Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 858
It must have seemed a clever idea to send a popular young comic journalist on a tour with a boatload of prominent citizens in order to record, as The Innocents Abroad did, the day-to-day experience of Americans having a good time in the exotic old countries. When the book came out, however, the reaction was not entirely favorable. Twain had confirmed what every American already knew—that Europe was terribly run-down and was greedy for the dollars of rich Americans. He also suggested that the Americans often made fools of themselves and quite as often were downright vulgar—thereby confirming what Europeans already knew about America.
Obviously someone had misjudged Mark Twain when he was sent on the trip. His career as a literary figure was in its infancy, and he had yet to write a novel, but there was surely sufficient evidence in his newspaper work and in his short stories that he had a gift for satire that was barely controlled and that he was not quite as refined in his literary conduct as might have been expected from an East Coast journalist. He was, in short, not always as fastidious in his work as might have been expected, and this book, certainly one of the funniest (and sometimes satirically savage) works in the travel genre was to offend at the same time that it added to his reputation as a writer of promise.
The book can also be seen as an interesting anticipation of a theme that Twain is to use over and over again: the confrontation between liberal, nineteenth century ideas of politics and society with the old, sometimes savage conservatism of the Old World. The latter problem is to be used in The Prince and the Pauper, in which the concern for humanity and for fair treatment of citizens is manifested in the conduct of both the prince and the pauper. It becomes even more central in the later work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where a nineteenth century American finds himself in a position of power and attempts to put his ideas about society, politics, and commerce into action—with sometimes comic but often dangerously disastrous results.
Most obvious, and perhaps most enjoyable from an American point of view, are Twain’s astringently funny comments upon the limitations of European civilization. He sees how quick the Europeans and the Near Eastern citizens are to take advantage of the Americans, who are open and generous in their curiosity. He has an amusing running joke about guides who may change throughout the tour but have a kind of obvious sameness in their determination to make a meal out of the Americans. They give very little in return, usually because they hardly have any idea what they are talking about.
Twain is weakest, as he freely admits, in dealing with the art and architecture of the old countries, and he is often surprisingly insensitive, revealing himself as vulnerable to the charge that he is occasionally as stupidly stubborn as his fellow travelers. Yet that revelation gives the book a credibility which helps to keep it from becoming a tedious listing of constant complaint. It often breaks out into first-class description, particularly if Twain is moved by a scene, but its main line is that of slippery comic comment upon the discomfort of travel.
The Holy Land, in particular, fires the greatest enthusiasm in Twain and some of the most pungent complaint, caused in part by the difficulties of travel in the barren landscape. The Christian history of that area is most interesting to Twain and his fellow travelers, but Twain, who usually maintains a pose of amused indifference, is enraged by the commercialization of the biblical sites. From early in the tour there is a line of anticlerical comment which can become sharply splenetic, particularly if the Roman Catholic Church is involved.
Twain’s reaction to the tawdry, profit-making manipulation of the Christian mystery was enjoyed by his American readers, but he was not afraid to suggest that Americans on the road could also be less than admirable. He could be sharply disdainful of how his fellows flashed their money, their fractured French, and, particularly, their hammers, chipping away at any monument, however sacred, that might come under their hands. Much of this is funny, and that was expected of Twain, but it can involve a strong satiric bite; Twain can be irascible. He refuses to stay within the confines of the genial, romantic idea of what a travel book “should” be.
He is often very good at showing what the foreign landscape looks like, but what really interests him is how human beings live and what the political, social, and physical implications are of the long histories of great civilizations, now less powerful and somewhat tattered and torn. Most to the point, he is fascinated by how people respond to tourists, how the experience seems to bring out the worst in both parties. He plays fair here, revealing that if the natives are often on the cheat, the Americans, acting thoughtlessly and sometimes stupidly, just as often deserved to be fleeced.
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