Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 22, 2020

Traveling with Mr. Twain: The Innocents Abroad, Continued

In a previous post, I wrote about a steamship journey the writer Mark Twain made in 1867, which he related in regular newspaper dispatches. Those pieces were collected in the book, The Innocents Abroad. My focus in the first article was on the prodigious energy, ingenuity and — sometimes — luck required for Twain and his fellow travelers to carry out the ambitious itinerary that took them from New York to Europe, the Middle East and back.

The current pandemic has many of us constrained or entirely prohibited from traveling far from home. It’s an excellent time in which to travel vicariously by reading travel accounts.

How does The Innocents Abroad hold up as travel writing a century and a half later? How does it compare (or contrast) with travel journalism today?

The Young Journalist

Known today principally for his novels and short stories, Twain — 31 years old in ’67 — was then a journalist, still several years from his first novel, The Gilded Age, 1873, followed by The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876.

As a reporter/editor for a series of newspapers in Virginia City, Nevada and then San Francisco, Twain made a successful first foray as a travel writer, filing accounts of a trip from California to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) in 1866. In regular letters published in the Sacramento Union newspaper, he reported and commented on the culture, landscape, climate, cuisine and history of the islands. His account — interspersed with both humorous and critical portraits and anecdotes (not all entirely factual) — proved popular.

In 1867, Twain received an assignment for a journey on a larger scale: a voyage of several months that would visit numerous ports and cities in Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine, returning through Egypt and the Caribbean Islands.

Below, a photo of Twain as he appeared on the voyage, made in Constantinople in the studio of the accomplished Abdullah Frères.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens September 1-2, 1867, Pera, Constantinople

A General Approach to Innocents Abroad

It helps to bear in mind that Twain was writing to entertain at least as much as to inform. He wasn’t writing a travel guide; his dispatches are accounts of a first-hand experience. He states more than once that he assumes travelers will consult one or more printed travel guides. He doesn’t provide tips on places to stay, dine, how to arrange for transportation or any of the day-to-day business of traveling.

Twain assumed readers expected a point of view, interesting observations, anecdotes, and some insight into what those far-flung places were like.

As a result, instead of travel tips and “be-certain-not-to-miss” guideposts, we get what he thought of his travel experiences.

What Twain Says

The results can be highly informed reflections on the history of a place (despite having only a fifth-grade education, Twain was enormous well read), extraordinarily critical and prejudiced perspectives about the people and cultures he encountered, and they can also be hilariously funny.

Twain is almost never an objective commentator. Don’t expect only Mark Twain, humorist.

Religion is a good example of what I mean.

The greater part of the trip involved travel through Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim or Jewish cultures. Twain had a severe distrust of all organized religion. At the same time, he came from a Protestant American tradition, and he could in adjoining paragraphs write harshly about religions outside that sphere, then write just as scathingly about Protestantism. One long section about the Italian portion of his trip is nothing short of a diatribe against the influence, wealth and power of the Roman Catholic Church over the lives and livelihoods of ordinary Italian believers.

Not Politically Correct

The same sort of duality applies to Twain’s descriptions of the people he encountered. Unless you’re American or at least, from the former British Empire — you should arm yourself for The Innocents Abroad. Mr. Twain’s judgment can land harshly on every race, religion, culture, nationality, ethnicity, persuasion or world view. Even while appreciating that he was a visitor in another culture, he could be blatantly dismissive —derisive — of cultures that were not his own, simply for being different. Few, if any, travel writers today could do that and expect to be published in the regular press.

At the same time, it’s impossible not to admire how Twain could be simultaneously harshly judgmental and uproariously, piercingly funny in skewering how the wealthy of the world oppress those with less advantage — how governments, kings, religions enrich themselves at the expense of their citizens, subjects or believers. He spared no one, using every rhetorical trick he knew, and he possessed a wide range of them. In one sentence, he could lampoon a local governor or small-time potentate for amassing enormous wealth that impoverished the local populace, then mock those same locals who begged him for pennies at the dock or the train station.

It certainly must have been entertaining reading at home, and is, still. But it’s not a variety of travel writing to which we’re accustomed.

Looking at the Landscape

Perhaps one of Twain’s greatest gifts was his impressive ability to describe a landscape of impressive grandeur or beauty. He relished and helps us appreciate the mountains of the Alps, views of sunsets, moonlight on the ocean, picturesque prospects of ancient towns. He commanded a large vocabulary, and almost never resorted to cliche. Those passages, throughout the book, are some of his most memorable bits.

Then, true to form, he could in the next sentence heap derision on a travel writer who stood in the same spot, and whose guidebook fails miserably to appreciate the beauty before him. Twain sometimes could do that for great comic effect: mocking the irony that a respected travel writer failed to appreciate. He could also take the opposite tack, and heap scorn upon them. The unpredictability of how Twain would “come at” something is one of the pleasures of reading The Innocents Abroad.

Envoi

The Innocents Abroad is a book that might not still be in print were it not by Mark Twain. There’s some incomparable writing, capturing a world that in many instances no longer exists as it was.  The reading audience of 1867 no longer exists; Twain’s work is a look at another era of “travel culture.”

I’m pleased I read The Innocents Abroad. I recommend it, and hope that my caveats aren’t so strongly stated that you don’t give it a try. And then, yes, I expect to read Huckleberry Finn again, which will likely stand for all time as Twain’s masterpiece.

© Brad Nixon 2020. Photograph of Mark Twain by studio of Abdullah Frères, September 1-2, 1867, Pera, Constantinople. U.S. Library of Congress, public domain.


Responses

  1. Why do you rate HF higher than its predecessor The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, or Twain’s later works?

    Liked by 1 person


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