i took mark twain on the road

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I finally had enough spare time to finish reading Mr. Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. You couldn’t ask for a better traveling companion.

While I was visiting family in the midwest, Twain took me half way around the world. It’s a miracle that you can get almost all of his published work for free or a couple bucks for the Kindle. This doesn’t include, of course, his “new” autobiography, but just about everything else.

The Innocents Abroad is a 500+ page travelogue that was originally published as a serial in magazines. Twain sent dispatches home as he traveled to Europe and the Middle East. Can you imagine taking a world tour with Mark Twain as your guide? The man is not only clever and hilarious but has excellent descriptive powers.

The reader gets a glimpse into the habits, views, and prejudices of the time. You learn about the importance of a good cigar and a good shave. You also get Twain in Paris, describing dancers doing the can-can, Twain in Italy, getting art overload from viewing hundreds of paintings by the old masters, Twain sneaking into Athens and the Parthenon late at night; and Twain riding into Syria and Palestine on a mule.

Among my favorite parts are his descriptions of traveling companions who were there for a religious pilgrimage to the “holy land.” Several of these characters have a habit of wanting to break off a chunk of every memorial and sacred site they come across to bring home as a souvenir. I cringed along with Twain at each desecration. In Egypt, he finally called in some local authorities to put a stop to it when he found one of them actually using a hammer to try to break off a piece of the Sphinx.

I’ll pull out just two particularly sharp bits of commentary to give a flavor of the book:

  • In Venice one of Twain’s tour guides is a black man who was born of slave parents in South Carolina and moved to Italy as an infant. Twain notes that this man reads, writes, and speaks English, Italian, Spanish, and French. He is thoroughly conversant in art history. “Negroes are deemed as good as white people in Venice, and so this man has no desire to go back to his native land. His judgement is correct.”
  • He describes a visit to the city of Nain (Nein) where the Bible describes an account of Jesus raising a widow’s son from the dead. A small mosque now occupies the alleged spot of the widow’s dwelling. Two or three aged Arabs sat near the mosque door. Twain describes how his traveling companions “broke specimens from the foundation walls, though they had to touch, and even step upon the ‘praying carpets’ to do it. It was almost the same as breaking pieces from the hearts of those old Arabs … inflict(ing) pain upon men who had not offended us in any way. Suppose a party of armed foreigners were to enter a village church in America and break ornaments from the altar railings for curiosities, and climb up and walk upon the Bible and the pulpit cushions?”

Mr. Twain discovered some of his own prejudices as well. He was brought up staunchly anti-Catholic, but had to admit the amazing selfless generosity of a group of Catholic monks. The monks gave his party shelter and freely offered food and accommodations to rich and poor alike who were visiting Palestine. Meanwhile, the modern day reader (me) is somewhat surprised at some of Twain’s seemingly shallow and cruel judgements of many of the people he meets on his travels. They are particularly jarring in light of his comments above.

That’s all for now. Maybe this will encourage someone to pick up the book for a great, educational read.

innocents

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