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

“Gray lizards, those heirs of ruin, of sepulchers and desolation, glided in and out among the rocks of lay still and sunned themselves. Where prosperity has reigned, and fallen; where glory has flamed, and gone out; where beauty has dwelt, and passed away; where gladness was, and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity. His coat is the color of ashes; and ashes are the symbol of hopes that have perished, of aspirations that came to nought, of loves that are buried. If he could speak, he would say, Built temples: I will lord it in their ruins; build palaces: I will inhabit them; erect empires: I will inherit them; bury your beautiful: I will watch the worms at their work; and you, who state here and moralize over me: I will crawl over your corpse at the last.” (387)

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Mark Twain was inspired to write these words by visiting the “Holy Land.” He saw both the decline of the Ottoman empire and the relics of ancient empires that existed in the Levant. In the same section, Mark Twain suggest that the tourists, himself and his companions on the voyage, were not much better than grave robbers or perhaps necrophiliacs in their fetish of these fallen worlds. He uses the term “tomb-desecraters” for his companions, adding that “whithersoever they go they destroy and spare not.” (390)

The second half of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad continues the adventures of the band of mostly Christian tourists on board the Quaker City as they explore all the required sites of the Mediterranean. After braving their way through France and Italy (including a risky venture to the known dangerous Mt. Vesuvius). They prepared to head to Russia and the Ottoman Empire, two empires frequently at war. Thankfully they survive all of this and return home safely have their experiences documented by the then obscure Western writer Twain. They will live on in history as some of the great explorers of the nineteenth century.

The dark cloud over The Innocents Abroad is the end of wild spaces. Even the apparently underpopulated regions of the Ottoman Empire that they visited were prepared for the tourists, with all the necessary wares, transportation modes, and proper sites. I suppose it is much worse today, as Holy Land tourism is booming. Twain acknowledges the tedium of tourism when the Quaker City reached a Russian city (Odessa I think), where there was nothing important to see according to the guide books. Of course, this created an interesting moment in which they group could enjoy a slightly more authentic day, without having everything planned, arranged, and commercialized. In contrast is the visit to the pyramids where they were surrounded by people eager to take them to the summit. “Of course we were besieged by a rabble of muscular Egyptians and Arabs who wanted the contract of dragging us to the top—all tourists are.” (496)

I rather enjoyed the moments documented by Twain when the ship’s crew got a good laugh at the tourists’ pretentions and self-confidence. These sailors were more likely than the middle and upper class tourists to be real adventurers. After bumping into the Russia royalty while in Southern Russia during their Black Sea component of their tour, the Americans fell into awe of the spectacle of the empire. I never quite understood what Americans (or British for that matter) saw interesting in the British royal family. I suspect that the answer to why—despite an anti-monarchical revolution—Americans still like to gawk at nobility can be found somewhere in this book. Anyway, on the return to the ship, the sailors had some good fun recreating the silly tourists and the feeble attempts impress the Russian nobility. One suspects the sailors had no such desire to lick the boots of those authority figures. They particularly enjoyed mocking the silly address that the tourists wrote. The sailors have a point, as Twain realizes. It did open with the silly: “We are a handful of private citizens of America, travelling simply for recreation,—and unostentatiously, as becomes our unofficial state—and therefore, we have no excuse to tender for presenting ourselves before your Majesty.” (321)

I think there is something quite fascinating about the Ottoman Empire’s relative success at diversity. This was not uncommon in early modern Asian empires (the Manchu Qing and the Mughals had similar ethnic openness), but did run against the trend of nineteenth century European empires based as they were on scientific racism and nationalism. I am less pro-imperial than I am anti-nationalist, and I find the apparent ease at which the Ottomans lived with diversity fascinating and something we can learn from. Twain certainly noticed that during his visit to Constantinople and other locations in the Empire. At the same time, Twain was impressed with how modern Constantinople seemed to him. He felt the railroad to the city looked out of place.

Twain saves his most depressed commentary on empire for the journey through the Holy Land, which he constantly sees as a tomb, depopulated and abandoned. (Now I know that some ink has been spilled over these descriptions in respect to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The suggestion has been made, I forgot by whom, that Palestinians are an invented people. That Twain saw so few of them in the 1867 suggests that they were not true occupiers of the region. According to my reading, the region was sparsely populated by a diverse group of people,—“particularly uncomely Jews, Arabs, and negroes”— but I will let the experts go at it). The vision of an impoverished and devastated “Holy Land” is clearest in his descriptions of Magdala, full of “vermin-tortured vagabonds,” beggars, and the crippled. It seems Jesus checked out before he completed his task. These places where which were more “wild” in the sense of being untamed by profit motif are easily seen by tourists as backward and dangerous.

palestine

I found the most powerful moments in this book to be Twain’s often sad commentary on the fate of empires and the relationship of a forward thinking people without history to the past. I am reminded suddenly of the Chinese tourist who defaced an Egyptian artifact. Such a crime is only possible from someone who has lost all connection to their own past and is thus unable to respect the past of the others. But how is it better to fetishize the past? In any case, the defacement of the Egyptian tombs started when they were opened up to tourists, not when the Chinese youth took out his carving knife.

The engraving by a Chinese student

The engraving by a Chinese student

Egypt, Open for business

Egypt, Open for business

 

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.”