Sunday, March 21, 2021

The Innocents Abroad (1869)

According to Wikipedia, this early travel book by Mark Twain, his second book after a collection of stories, was his bestselling book during his lifetime and is still one of the bestselling travel books of all time. Certainly it established Twain's basic approach to the form: lighthearted, irreverent, anecdotal, and reasonably thorough as travelogue. This one details a long trip of several months, starting from and returning to New York. It ranges across Europe, into Russia, and then through the Middle East, which he calls "the Holy Land." He's skeptical and mocking of much that is European, much of that based on romantic literature. He's more long-faced and pious in the Holy Land, but his skepticism never disappears entirely. I was often struck by how old this book is now. Louis Napoleon was still emperor of France at the time. Jerusalem's population was 14,000 (today it is 874,000). We are closer in time to Twain than he was to the Crusades but they still feel fresh to Twain. His biases against Muslims are right on the surface and often unpleasant, while the European Christian Crusaders are lauded continually. Part of his problem with Muslims is the problem they have with Christians but I wouldn't say Twain is making himself part of any solution here—more like pandering to an audience. Still the book is interesting enough, packed with literary sketches of one sort or another, lots of short chapters and variation. The sights he sees and places he visits are worth it for seeing them from more than 150 years ago. In many ways Twain was a typical mixed-up American. He is reflexively antimonarchical yet also seems to believe aristocrats could well be superior, and not just for their advantages. It ends up as a strange mix of mocking and almost toadying—immature. It gets even worse in the Holy Land, although, in fact, it remains interesting to see the storied places of the Bible as they were in the mid-19th century—impoverished, Christian-minority, dry, featureless, unattractive. Again Twain is skeptical about some of the claims he encounters such as all the pieces he sees in churches of the "true cross," but he is also overcome by the sight of Calvary, or so he says. It's altogether an odd but often interesting enough travel journal.

In case the library is closed due to pandemic. (Library of America)

1 comment:

  1. I think he was an abolitionist throughout but doesn't become a full-fledged anti-Imperialist until near the end of his life, after the Spanish-American War.