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Notes from the Reeves Chair: Traveling with Twain -- The Book That Suits – and Offends − Everybody
Written by Jeffrey Hammond, Professor English and George B. and Willma Reeves Endowed Chair in the Liberal Arts
My favorite Mark Twain book got its start in 1867 when a relatively unknown 32-year-old writer talked the editor of San Francisco’s Alta California into paying his fare aboard the steamer Quaker City headed to Europe and the Middle East. The result was a series of letters that appeared as Sunday installments. These letters, revised and supplemented with additional material, were published two years later by the American Publishing Company of Hartford, Connecticut. Advertised as “the Book that suits everybody,” The Innocents Abroad sold 70,000 copies by subscription in its first year. It remained Twain’s best-selling book throughout his lifetime.
The Innocents Abroad should have been promoted as “the book that offends everybody.” Indeed, its popularity seems at odds with Victorian America’s obsession with moral propriety. And yet, this popularity makes perfect sense when we remember that every satirist is, at root, a moralist. You can’t make fun of a thing without envisioning a better alternative.
The chief object of Twain’s satire was one of the West’s most hallowed institutions: the pilgrimage. The inner pilgrimage – a spiritual journey to a more godly self – reached back to St. Augustine, but its classic embodiment in English literature was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progess. Twain’s subtitle, “The New Pilgrims’ Progress,” proclaimed his intention to write a comic echo of Bunyan’s Puritan allegory. Physical pilgrimages to holy places began when St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, located various Palestinian sites associated with the life of Jesus. In terms of the outer pilgrimage, Twain’s chief inspiration was The Canterbury Tales: Chaucer, too, was far less interested in the spiritual aims of pilgrimage than in the human foibles that emerged along the way.
With the decline of religion fostered by the Enlightenment, the pilgrimage got secularized in America as the “Grand Tour” of Europe, a mandatory rite de passage for any truly cultured person. The Grand Tour undertaken by the Quaker City voyagers encompassed pilgrimage in both its older and newer senses: the itinerary included the religious shrines of the Holy Land and the cultural shrines of Europe. For Twain, this blend of religious pietism and cultural snobbery provided an irresistible target: The Innocents Abroad surveys the Old World origins of the same corrosive “civilization” that Twain would attack 15 years later in Huckleberry Finn.
In ridiculing the American tendency to idealize all things European, he spared few targets: the mindless adoration of artistic “masterpieces,” the worship of antiquity for its own sake, the misguided romanticizing of the Middle Ages, and what he considered to be superstitious elements in traditional Christianity. This last theme emerges with special clarity in the Holy Land, where Twain constantly exposes a jarring contrast between the Bible-colored lenses of the Quaker City pilgrims and the harsh realities of Middle Eastern life.
Although the book could have been called When Worlds Collide, Twain does not pose a simple contrast between a brave New World and a stale Old World. His unflattering depiction of the American pilgrims makes this reading impossible: they are jingoistic, ignorant, pretentious, and sometimes cruel. They torment guides and restaurateurs for sport. They chip fragments from venerable buildings for souvenirs. They complain when creature comforts are not up to their standards. Twain’s pilgrims, “innocents” not in any propensity toward the good but in how little they know about the wider world, foreshadow the Ugly American that would become an international cliché during the 20th century. Twain makes it difficult to know whom to root for: the Old World prisoners of tradition, or the New World bumpkins who feel superior to every tradition they encounter.
And this, of course, is precisely what makes The Innocents Abroad so funny. Anyone with a comic sensibility knows that attacks on others do not rise to true humor unless the self is targeted as well. There’s a world of difference between saying “you’re crazy” and saying “we’re crazy”: while the second statement is funny, the first is just mean. Twain’s deeper “moral,” to use a very un-Twain-like word, is that we are all victims of our preconceptions. Far from being an ode to American novelty and pragmatism, The Innocents Abroad lampoons the universal incomprehension prompted by cultural biases. While Twain’s most immediate targets are mental and perceptual templates fostered by romanticism, he attacks preseeing in all its forms: the human habit of letting our beliefs distort what’s right before our eyes.
Twain’s better alternative – his implied antidote to cultural blindness – is seeing and thinking for oneself. While the Old World fetishizes its history into a resistance toward any progress, the New World fetishizes progress to the point of rendering history irrelevant except as a source of tourist destinations. For Twain, folks on both sides of the Atlantic needed to rise above manufactured sentiments and knee-jerk responses.
In the end, The Innocents Abroad “suits” everybody because it attacks everybody: Its real target is what Twain would later call “the damned human race” – including the book’s cynical, judgmental narrator. “Pilgrim” comes from the Latin peregrinus, which had connotations not simply of a traveler, but of a stranger and wanderer. As the book confirms, we’re all strangers somewhere. We’re all wanderers, too, stumbling through the darkness by whatever light we manage to generate for ourselves, insisting with every step that our particular light is light itself.
In Twain’s original subtitle, “Pilgrim” was singular, not plural: the “new pilgrim” was the correspondent himself, who was as deeply flawed as his fellow travelers. Comic confirmation of the narrator’s cultural blinkers emerges in a memorable scene at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. There, at the traditional site of the Crucifixion, he stumbles upon the alleged “tomb of Adam.” Medieval Christians linked Adam to the site because they considered Christ to be the new Adam and Golgotha to be the center of the world. For Twain, however, Adam’s tomb holds a decidedly narcissistic significance: “How touching it was, here in a land of strangers . . . to discover the grave of a blood relation.” Indicting himself along with the whole damned human race, Twain mocks his own delusions as the newest Adam: the American version who stands confidently at the center of his own perceptual world.