The Innocents Abroad
~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp ~
Imagine taking six months out of your life for a “pleasure cruise” halfway around the world. Do you think your employer would kindly allow you to be away from your job all that time? Would your house be all right to go away and leave it unattended? Would the grass not need cutting in all that time? And what about the overflow of mail that your mailbox couldn’t accommodate? And if you had cats, dogs, or goldfish, wouldn’t they miss you while you were away?
In 1867, Mark Twain wasn’t yet a famous writer; he was in his early thirties and had only one published book to his credit. He hadn’t yet written the books that would make him famous such as Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In this year 1867, while America was still crippled by the Civil War, Mark Twain (still known as Samuel Clemens), boarded the steamer Quaker City, along with about sixty other “pilgrims,” and sailed for the “Old World.” The nonfiction book that he wrote about this trip, The Innocents Abroad, was first published in 1869.
The Innocents Abroad is a long and detailed book, a book without any plot but with lots of action and movement. In the 1860s, it took more than a week to sail to Europe, depending on the weather and the wind. During the long voyage, the pilgrims had lots of time for contemplation (some were seasick), conversation, and shipboard games such as whist and dominoes. It was a dull time, but mostly enjoyable.
Sailing eastward, the first point of interest was the Azores and then on to Gibraltar (gateway to the Mediterranean), with stops in Tangier, Morocco, and on to Marseilles in France. The ship bearing our pilgrims was not allowed to dock in some places because of the cholera quarantine. (The people may have been filthy, but they were very concerned about disease.) From Marseilles, it was a long and tedious journey by rail to Paris, but it gave the pilgrims a chance to see the French countryside and absorb a lot of local color.
Once in Paris, the pilgrims had trouble communicating with the Parisians, but they were able to take in the Louvre, the Palace of Versailles, and other famous points of interest. Mark Twain was not a great appreciator of the work of the Great Masters, finding Michelangelo and other artists “overrated.”
In Italy the pilgrims visited the Cathedral of Milan, the Leaning Tower in Pisa, the Vatican, before heading to the decaying city of Venice, where Twain and others in his party were astonished by the poverty of the people (not to mention the lack of soap), but also by the vast wealth of the Catholic church and its priests.
After taking in many places of interest in Europe, the pilgrims moved on to the East; to Syria and Turkey (principally Constantinople) where people lived in poverty, where stray dogs roamed the streets, and where people with shocking physical deformities displayed their afflictions to tourists for money. And in every place the pilgrims went, they were beset with beggars.
After a very uncomfortable donkey ride through the scorching desert, the pilgrims arrived at the Holy Land, which Twain considered the best and most important part of the whole trip: the place where Jesus was born, where He died, and where He was entombed.
From the Holy Land, it was on to Cairo, Egypt, where Twain and his party were awed by the vastness of the Pyramids and the mysterious Sphinx. After seeing all these wonderful places in all these different countries—almost too much for the mind to process—the pilgrims were glad to return to their ship and get ready for the long voyage back to America. They were ready for a good rest.
The Innocents Abroad was written at a time when there was a great interest in travel books, specifically about Europe, and many Americans were venturing from their own shores for the first time. American readers appreciated Twain’s humorous, middle-brow, and sometimes irreverent take on the Old World. If he offended anybody at all with his lack of appreciation for certain things, he didn’t seem to care. Remember, this was 1867, before people were so touchy and so easily offended.
Copyright © 2022 by Allen Kopp