The Innocents Abroad,
or The New Pilgrims' Progress
by Mark Twain

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Being some account of the steamship Quaker City's
pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land;
with descriptions of countries, nations, incidents and adventures,
as they appeared to the Author.

American Publishing Company: Hartford, 1869
651 pages; 234 illustrations

many other editions; included in —

The Innocents Abroad & Roughing It
Library of America: New York, 1984; illustrations omitted

April 2009

A five month's voyage

The tomb of Adam! How touching it was, here in a land of strangers, far away from home, and friends, and all who cared for me, thus to discover the grave of a blood relation. True, a distant one, but still a relation.
The Innocents Abroad is Mark Twain's second book, the first of his five travel books; and during his lifetime the best-selling of all his books. In 1867 Twain joined a five-month excursion to the Mediterranean countries aboard the Quaker City, writing letters back to the Alta California of San Francisco and other newspapers which form the basis of the book.

Twain's travel writing calls the sights as he sees them, and thus he is more akin to Montaigne (perhaps even to Machiavelli) than to worshipful glossers and illuminators of Important Foreign Places:

This book is a record of a pleasure-trip. If it were a record of a solemn scientific expedition, it would have about it that gravity, that profundity, and that impressive incomprehensibility which are so proper to works of that kind, and withal so attractive. Yet notwithstanding it is only the record of a pic-nic, it has a purpose, which is, to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who travelled in those countries before him. I make small pretence of showing any one how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea — other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.

A vivid example, in Constantinople:

When I think how I have been swindled by books of Oriental travel, I want a tourist for breakfast. For years and years I have dreamed of the wonders of the Turkish bath; ... many a time, in fancy, I have lain in the marble bath, and breathed the slumbrous fragrance of Eastern spices that filled the air ... [and further lush details].

It was a poor, miserable imposture. The reality is no more like it than the Five Points are like the Garden of Eden. They received me in a great court, paved with marble slabs; around it were broad galleries, one above another, carpeted with seedy matting, railed with unpainted balustrades, and furnished with huge rickety chairs, cushioned with rusty old mattresses, indented with impressions left by the forms of nine successive generations of men who had reposed upon them. The place was vast, naked, dreary; ... [and further shabby details].

This kind of traveler's idiosyncratic eye and pen, honest and empathetic, gives us a very personal book of travels. While Twain appreciates scenery and monuments and paintings, he also is willing to describe donkey-riding and desolate vistas.

Cities near the shore, and other forays

I mix types of places rather indiscriminately here, but the steamship passengers visited (take a deep breath) the Azores, Gibraltar, Morocco (Tangier), France (Marseilles, Paris, Versailles), Italy (Genoa, Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Vesuvius, Pompeii), Greece (Athens), the Russian Empire (Sebastopol, Odessa, Yalta), the Ottoman Empire (Istanbul / Constantinople, Smyrna, Ephesus, Syria, Lebanon, Baalbec, Damascus, the Holy Land / Palestine, Cesarea-Philippi, Galilee, Nazareth, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Jericho, the Dead Sea, Alexandria, Cairo, the Pyramids), Spain (Cadiz), the Madeiras, Bermuda. I leave out a few spots. At some ports the itinerary allowed passengers to strike overland for a while (to Paris or Damascus, for instance) and rejoin the ship at another port. Other times Twain and some others sneaked past quarantines, as to visit the Acropolis. Quite a journey!

A few historical names appear. While watching a review in Paris some of the travelers caught a glimpse of Emperor Napoleon III and Sultan Adul-Aziz of Turkey, and Twain contrasts them thoughtfully and amusingly. Touring Americans at that time were a novelty to foreigners. In Leghorn some Quaker City passengers were invited to visit General Garibaldi. In Yalta the travelers were greeted by the Russian Czar and his family and court, and entertained at several palaces. They were very pleased and impressed with the Russian cordiality to them, comfortable hospitality.

I can never have any confidence in the tinsel kings of the theatre after this. It will be a great loss. I used to take such a thrilling pleasure in them. But hereafter, I will turn me sadly away and say;

"This does not answer — this isn't the style of king that I am acquainted with."

But famous people made up a very small fraction of their time. They encountered plenty of locals, mostly friendly, but were especially entangled with guides and donkey-drivers, while trying to avoid the swarms of beggars as best they could.

The newspaperman and humorist abroad

There are fewer intrusions of American scenes and situations into The Innocents Abroad than into the later A Tramp Abroad, set in the lands farther North. One lovely exception is Twain's contrast of the Sea of Galilee with Lake Tahoe, all to the advantage of the American lake. Twain provides a beautiful description of Tahoe, and then quotes some previous travel-book paeans to Galilee, followed by what he saw of Galilee with his own eyes, which falls sadly short of the slanted accounts. But when Twain describes the Sea of Galilee at night, he writes a fine reflective prose poem of the dreamy waters by starlight, as affecting in a different way as his clear praise of sunlit Tahoe.

The byline "Mark Twain" began as a newspaperman's pseudonym, and some very funny passages emerge from Twain imagining modern promotional techniques applied to ancient events. The "official playbill" for the attractions of the Roman Coliseum catches the tone wonderfully of the First Century as advertised by the Nineteenth, and he also provides a full critique of that same Coliseum performance as printed in the Roman Daily Battle-Ax.

Twain noticed real newspapers abroad, too:

The newspaper business has its inconveniences in Constantinople. Two Greek papers and one French one were suppressed here within a few days of each other. No victories of the Cretans [Crete was then under Moslem control] are allowed to be printed. From time to time the Grand Vizier sends a notice to the various editors that the Cretan insurrection is entirely suppressed, and although that editor knows better, he still has to print the notice.

The Levant Herald is too fond of speaking praisefully of Americans to be popular with the Sultan, who does not relish our sympathy with the Cretans, and therefore that paper has to be particularly circumspect in order to keep out of trouble. Once the editor, forgetting the official notice in his paper that the Cretans were crushed out, printed a letter of a very different tenor, from the American Consult in Crete, and was fined two hundred and fifty dollars for it, Shortly he printed another from the same source and was imprisoned three months for his pains. I think I could get the assistant editorship of the Levant Herald, but I am going to try to worry along without it.

The desert and the Holy Land

Twain's honest descriptive style is most exercised when the Quaker City passengers reach the Holy Land, realizing what for many of them is the ultimate goal of their journey, its spiritual destination. Of course the Bible guided their lives, its details vivid in their imagination, and they were eager to see for themselves all those places of great Judeo-Christian import some two thousand years earlier. Twain is less infused with delight than most of the "pilgrims", as he affectionately calls them. He realized that the pilgrims' reactions are strongly filtered through the so-called guidebooks and travel books that they had read, so that even their evening discussions of the scenes of the day, frequently were in the words of some standard travel accounts.

Twain does not try to gild the desert landscape, but he affords his spirit and narrative some relief by interrupting the desert with a long flashback to their stopover at Genoa, paradisal in contrast. The landscape often is harsh, as is Twain's judgement of it:

Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies. Where Sodom and Gomorrah reared their domes and towers, that solemn sea now floods the plain, in whose bitter waters no living thing exists — over whose waveless surface the blistering air hangs motionless and dead — about whose borders nothing grows but weeds, and scattering tufts of cane, and that treacherous fruit that promises refreshment to parching lips, but turns to ashes at the touch.

But then, the traveler's extended perspective:

We have full comfort in one reflection,however. Our experiences in Europe have taught us that in time this fatigue will be forgotten; the heat will be forgotten; the thirst, the tiresome volubility of the guide, the persecutions of the beggars — and then, all that will be left will be pleasant memories of Jerusalem ... which some day will become all beautiful when the last annoyance that incumbers them shall have faded out of our minds ...

School-boy days are no happier than the days of after life, but we look back upon them regretfully because we have forgotten our punishments at school, and how we grieved when our marbles were lost and our kites destroyed — because we have forgotten all the sorrows and privations of that canonized epoch and remember only its orchard robberies, its wooden sword pageants and its fishing holydays. We are satisfied. We will wait. ...

Mark Twain's five travel books

Mark Twain traveled much throughout his life, spending a considerable portion of it abroad. In a way The Innocents Abroad is my least favorite of his five travel books, although it is very good: it's just that the others are even better. Two are special studies in America: Roughing It, about Twain's experiences while silver mining in Nevada; and the great classic Life on the Mississippi. Then we have A Tramp Abroad, mostly about Germany, one of my most re-read books of any kind; and finally the fabulous Following the Equator.

Among these riches, I'd advise you to first read A Tramp Abroad unless you have a special interest in Nevada or the Mississippi River. But do read all of them as you have time and chance, certainly including The Innocents Abroad. It is a joy to travel with Mark Twain, a meeting of eras and cultures.

A railway here in Asia — in the dreamy realm of the Orient — in the fabled land of the Arabian Nights — is a strange thing to think of. And yet they have one already, and are building another. The present one is well built and well conducted, by an English Company, but is not doing an immense amount of business. The first year it carried a good many passengers, but its freight list only comprised eight hundred pounds of figs!

It runs almost to the very gates of Ephesus — a town great in all ages of the world — a city familiar to readers of the Bible, and one which was as old as the very hills when the disciples of Christ preached in its streets. It dates back to the shadowy ages of tradition, and was the birth place of gods renowned in Grecian mythology. The idea of a locomotive tearing through such a place as this, and waking the phantoms of its old days of romance out of their dreams of dead and gone centuries, is curious enough.

We journey thither to-morrow to see the celebrated ruins.


© 2009 Robert Wilfred Franson

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