A Journalist's Archive

The Innocents Abroad
Mark Twain
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

 When Mark Twain boarded the Quaker City in 1867 headed for Europe and the Holy Land he was about as sophisticated as any hay-seed boy on his first visit to the "Big City."

Along with his trunk, he packed his American idealism and values.  And like many modern-day travelers he expected the entire world to be following those standards. Fortunately, Twain also took his humor, satire, great writing style, and an ability to learn from his adventure. His travel journal published under the name "The Innocents Abroad" is an exercise in growth and discovery. Furthermore, his witty description of the voyage is responsible for jump-starting the American tourists industry. Since its publication millions of Americans have packed their bags journeying back to the “old country.”

Our search of the world only leads us to a better understanding of ourselves, and that was true for Twain also.  What I found to be so amusing about his book is that nothing about travel has changed since Twain’s cruise except the means of transportation.

Half of the enjoyment of travel exists in the anticipation of the adventure to come, and the same was true for Twain.  Advertised in all the major newspapers, the cruise was billed “as a picnic on a gigantic scale with the finest people stopping in the most exotic ports.” Yes, even back in the 1800's exaggerations were in vogue in the travel business.

But the itinerary was impressive even by today’s standards.  Leaving New York in June, the ship would reach the Azores within 10 days, stopping at St. Michaels for a few days so the passengers could enjoy the wonders of the Caribbean.  Then it was on to Gibraltar and Marseilles with side trips available to Paris and Switzerland.  Every major port from in Italy from Genoa to Sicily, with rail trips to Florence and other historic sites were on the agenda.  While that would be enough even for the most jaded jet-setter, tourists on the Quaker City were probably only going to make this journey once in their lifetime so the cruise continued on to Constantinople and the Holy Land with the pyramids in Egypt as the ultimate destination.

Advertisements claimed, “Only 150 of most upstanding citizens selected by an elite committee would be allowed to join the excursion,” after paying their $1250 passage and setting aside $5 in gold per day for additional travel expenses.  According to the ads, celebrities such as General Sherman, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, and a famous actress were among those all ready signed-up for the voyage, but somehow they were side-tracked before the ship left the port.  No doubt Sherman thought it would be easier to battle the Plains Indians than make the arduous journey.

Adventure losses its luster under the cloud of reality.  The wave of seasickness that hit passengers on board the Quaker City as it steamed towards Europe was the first hardship to remove some of the glamour of the excursion.   Next, the beauty of the ports they visited was overshadowed by the hordes of beggars that hung on their sleeves each time they disembarked. Then there were the hustlers who always knew the best shops with the finest silk suits or leather goods.  However, it was passengers own expectations of finding American standards in a foreign land that really sabotaged their enjoyment the most.

According to Twains journal, the “elite passengers” were some of the first ugly Americans, a trait he recognizes in others but not himself.  He writes about a boorish American who yells for wine in Paris, but then informs the reader that after hiring the second tour guide his traveling companions decide to call every guide “Ferguson” because it’s too difficult to pronounce their real names.  His group launches a futile search for a European barber who can provide a shave like the ones they get “back home,” and Twain compares every lake in Europe to Lake Tahoe, with none of them quite reaching its beauty. 

But Twain’s keeps the adventure moving.  His satirical accounts of the numerous religious relics spread throughout Europe, including enough pieces of the true cross to build an armada, are hilarious.  He is also hit be what modern day travelers refer to as “museum overload” even growing to hate Michelangelo after viewing an endless amount of art in Italy.

As the trip continues, Twain reports their triumphs and mishaps.  Readers will cheer him and his companions on as they defy quarantine orders so they can visit the Acropolis, and laugh at their inaptness when they try haggle with a boatman for a ride on the Sea of Galilee.  Finally, after all Twain’s complaints and his indifference too many famous world sites it was comforting when the pyramid of Cheops and the sphinx leave him breathless.   He describes the sphinx as “Gazing out over the ocean of time, thinking of wars of departed times, of empires it has seen created and destroyed.”

“The Innocents Abroad” was Twain’s first national bestseller.  The journey provided abundant material for at least eight other novels including “A Tramp Abroad” and “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”  By the end of the voyage Twain comes to the conclusion that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many need it sorely on these accounts.”

Few of us will get to travel to all the places Twain visited, but reading “The Innocents Abroad” is may be our next best option.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2006 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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