Mark Twain’s best-selling book in his own lifetime was his first commercially produced one: The Innocents Abroad. Originally a set of letters sent during an excursion to parts of the Mediterranean basin with stops in Europe and the Levant, it’s difficult to read today. Although satirical with much of it clearly for fun, Twain’s humor about those other than Americans embodies an attitude that would fit into Trump’s America a little too comfortably. Other religions are strange and therefore wrong, for example. People in the regions visited did not bathe frequently enough and were often singled out for their looks. There’s something rascally about the behavior of the American visitors, chipping away at monuments so that they might take a piece of history home with them, yet never failing to feel superior.
I had to remind myself constantly that this is a period piece. It contains much of the gritty humor for which Twain became justly famous. Travel broadened him also. A southern abolitionist, Twain nevertheless never overcame some of the racism into which he was born. My wife and I were reading the book because of its early description of western visits to Palestine (there was no Israel at the time). Keeping in mind that travel to much of that part of the world was expensive (his trip was sponsored by the newspaper for which he worked) and difficult, his account is actually one of the early modern travelogues on what would eventually become a fairly common pilgrimage. Twain, like all of us, was a product of his time.
Twain’s diary famously reveals what he came to believe about religion. There are inklings of it here. Although he refers to the manner of dress of the ship’s passengers as “Christian,” and although he casts aspersions on Islam frequently, he reserves his most biting humor for his own brand. During their visit to Smyrna (one of the seven cities of the book of Revelation), for example, he writes, “Thick-headed commentators upon the Bible, and stupid preachers and teachers, work more damage to religion than sensible, cool-brained clergymen can fight away again, toil as they may” (page 327 from the 2018 SeaWolf Press edition). Still, the assumption of the rightness of Christianity is something that he would eventually come to question. His humor does often fall flat in an era of government support of racist, sexist tropes. And the impressions made on those they met was summed up in his contractually-obligated note to the paper: “Many and many a simple community in the Eastern hemisphere will remember for years the incursion of that strange horde in the year of our Lord 1867, that called themselves Americans, and seemed to imagine in some unaccountable way that they had a right to be proud of it” (page 526). Some things, it seems, haven’t changed despite the time elapsed.