In the years following the Civil War, Cleveland was one of the wealthiest and largest cities in America. Its prime location on Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River made it ideal for manufacturing and transportation. Its population grew alongside its industries.
The U.S. Gilded Age was good for the city. As business and people took root, so did cultural institutions and neighborhoods.
It was this booming American city that the country’s soon-to-be most famous writer visited in 1868, and several other times over the years. Not only did Samuel Clemens visit Cleveland, the city he almost called home served a pivotal role in his life.
Mark Twain’s relationship with the city of Cleveland is explored in my new book, Mark Twain’s America Then and Now, published in October 2019 by Pavilion Books.
Cleveland is one of more than 69 significant places in Clemens’ life journey that are visited in the book. Together, they tell the story of man for whom a sense of place, and home, was of utmost importance. A man who wrote “I am wild with impatience to move — move — Move,” to his mother in 1867.At the time, he was preparing for a formative international voyage, the Quaker City cruise to Europe and the Holy Land.
Little did he know, this man wild to move, that he was just in the early chapters of his biggest adventure: a lifelong journey to reinvent American literature while making Mark Twain the most famous pen name in the world. It was for this reason that tracing Clemens’ biography through the geography of his life made sense.
Many of the most essential places in Clemens’ life are well known: Hannibal, Mo.; Virginia City, Nevada; Hartford, Ct.; Elmira, NY. But his life passage was filled with many formative stops, from Buffalo, NY to Keokuk, Iowa, to New Orleans, and, yes, Cleveland.
Clemens’ first visit was linked to that fortuitous Quaker City cruise.
While on the Quaker City, Clemens befriended a wealthy society matron named Mary Mason Fairbanks. Though she was only seven years older than him, he dubbed her Mother Fairbanks. She was the wife of Abel Fairbanks, the co-owner of the Cleveland Herald, Cleveland’s first daily newspaper. She was a college educated woman, mother of two, and a writer herself. She was also a member of Cleveland’s burgeoning upper class, which included families such as the Rockefellers and Hannas and Mathers and other residents of Millionaires’ Row. This world famous stretch of Euclid Avenue was compared to the Champs-Élysées and Fifth Avenue for its collection of wealth and beauty.
On the Quaker City, Mary Fairbanks was traveling under her nom de plume, Myra. She and Clemens quickly bonded. “Mother Fairbanks” was far more than just a wealthy wife. Sam called her the “most refined, intelligent and cultivated lady on the ship.” He trusted her so much that he let her edit the dispatches he was sending back to the Alta California. She was traveling with another wealthy Cleveland matron, Emily Severance, and came to view both Clemens and 17-year-old Charley Langdon as young “cubs” in need of her advice — in life, love and writing.
It was a friendship that would last 32 years. Mother Fairbanks’ influence on Clemens was extensive in the early years of their relationship.
So it was no surprise that when Clemens was struggling with his writings about the Quaker City as well as trying to woo Livy Langdon, who would eventually become his wife, he turned to the other writer he had met on the cruise.
But this wasn’t just a social visit. Clemens had decided to throw himself full-force into his new lecturing career. He lined up an extensive 26-date tour that began in Cleveland.
The choice was not random. Given his newspaper connections, Clemens felt he could earn good reviews in town, something that would help boost the tour.
He did, and not just from the Herald.
“The most popular American humorist since the death of poor Artemus (Ward), made his first bow in Cleveland Public…Mark Twain has reason to feel gratified pride at the pleasant and satisfactory impression he made upon the immense audience,” raved The Plain Dealer.
Clemens spent the better part of two months in Cleveland, preparing for his November lecture debut.
Mother Fairbanks provided much guidance, on how to court a refined lady and conduct oneself in society, but more importantly on his Quaker City stories, which would eventually become The Innocents Abroad. Clemens had lined up his schedule without his talk yet written. He had given a lecture called Pilgrim Life, Being a Sketch of His Notorious Voyage to Europe, Palestine, Etc,. earlier that year, but wasn’t sure if he wanted to do the same again.
He decided to rewrite Pilgrim, which had been criticized for its irreverent portrayal of the Holy Land, and retitle it The American Vandal Abroad. With his book slated for an early 1869 release, the tour would be an ideal way to promote it, too.
Mother Fairbanks agreed, in theory. The refined lady had strong opinions on Clemens’ mean-spirited article about the trip in the New York Herald, as well as some of his book drafts. She thought he should rein in his more sarcastic tendencies that were likely to offend the passengers, the audience …and herself.
She proved a benign influence, toning down Clemens’ baser instincts and impetuousness, leading to a leaner, funnier and more benevolent narrative. Clemens allowed her to read and edit his draft several times as he worked in the Fairbanks’ St. Clair Avenue house. He also allowed her to throw a reception in his honor, introducing him to Cleveland society as “reformed prodigy.” He would spend more than a few nights carousing with the younger male residents of Millionaire’s Row thanks to her introductions.
The Fairbanks helped Clemens promote the speech he would eventually deliver on November 17 at Case Hall, a 1,200 seat Victorian-Italianate lecture hall built in 1867, on Superior Avenue, not far from the Herald. Previous speakers at the hall included Horace Greeley and Henry Ward Beecher.
In the Herald, Mary Fairbanks was even more effusive than The Plain Dealer in one of three stories on Mark Twain’s Cleveland lecture. (Conflicts of interest were apparently not of concern.)
“For nearly two hours he held them by the magnetism of his varied talent,” she wrote. “We shall attempt no transcript of his lecture, lest with unskillful hands we mar its beauty, for beauty and poetry it certainly possessed, though the production of a profound humorist.”
This glowing review helped Mark Twain add more dates across the country. Eventually, it would grow from 26 dates to 40, through March of 1869.
In just one year, the Herald would again figure prominently in Clemens’ life when he made a bid to become co-owner with Abel Fairbanks.
“Livy, I guess that after all I shall become interested in this ‘Herald,’ and then you shall be managing editor – that is to say, you’ll manage the editor,” Twain wrote from Cleveland on Dec. 30, 1868. “I think we’ll live in Cleveland, Livy…But I don’t think we’ll live in the Avenue yet a while, Livy – we’ll take a back seat with Mrs. Fairbanks, in St. Clair street.”
Alas, Abel Fairbanks raised the asking price and Clemens was forced to pursue other career paths. The paper ended up closing in 1885, two years after the Fairbanks sold their interest before moving to Omaha, Nebraska.
It was a deal that clearly worked out well for Clemens who went on to much greater things that running a midwestern newspaper – after a stint at the Buffalo Express, which his father-in-law bought a stake in following Clemens’s 1870 marriage to Livy Langdon. Clevelanders today must wonder what their city might have been like if Mark Twain had made it his permanent home.
Though he chose not to live in Cleveland, Clemens did return to the city that played an important role in his formative years in 1895. Again, the visit was of high significance. Facing bankruptcy, Clemens had been forced to return to the road to repay his debts.
An ambitious international speaking tour of Australia, New Zealand, India and Africa was planned. But it began on familiar territory. Very familiar territory.
Mark Twain kicked off his world speaking tour on July 15 at the Music Hall in Cleveland, the city that had served him so well launching his 1868 tour. Opening night would be followed by 140 other dates and would take more than a year. Domestic tour dates were billed as Mark Twain Reading and Talking. Overseas, the lecture was called Mark Twain at Home.
The show was announced in The Plain Dealer on July 7. His old friends Abel and Mary Mason Fairbanks were long gone, so he couldn’t count on a rave review from her to boost the tour. Clemens stayed at the new Stillman Hotel on Erie Street while he prepared.
Music Hall, opened a decade earlier on Bond and Erie streets, was the town’s largest gathering place, a steep, foreboding building that could seat 4,000; it burned down just three years later
Clemens needn’t have worried about the press. Raved The Plain Dealer, “His immense shock of hair has turned nearly white, but his humor is just as vigorous and his style as entertaining as ever.”
Once again, Cleveland had helped launch Mark Twain.
For more on the many places across the country that helped shape and inspire Mark Twain, from small-town Missouri to Mississippi river cities to the Wild West, Hawaii and the great cities of the East, check out Mark Twain’s America Then and Now (Pavilion Books, 144 p) The book features 69 locations, with more than 200 vintage and new photos.
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. 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. 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. 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). 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). 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.
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.
“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.
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).
Nathalia Wright, in American Novelists in Italy, Michael L. Ross, in Storied Cities: Literary Imaginings of Florence, Venice, 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.
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).
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.
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 theEquator.” 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.
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.