American Culture

ArtSunday: Mark Twain and American innocence…

Mark Twain in 1871 (Courtesy Wikimedia)

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” – Mark Twain, conclusion, The Innocents Abroad

The French refer to Americans as “les grandes bébés.” This is not done in fondness; the French, whose fried potatoes we liberated from their ignominious freedom hating moniker in the last decade, are too perspicacious for their own good sometimes. That description of us as “big babies” (as an American, it is, after all, your right not to understand any language that is not American) refers to a sort of perpetual innocence/ignorance of reality that they see in us. But, as I (visiting their country to see how it failed to measure up to the USA) reminded a middle-aged Frenchman who’d barked a few insults at me and my traveling companions for being loud, obnoxious Américains (speaking excellent French, mind – I’m a cosmopolitan American, after all), the next time the Germans invaded his homeland, maybe we’d stay home and he could learn to love bier, wiener schnitzel, and the old oom pah pah. As a friend of mine is wont to describe such retorts, I got your sacré bleu, right here, pal…

This anecdote is to introduce the next book in my 2013 reading list, the above quoted Innocents Abroad by the greatest (I will not brook dissent) American writer, Mark Twain. This was Twain’s first great success – a series of sketches of a voyage to Europe and the Holy Land that he took with one of the first of that most American of ventures, a tour group. As Twain details in the “valedictory” he wrote for the New York Herald immediately after his return, the group was comprised of staid, upper middle class types whose average age  was 50 – by Twain’s estimation. Twain, still a boisterous bachelor and famed (but not famous – that would come as a result of this book) humorist of 31, found them, on the whole, especially during the sea voyages over and back, stultifying. He soon made friends, however, with a group of  young (and youngish) fellow bachelors who became his posse. Their escapades, including an illegal night time visit to the Acropolis from their quarantined ship, form one charming element of the narrative.

Another (more important) element is that, as with any great humorist, Twain offers sometimes sardonic, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious descriptions and observations of the places he visits, the people he meets there – and, not least, his fellow travelers.

Let’s begin with his description of a typical tour guide (locals hired to lead tourists around the sights of a monument, museum, or, equally likely, tourist fleecing mart):

These are the people who make life a burthen to the tourist. Their tongues are never still….If they would only show you a masterpiece of art, or a venerable tomb…hallowed by touching memories or historical reminiscences…then step back and hold still for ten minutes and let you think, it would not be so bad. But they interrupt every dream, every pleasant train of thought, with their tiresome cackling.

He can turn an equally jaundiced eye on works of art themselves:

Here and there, on the fronts of roadside inns, we found huge, coarse frescoes of suffering martyrs like those in the shrines. It could not have diminished their sufferings any to be so uncouthly represented.

Twain’s critical gaze, however, is perhaps at its most insightful as he describes the behavior of the “pilgrims” (those who’d taken the trip specifically to visit the Holy Land – early examples of what critic Leslie Fiedler calls WASPs – white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants) whose respect for any heritage but their own is nonexistent, as in their behavior gathering “relics” in a mosque built on what is a holy site in both the Christian and Islamic faiths:

…the pilgrims broke specimens from the foundation walls, though they had to touch and even step on the ‘praying carpets….’ To step rudely upon the sacred praying mats with booted feet – a thing not done by any Arab – was to inflict pain upon men who had not offended us in any way.

Remember that “innocence/ignorance of reality thing” I mentioned earlier? Maybe we’ve never gotten past that as a people – and that some of our current difficulties extend from ancestors of ours, such as these tourists represent, with no sense of anyone’s rights but theirs. I suspect Twain would argue we’re probably a little worse for having gotten away with it for so long, as this insight into respect for the beliefs of others illustrates.

Twain himself is not immune to that prejudice, bigotry, and narrowmindedness he mentions in the opening quote. His descriptions of Middle Easterners are often degrading, and his constant affirmation of the need for Europe and the Holy Land to take their cues from America and become industrialized democracies is, frankly, jejune and asinine. He compares Lake Como to Lake Tahoe and finds the former wanting; he compares masterworks of European art to the natural splendor of the American wilderness and does the same. He’s as American as one could ever be.

But when he has an insight into the depth and breadth of human experience and the long history of civilization, he can wax philosophical beautifully:

The idea of a railroad train actually running to old dead Pompeii, and whistling irreverently,  and calling for passengers in the most bustling and businesslike way, was as strange a thing as one could imagine, and as unpoetical and disagreeable as it was strange.

This is but a single example of the sort of insight into the world, its history, and himself that Twain reveals in Innocents Abroad. It is a long, loquacious, discursive mess of a book. And every word is worth reading.

The old adage tells us travel broadens a person. Travel not only made Mark Twain broader, it made him deeper. American literature is the beneficiary.

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4 replies »

  1. Reading this makes me think about my trip to Italy. On a couple of occasions – once in a trattoria in Verona and another while waiting in line for l’Accademia to open in Florence – we found ourselves in close proximity to loud, obnoxious ugly Americans. I’d bet the farm that both sets were Texan. I can imagine how foreigners must hate these people, because I wanted to get up and punch them myself.

    On the other hand, I know a lot of foreigners thanks to my love of soccer. And following world football teaches you a lot about the hooliganism and the unreconstructed racism that runs rampant throughout most of the rest of the world. So I don’t take a lot of gump about ugly Americans, and in truth, most of my international friends would never even try because they know from experience that as bad as we are here, we’re far better in some respects than their native countries.

    Not in all respects, to be sure. There’s a lot wrong with the US. But the rest of the world has its flaws, and when you’ve finished reading Twain I recommend you pick up How Soccer Explains the World. Eye-opening, to say the very least.

    Great piece, Jim.

    • Thanks, Sam. I’ve added ‘How Soccer Explains the World’ to the reading list. Just finished one of those “rockumentary” books on the Rolling Stones and halfway through Nick Hornby’s ‘About a Boy,’ but your rec is on my radar and you’ll hear my take in a little while…

    • Thanks, Denny. There’s a cool book out on Twain’s time as a newspaper editor in Buffalo. It’s called ‘Scribblin’ for a Livin’: Mark Twain’s Pivotal Period in Buffalo…” .think it might be a fun one for you to look at….