Mark Twain: “The Innocents Abroad” (1869): Part One

With this post, I start looking at the Library of America Volume containing The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It. As always, page numbers are from the LOA editions. If you need to track down a citation I hope you will not have difficulty locating the right volume. I will be reading these chronologically, which will necessitate moving between volumes.

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The Innocents Abroad is Mark Twain’s first book-length work, constituting a travelogue of his participation in a tourist voyage in 1867. The Quaker City voyage was the first American cruise ship to visit Europe and the Holy Land. Over the course of several months, it visited North Africa, France, Italy, Russia, and various locations in the Ottoman Empire—including the Levant. We can divided the participants in this voyage into a few groups. The tourists, of which Mark Twain was one, were mostly upper class (the cost of $1,250, plus expenses would have made the trip impossible for most Americans). Twain’s fee was covered by one of the newspaper he was working for, hoping to profit by publishing the letters and observations that resulted. Most of the group were Christians eager to visit the Holy Land and other religious sites, such as those in Italy. Another group is the crew of the Quaker City, who reflect the only working class element on the trip and often are there to mock the pretention of the tourists. Broadly speaking a third group are the numerous people in the different ports hoping to profit from the growth of American tourism. It is surprising how well prepared some of the locations and people were for American tourism (although the results are often comical). The Innocents Abroad came out in 1869 and is mostly a collection of the letters he wrote during the trip and some of his public comments in the following years. The first half of—this very long—book deals with the European part of the voyage.

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Let me first say that I find tourism a rather vulgar business. I am a historian who would rather visit a towns most popular clubs than its historical landmarks. I share with Twain his belief that travel can help shatter prejudice and provides an education, but in most cases tourism is something else and this apparently has not changed much since the 1860s. One travels to predetermined places—based on a guide book or on the dictates of a travel company. The sites a tourist sees are those that are deemed important. These locations are often overrun with vendors. Tourists take photos, which create a false memory of their time. While this describes a contemporary tourist package, it is not so different from what Twain went through in 1867. I much prefer living in a city for a long period of time, studying it from a gutter’s eye perspective. Anyway, enough of that. Tourism is a bourgeois luxury anyway, but what makes it odious is its fakeness.

We are therefore surprised that Twain is able to juxtapose the various locations he observes with the reality of social inequality in industrializing Europe. When viewing Versailles, a place people go to witness the grandeur of monarchical France. But around the corner: “All through this Faubourge St. Antoine, misery, poverty, vice and crime go hand in hand, and the evidence of it stare one in the face from every side. Here the people live who begin the revolutions. Whenever there is anything of that kind to be done, they are always ready.” (125) Notice with me that Twain sees these marginalized figures as historical actors, all the while his main purpose as a tourist is to visit dead places. Even though he fears that “Louis Napoleon had taken care of all that [revolutionary potentialities],” he does seem to place history in the hands of those on the bottom.

Quaker City

Quaker City

Twain is very interested, throughout The Innocents Abroad, in the tourists’ relationship to the past. He is quite aware that he is not even being shown an accurate view of the past, which leads to his wonderful entertaining sketches poking fun at how places such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the Coliseum are presented. Very enjoyed attempting to translate these sites into Americanisms, as when he wrote a handbill for the Roman Coliseum. However, he does know that a more authentic past is never shown to the tourists, and indeed cannot be shown to them. This comes home to us in his thoughts on the Venetian archives. He knows the riches that this archive contains and he also knows it is hidden to him. “They fill nearly a 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.” (186) Of course the group is taken instead to the standard sites.

The reader experiences with joy, Twain’s descriptions of the often silly attempts by the towns in Italy to prepare themselves for American tourists. It is an ignoble beginning of a long tradition. My favorite was poorly translated signs promising the best rooms in Italy. But honorable mention goes to the stores that advertise having English speaking staff only to disappoint. Despite communication difficulties the locals sell their wares and advertise the relics of their town or city, and the American tourists come away thinking they saw something grand. I suppose I should not be too hard on them.

I do not want to over interpret any of this book. Twain clearly wrote it to give a pleasurable and humorous account of naive, rushed, and materialistic Americans—people without a past—visiting places with deep pasts. He enjoyed exposing the silly differences between Americans and the people he met (read the section on Europeans relationship to soap for a good laugh). What we find when we put people without a past to historical sites is a debasement of their value. They become reflections of their own desires and perspectives. I feel at times that Twain is showing that it is truly impossible for Americans to understand the historical burden that these places contain. The Coliseum, for instance, for American Christian tourists is a site of martyrdom. Twain is unique in trying to see it as a place of community gathering, not unlike the theater. So this is the fundamental problem with tourism. Twains brilliance is his use of American “innocence” to expose elements of the real history underlying the regular “historical sites.”

 

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