In 1867, Mark Twain signed up for one of the world's first package tours, hopping aboard the Quaker City and visiting Gibraltar, France, Italy, Greece, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Spain, and assorted other locales along the way. Several newspapers published his running commentary on the trip as it unfolded, and once home he collected and edited those articles into a huge travelogue titled The Innocents Abroad.

It seems highly unlikely that anyone would pick up this book nowadays based on its subject matter; you don't see huge runs on William C. Prime's 1857 Tent Life in the Holy Land. The drawing card here is that it's written by Mark Twain — and to a great extent this was true the day it was published. The drawing card was less the promise of exotic places than the popular young humorist who'd written that frog thing. Surely that irreverent scamp would have countless amusing anecdotes to relate!

And he does: at first The Innocents Abroad is written in much the same vein as The Celebrated Jumping Frog. There is some fairly weak comedy, mostly of the observational variety: seasick people are poor conversationalists! initially dedicated diarists quickly get bored! foreign guides have difficult names — let's call them all Ferguson! There are indeed some genuinely funny bits (the online tradition of playing dumb to torment newbies has a long and distinguished offline history), but there are more misses than hits. But as the book goes on, Twain's writing deepens. It becomes funnier, casting aside its long windups to blah punchlines for a sustained ironic tone that is much more successful; at the same time, it becomes more serious, as Twain seems to realize in the course of churning out pages what his raison d'être is.

See, what renders Twain's travels exotic to the 21st-century reader is less distance than time. For a few hundred dollars I can hop on a plane and see the Pyramids myself, but the infamous $70 time machine notwithstanding, I can't go to the 19th century America that Twain took as his starting point. It was, if not a Land Before Irony, at least one where irony was mostly dormant: romantic, sentimental, pietistic. Certainly this way the traditional manner in which to write about one's Old World travels. As The Innocents Abroad grinds on, more and more Twain takes ripping this tradition apart as his project. He ends up with nothing short of a deconstructionist travelogue.

It's not just a matter of calling a spade a spade and a sham a sham, though Twain seems to find almost everything he sees either fake or crappy or both. (His throwaway lines buried in the middle of paragraphs in this section of the book tend to be much funnier than his elaborately set-up punchlines in the first half. When he encounters the supposed residence of St. Veronica who wiped the sweat from Jesus's face, he notes, "The strangest thing about the incident that has made her so famous, is, that when she wiped the perspiration away, the print of the Saviour's face remained upon the handkerchief, a perfect portrait, and so remains to this day. We knew this, because we saw this handkerchief in a cathedral in Paris, in another in Spain, and in two others in Italy." About the rock in the Mosque of Omar: "This is very wonderful. In the place on it where Mahomet stood, he left his foot-prints in the solid stone. I should judge that he wore about eighteens.") It's also about the process of calling a spade a spade and a sham a sham. At one point Twain is surprised to hear one of his fellow travelers remark, "See that tall, graceful girl! look at the Madonna-like beauty of her countenance!" Another adds, "Observe that tall, graceful girl; what queenly Madonna-like gracefulness of beauty is in her countenance." A third pipes in, "Ah, what a tall, graceful girl! what Madonna-like gracefulness of queenly beauty!" Twain thinks, "She is not tall, she is short; she is not beautiful, she is homely..." and is perplexed — until he discovers the following in Prime's book: "As we approached the crowd a tall girl of nineteen advanced toward Miriam and offered her a cup of water. Her movement was graceful and queenly. We exclaimed on the spot at the Madonna-like beauty of her countenance." The others have seen what they've been told to see, not what's actually before their eyes.

"I love to quote from [Prime]," Twain writes, "because he is so dramatic. And because he is so romantic. And because he seems to care but little whether he tells the truth or not [...]" Why not? Self-aggrandizement is Twain's verdict, self-aggrandizement according to the values of the 19th century. Prime and his mimics make themselves paragons of romantic bravery and sentimental piety, always ready to fend off (harmless) Bedouins and weep at holy sites: "He went through this peaceful land with one hand forever on his revolver, and the other on his pocket-handkerchief." Twain spends page after page giving his predecessor the Mystery Science Theater treatment. Prime writes of reaching Jerusalem, "There were our Mohammedan servants, a Latin monk, two Armenians and a Jew in our cortege, and all alike gazed with overflowing eyes." Twain adds, "If Latin monks and Arabs cried, I know to a moral certainty that the horses cried also, and so the picture is complete."

There's also the temptation to present oneself as having had profound thoughts at the ready upon encountering even the slightest stimulus: "It is easy for book-makers to say 'I thought so and so as I looked upon such and such a scene'—when the truth is, they thought all those fine things afterwards." Twain makes a point of noting at historic site after historic site that, at the time, he thought nothing at all. Take it in now, think about it later. The most generous interpretation Twain provides for his predecessors' seeming mendacity is the way that memory becomes distilled over time: "School-boy days are no happier than the days of after life, but we look back upon them regretfully because we have forgotten our punishments at school, and how we grieved when our marbles were lost and our kites destroyed—because we have forgotten all the sorrows and privations of that canonized epoch and remember only its orchard robberies, its wooden sword pageants and its fishing holydays." In his epilogue Twain notes that a year after composing the body of his text, he's surprised to find that it seems he had such a lousy time — in retrospect the good memories far outweigh the now inconsequential complaints of thirst and fatigue and hordes of beggars.

And as far as Twain is concerned it seems that from Italy onward they're pretty much all beggars. Twain was liberal for his time — he takes it as a mark of America's enlightenment that, unlike in Europe, Jews are treated as people rather than as dogs, for instance. And he notes that one of the chief reasons to go see the world is that "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness." But apparently not as fatal as all that, as Twain freely lets fly with blanket condemnations of Arabs ("human vermin"), of American Indigens ("vile," "savage," encrusted with dirt), of Catholics (superstitious simpletons with "execrable taste." In passing, Twain notes that "I have been educated to enmity of every thing that is Catholic.") Much as he derides the ugly-American tendencies of his compatriots, at the end of the day Twain will still take an ugly American over just about anyone else; to Twain, America is clean, vital, industrious, and everywhere else is a dump. The one thing he does grant that Europe has over America is the premium it places on comfort: "In America, we hurry—which is well; but when the day's work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains [...] and either die and drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man's prime in Europe [...] I do envy these Europeans the comfort they take. When the work of the day is done, they forget it [...] Day by day we lose some of our restlessness and absorb some of the spirit of quietude and ease that is in the tranquil atmosphere around us and in the demeanor of the people. We grow wise apace. We begin to comprehend what life is for."

But this isn't a trip to Europe; Europe is just on the way. This is a trip to the Levant — the Holy Land, to the Christians about the Quaker City. It's interesting how even a skeptic like Twain identifies himself as Christian enough to decry how the Muslims are in control of "our" city of Jerusalem — half the time I expected there'd be a wisecrack coming when it turned out Twain was expressing a serious religious sentiment, and the other half I'd start making notes about Twain's genuine reverence only to suddenly happen upon the punchline. I was surprised to discover that it was without irony that Twain rattled off Biblical geography like "Dan" and "Bashan" and "Lake Huleh" as "historic names." (Lake Huleh, Twain helpfully points out, is known in the Bible as the "Waters of Merom." Oh, of course! That clears it all up. Thanks, Mark!) It is taken as a given throughout the Palestine chapters that readers will already be intimately familiar with every village and every tree; this strikes me as peculiar to the 19th century, but it occurs to me now that maybe contemporary American Christians other than Rod and Todd Flanders have also been drilled in this stuff and I just haven't heard about it.

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