it also launched him into a productive immersion into travel writing, a professional relationship that would sustain him for over thirty years. Travel writing, a mash-up of varied literary forms, allowed a structural and tonal freedom far beyond most genres. Though literary preferences have granted more respect to fiction since his time, the marketplace for nonfictional travel proved much more lucrative to nineteenth-century writers. Many of the most respected writers of the age benefited from working in the genre. Mark Twain was one of them and, to any objective mind, the best of the lot.

The remarkable accomplishments that followed the Old-World tour in 1867 blur the more stark reality of that year regarding his professional prospects. Five months shy of turning thirty-two years old, Mark Twain faced a more uncertain future than most people today would assume. As a not-so-young correspondent scraping together a living word by word, his effort to secure a spot on the Quaker City was a bold move. To the benefit of all of us, he realized the potential of that good fortune to claim an incomparable legacy in popular American imagination.

He persuaded the editors of the San Francisco Alta California to pay for his passage and support him as a roving correspondent. He also drew in the New York Tribune and New York Herald. All in all, he was obligated to submit well over a hundred letters during the tour, a challenge far beyond his experience to date. [1] His arrangements with the periodicals gave him enough financial support to allow Twain to becoming “select” (24), a legitimate passenger on board what many have hailed as America’s first pleasure cruise. Although other members of the excursion party published travel letters from the journey, only Mark Twain was dependent on the labor of his pen to justify his position on board.

However, most of Twain’s shipmates—those he would refer to as “pilgrims”—firmly defined the enterprise in solemn tones, and they carried themselves with the profound heft of such serious-mindedness. Although the investors in the tour originally expected to tout high profile patrons like General William Tecumseh Sherman and Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, in the end, the passenger manifest could only offer up one semi-celebrity: the “the wild humorist of the Pacific slope,” Mark Twain, a personality more comfortable with in the group he would call “sinners.” As it turns out, the only reason anyone has cared about the Quaker City pleasure excursion since its completion is because Mark Twain wrote and published the best travel book by an American in the nineteenth century, The Innocents Abroad.

Travel Writing in the Nineteenth Century

Mark Twain was not simply a competent budding journalist but also a remarkably intuitive chronicler of his times who simply needed the proper forum: travel writing. He had shown some promise with his travel sketches to the Sandwich Islands (Hawai’i), which no doubt granted publishers the confidence to invest in the venture. This five-month tour gave him the world as subject with the opportunity to employ a keen eye on human behavior, with all of its foibles and absurdities. Moreover, the episodic nature forced few restrictions on his evolving voice. In short, being a roving correspondent granted him space also to explore his roving imagination.

Travel literature is a varied and overlapping genre that combines the characteristics of journalism, autobiography, fiction, history, anthropology, and political analysis among others into a smorgasbord of narrative interpretation. As a composite literary form, it resists neat categorization. It does, however, exhibit certain conventions that set it apart from other more focused forms of writing. In the case of nineteenth-century America, patterns and themes emerged that provide a valuable record of the genre and its readers’ implicit expectations. [2]

As a nonfictional form that offered writers much latitude (that’s a travel pun), travel writing nonetheless implied obeyance to patterns and tropes to match reader expectations. Writers were obligated to inform and to entertain readers, who reasonably expected travel narratives to teach them about the world that most would never see and to do so with an entertaining style and a lively balance of interests. In addition to those broad and obvious facets, travel readers also expected to be comforted. In other words, as readers encountered often confusing and even challenging cultures and customs, they also needed reassurance of the validity of their own, an emotional port of call that affirmed the familiar as well as the new. The best travel writers shared a wide range of beliefs and behaviors in an ostensibly objective manner, but most narratives still maintained an abiding sense of respect for home that comforted, even flattered, the American reader’s sense of the rightness of their existing worldview.

A few examples of how Twain met demands for instruction, entertainment, and comfort can help explain the conventions while also exploring his capacity both to follow and subvert them to the delight of readers. As with other travel writers, Twain splices a wealth of informative material into his narratives, and almost any page included examples. In reporting events during his visit to Italy, for instance, Twain provided an instructive passage responding to one of its most revered sites, the Milan Cathedral, which demonstrates the type of instructive material common in travel books:

I like to revel in the dryest [sic] details of the great cathedral. The building is five hundred feet long by one hundred and eighty wide, and the principal steeple is in the neighborhood of four hundred feet high. It has 7,148 marble statues, and will have upwards of three thousand more when it is finished. In addition, it has one hundred and thirty-six spires–twenty-one more are to be added.

The Innocents Abroad (180)

I can assure you that Twain did not have a tape measure during his tour in Milan, and he certainly did not count the statues. Like all travel writers, though, he has access to guidebook information and tour guides, etc. He includes such data, however, not as filler, as modern readers too often assume, but as context and texture. Twain’s accounts of well-known landmarks are extensive and precise for the most part, and such “details” represent a large and vital portion of his narrative tour.

I hasten to add that Twain, while capable of meeting simple conventions, also found ways to subvert them as well. Note this passage of “information” appearing later in the narrative: “Jaffa has a history and a stirring one. It will not be discovered anywhere in this book. If the reader will call at the circulation library and mention my name, he will be furnished with books which will afford him the fullest information concerning Jaffa” (606). This playful passage acknowledges reader expectations but in doing so mocks them at the same time. Both are part of his nuanced understanding of conventional demands.

All in all, touring with Twain can be a highly instructive experience, with some qualifications, to be sure. Of the over 600 pages of text in The Innocents Abroad, few lack substantive informative content. Readers counted on such material to ground their own experiences in a world of fact and justify their investment as a worthy endeavor.

In addition to expecting a travel book to teach, readers certainly wanted the experience to be an enjoyable one, so travel writers typically included as much emotional stimulation as possible. Of course, instructive material in and of itself holds an explicit value, especially for readers compelled to seek opportunities to educate themselves. Many of these readers would, perhaps, disparage obvious attempts to play to their lighter interests in amusements and fancies. The best writers, nonetheless, built into their narratives entertaining material designed to appeal to readers’ conscious and subconscious needs for pleasure.

“Homeless France.” Image from The Innocents Abroad (p.107).

For example, in describing the French countryside, Twain writes, “What a bewitching land it is!–What a garden!” After expounding rapturously on the beautiful orderliness of the landscape, Twain elaborates with ongoing fervor:

We had such glimpses of the Rhone gliding along between its grassy banks; of cosy cottages buried in flowers and shrubbery; of quaint old red-tiled villages with mossy mediaeval cathedrals looming out in their midst; of wooded hills with ivy-grown towers and turrets of feudal castles projecting above the foliage; such glimpses of paradise, it seemed to us, such visions of fabled fairy-land!

The Innocents Abroad (105)

This passage is not ironic. Twain’s description is stock romantic reverie shared with readers who desired that sort of enthrallment. Such emotional energy, even if unappealing to stern critical eyes, can also be entertaining by evoking an energy born of enthusiasm. Quite simply, joy is contagious. Such romantic styling does not undercut Twain’s realist credentials. Rather, these passages among others testify to his artistry.  By balancing his shrewd cynicism with a dream-like exuberance, Twain ensures that readers trust him on both counts. He evokes the immediacy of travel with strong emotional responses—and exclamation points!

Such entertaining passages are common, but Twain employs darker appeals as well. In Paris, like most tourists of the time, he delves into the macabre:

“The Morgue.” Image from The Innocents Abroad (p.132). Note: image cropped to remove inset.

Next we went to visit the Morgue, that horrible receptacle for the dead who die mysteriously and leave the manner of their taking off a dismal secret. We stood before a grating and looked through into a room which was hung all about with the clothing of dead men; coarse blouses, water-soaked; the delicate garments of women and children; patrician vestments, hacked and stabbed and stained with red; a hat that was crushed and bloody. On a slanting stone lay a drowned man, naked, swollen, purple; clasping the fragment of a broken bush with a grip which death had so petrified that human strength could not unloose it–mute witness of the last despairing effort to save that life that was doomed behind all help. A stream of water trickled ceaselessly over the hideous face.

The Innocents Abroad (132-33)

With gruesome detail–“delicate garments of women and children” and “doomed beyond all help”—and sensational language–“hacked and stabbed and stained with red”–Twain creates a tragic spectacle. Though he goes on to criticize the desires for such morbid fare, such material is a key component of travel writing in Europe, which was often exploited as opportunity for Americans to be shocked and thrilled by Old-World decay.

As to comforting readers, Twain employed many time-honored techniques, from simply noting the pleasure he and his comrades took in seeing other Americans abroad (while also sometimes roasting their behavior) or in celebrating July 4th on board the Quaker City, to more nuanced affirmations of American sensibilities, which could include prejudices and bigotry. Often Twain stands against boorish behavior and attacks mean-spiritedness, but he also reflects some core attitudes common in American travel writing to the Old World.

One key example of such content is the underlying anti-Catholicism that permeated much of American responses to Europe in particular. Upon entering a cathedral in Venice, Twain explores a rather common juxtaposition of images:

All about that church wretchedness and poverty abound.  At its door a dozen hats and bonnets were doffed to us, as many heads were humbly bowed, and as many hands extended, appealing for pennies–appealing with foreign words we could not understand, but appealing mutely, with sad eyes, and sunken cheeks, and ragged raiment, that no words were needed to translate.  Then we passed within the great doors, and it seemed that the riches of the world were before us!

The Innocents Abroad (257)
“The Contrast.” Image from The Innocents Abroad (p.258).

Of course, one reason so many writers in the nineteenth century commented on such a striking and pathetic contrast is that it was often evident, especially in areas frequented by tourists. There is no doubt that poverty plagued European city streets and that many cathedrals exhibited staggering wealth, yet the carefully constructed language that captures these scenes reflects the expectations of Protestant American tourists in Catholic Europe. Twain is consciously trying to elicit pity and outrage in his readers, and he does so by constructing the picture with stock pathos, as the poor approach him (and his readers) with “heads humbly bowed,” “sad eyes” and “sunken cheeks.” He follows with the countering picture of “the riches of the world” within the cathedral, and thus, by implication, within Catholicism itself. This is a powerful passage but a stock one, familiar to readers and, without a doubt, expected, given the commonality of such passages in travel writing of the era.

Finding a balance between appreciating the rest of the world without judgment or condescension while also affirming the cultural values of readers is a primary challenge for any travel writer. The genre demands attention to detail, a range of interests, and a capacity to create a sense of immediacy, all in a committed effort to instruct, entertain, and comfort. The brief examples above hint at the breadth and depth of similar passages covering the range of Twain’s style throughout the narrative. He proved quite capable of mastering this narrative balancing act, a skill revealed throughout The Innocents Abroad.

The Old World in Pictures

As a narrative technique for sharing key visual representations of other parts of the world, descriptive passages are essential components of effective travel writing, and they often incorporate the standard conventions of travel writing discussed above. Twain was especially adept at creating such passages to help readers enjoy often complicated encounters vicariously. The descriptions of sites as a series of paintings, still-life experiences translated to the page rather than canvas, was a obligatory facet of travel narratives, but such content only becomes cliché in the words of inferior writers. Twain did not have that problem.

A few examples should help demonstrate his skill. In his first formidable encounter with a culture highly different from all that he had ever known, Twain shares a particularly evocative image of a street scene in Tangier, Morocco. It becomes the definitive first contact with something he believes to be wholly “foreign” on the cruise, and it evokes the excitement potential of travel. His reaction to the sights captures unbridled enthusiasm:

Tangier is the spot we have been longing for all the time. Elsewhere we have found foreign-looking people, but always with things and people intermixed that we were familiar with before, and so the novelty of the situation lost a deal of its force. We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign–foreign from top to bottom–foreign from centre to circumference–foreign inside and outside and all around–nothing any where about it to dilute its foreignness–nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! In Tangier we have found it.

The Innocents Abroad (76)

Rhetorically, Twain’s conspicuous repetition of “foreign” highlights the readiness of the tourist abroad to see sights wholly different from those available at home. This passage also confirms a central contradiction in travel wherein tourists seek novelty but also inevitably characterize what they see as “other,” as representing a contrasting worldview. This is unavoidable, but it also is prone to judgmental responses. [3] Within the narrative—with Twain as authoritative voice and readers almost exclusively sharing his worldview—the street scene in Tangier epitomizes the “other” as such representations often appear in travel essays.

Within the original experience that Twain is reporting, however, the contrasting point is obvious: Twain and his fellow tourists are the foreigners in Tangier. He witnesses people simply going about their normal daily lives, but Twain’s job as a travel writer is to capture a scene that is far from “normal.” In one of the few direct addresses to his readers, Twain closes this episode with a powerful suggestion: “Isn’t it an oriental picture?”

Tourists can identify the “foreign” by its difference from home, but to define it they need a preconceived image, a picture. In the case of Tangier, it is an “oriental picture.” Twain’s reactions, then, must be based on what he expects to see. Though he has never been to Tangier, he has an idea of its appearance based on the “oriental pictures” posited in his mind from his own travel reading, and it is these pictures to which Twain responds rapturously. The reality of the scene thus gains value by matching his expectations for the strange, the exotic, the “foreign.” Meanwhile, the people on the street are unaware of the narrative frame within which they exist in the rhetorical flourishes of travel writers. The effect for readers, though, is meant to evoke the excitement of novelty and the pleasure of immediate experiences.

Twain notes that he has previously “mistrusted” pictures of the Orient because of their seeming exaggeration. Witnessing street life in Tangier, he acknowledges that the pictures he held previous to the tour inadequately match the strangeness of the real. For a helpful parallel, let us take a look at another “oriental picture” in The Innocents Abroad. Much later in the tour, Twain visits Constantinople and encounters a street scene strikingly similar to that in Tangier, yet the “oriental picture” he frames in this instance differs significantly from the earlier experience:

Ashore, it was–well, it was an eternal circus. People were thicker than bees, in those narrow streets, and the men were dressed in all the outrageous, outlandish, extravagant, thunder-and-lightning costumes that ever a tailor with the delirium tremens and seven devils could conceive of. There was no freak in dress too crazy to be indulged in; no absurdity too absurd to be tolerated; no frenzy in ragged diabolism too fantastic to be attempted. No two men were dressed alike. It was a wild masquerade of all imaginable costumes–every struggling throng in every street was a dissolving view of stunning contrasts. Some patriarchs wore awful turbans, but the grand mass of the infidel horde wore the fiery red skull-cap they call a fez. All the remainder of the raiment they indulged in was utterly indescribable.

The Innocents Abroad (358-59)

The “stunning contrasts” of this subsequent “oriental picture” no longer thrill the tourist in Twain as they did in Tangier, so the picture he provides for his readers back home exudes a comic tone bordering on the negative; a mirthful exuberance is replaced by annoyance and disdain. The variety in dress so compelling if “weird” in Tangier has become in Constantinople “outrageous,” and “outlandish” and thus repulsive.

These two episodes capture the vagaries of travel as Twain is able to convey nuances of human behavior and perception that belies the assumptions of objectivity for travel writing and, for that matter, our interpretations of “foreign” encounters. Taken together, these passages represent numerous other similar descriptions and help illustrate the sometimes inconsistent but always compelling force of Twain’s visual expressions of the Old World.

As the days, weeks, and months pass, the tour inevitably taxes the energy (and enthusiasm) of any tourist, and the foreignness so charming and enticing at the beginning soon becomes tiresome indeed. Twain, like all travelers, is fickle and inconsistent, but he comes across as relentlessly honest in scene after scene. Specifically, as the Quaker City moves steadily around the Mediterranean Sea, Twain’s most pleasant moments coincide with a return to the ship, especially in the Holy Land and Egypt: “It was worth a kingdom to be at sea again” (609). The power of novelty has diminished. Tourists and readers alike have learned and have been entertained, but they were increasingly craving the comforts of home.

Returning Home

“Homeward Bound.” Image from The Innocents Abroad (p.635).

As the narrative draws to a close, Twain provides a benediction of sorts in his conclusion. He does not erase the complicated and often contradictory series of experiences, but he does offer a way for fellow travelers and readers to be a peace with the experiences and their import. Twain’s concluding observations are prescient: “Yet our holyday flight has not been in vain–for above the confusion of vague recollections, certain of its best prized pictures lift themselves and will still continue perfect in tint and outline after their surroundings shall have faded away” (650).

The last three paragraphs of The Innocents Abroad deliver a meditation, a romantic summary of the five-month excursion as a series of actively constructed and edited remembrances. Twain moves us again through the entire tour and highlights the most special and endearing moments–“pleasant France,” “majestic Gibraltar,” “the delicious atmosphere of Greece,” and “venerable Rome.” With no hint of skepticism, he describes St. Peters in Rome as standing “full of dignity and grace, strongly outlined as a mountain” (651). This passage can apply to all of the images he recounts. Using these mellowed descriptions together with the soft repetition of “we shall remember” helps to lull Twain and his readers into the realm of dream, a somnambulant journey of pleasing images, all “perfect in tint” with their blemishes wonderfully “faded away.”

The Innocents Abroad demonstrates emphatically that Mark Twain well-earned his passage on the Quaker City pleasure excursion. The narrative consistently reveals not only how well he understood the tropes and conventions of travel writing but also how perfectly they matched his imagination. The Innocents Abroad serves as a watershed in the history of American travel writing as it tapped into a zeitgeist of American culture ready to take on the world without hesitation or deference. In completing the tour and his masterwork of travel writing, Mark Twain also transformed himself in the process. He established himself as a formidable American voice who would go on to define the cultural dynamism of the nation for the rest of the nineteenth century, a legacy that remains radiant.

[1] See Dewey Ganzel (listed in “suggested readings”) for information on the letters and his contracts with the periodicals.

[2] For helpful studies of American travel writing in the nineteenth century, see: James Buzard, The Beaten Track (New York: Oxford UP, 1993); Terry Caesar, Forgiving the Boundaries (Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995); Lewis Perry, Boats Against the Current (New York: Oxford UP, 1993); William W. Stowe, Going Abroad (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1994); and Larzer Ziff, Return Passages (New Haven: Yale UP, 2000)

[3] Discussions of applications of the term other in literary and cultural studies are numerous, but for an especially helpful study of tourist behavior, see John Urry, The Tourist Gaze (London: Sage, 1990). For the seminal text exploring cultural issues directly related to the passages discussed, see Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978).

Suggested Readings

Beidler, Philip. “Realistic Style and the Problem of Context in The Innocents Abroad.” American Literature 52.1 (1980): 33–49.

Bridgman, Richard. Traveling in Mark Twain. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Leon Dickinson. “Mark Twain’s Revisions in Writing The Innocents Abroad,” American Literature 19.2 (1947): 139-57;

Ganzel, Dewey. Mark Twain Abroad: The Cruise of the Quaker City. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968.

Harold Hellwig. Mark Twain’s Travel Literature: The Odyssey of a Mind (Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 2008).

Richard S. Lowry. “Framing the Authentic: The Modern Tourist and The Innocents Abroad,” New Orleans Review 18.2 (1991): 18-28.

Bruce Michelson, “Mark Twain the Tourist:  The Form of The Innocents Abroad,” American Literature 49.3 (1977): 385-98.

—-. “Fool’s Paradise,” Mark Twain on the Loose (Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1995): 39-93.

Hilton Obenzinger, American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999).

David E. E. Sloane, Afterword, The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain, The Oxford Mark Twain, Ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin (New York: Oxford UP, 1996): 1-18.

Henry Nash Smith, “Sinners and Pilgrims,” Mark Twain: The Development of a Writer (Cambridge: Belknap/Harvard UP, 1962): 22-51.

Jeffrey Steinbrink, “Why the Innocents Went Abroad: Mark Twain and American Tourism in the Late Nineteenth Century,” American Literary Realism 16.2 (1983): 278-86;

Larzer Ziff, “Mark Twain,” Return Passages (New Haven: Yale UP, 2000): 170-221.

Jeffrey Melton is Professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama. He is author of Mark Twain, Travel Books, and Tourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement (2002) and co-editor of Mark Twain on the Move: A Travel Reader (2009). He has published articles on Mark Twain, humor, and travel writing in Studies in American HumorSouth Atlantic ReviewStudies in Travel Writing, and the Mark Twain Journal, among others. He has contributed essays to Mark Twain in ContextMark Twain’s Geographical Imagination, and A Companion to Mark Twain. He is past President of the American Humor Studies Association and co-founder of the Society for American Travel Writing.

Professor Melton has participated in a number of CMTS events, including:

  • Jeffrey Melton, “Nature and Mobility in Mark Twain’s Roughing It“ (October 2, 2021 – Quarry Farm Barn)