Thursday, February 09, 2017

Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (Book Review #1 of 2017)

The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain.

Free to read on
I was eager to check out this book because I have read several books by American travelers of Europe and the Middle East in the 1800s and saw Twain's description of Istanbul referenced in Orhan Pamuk's Istanbul (one of my favorite cities). The difference between Twain's account and that of others in the same period is that Twain is the greatest wordsmith in American history. I did not know that this was one of the best-selling books of the 19th century.

Twain's trip was in 1867 and the reader is quickly struck with how fragile Americans are as travelers today. You can tour the "Holy Land" in a week and be back on your couch in days. Modern inconveniences are doing without McDonald's or maybe a lukewarm shower. In 1867, such a journey would take the better part of a year and you very might well die. There is no medicine, few baths, you will ride in a rickety ship for weeks on end in close quarters with people you might not like, you will ride various animals for long journies across wastelands, and you will be subject to robbery and trickerey. Phoning home hasn't been invented yet.

The journey is a pleasure cruise in a retired Union vessel with some of the well-to-do of America. Twain apparently sent some of his observations back to the US as newspaper articles and compiled all his notes into this 1869 work. Twain notes how many travelers eagerly keep journals the first few days, but every day on the ocean is roughly the same and they lose motivation to continue. Twain tolerates the eccentricities of his companions, some of the men seem prone to pretend knowledge on subjects they literally know nothing about. This sometimes leads to humor. Time zones are a complete mystery to one passenger who is certain that his watch has stopped working properly. Currency exchange rates also cause confusion, passengers go from thinking they're being extorted in dollars when actually being quoted a cheap price in a European currency. They overcome all.

The cruise lands in Tangiers, Morocco in its first major disembarkment. When noting the legend of Hercules' relation to Tangier, Twain remarks: "Antiquarians concede that such a personage as Hercules did exist in ancient times and agree that he was an enterprising and energetic man, but decline to believe him a good, bona-fide god, because that would be unconstitutional." (If you love those one-liners that would play just as well in the 21st century, they are hidden like nuggets in this book.) In Morocco, as in other places, the travelers call on the American Consular General. This apparently is a "god-send" for the Consul because
"Tangier is full of interest for one day, but after that it is a weary prison. The Consul General has been here five years, and has got enough of it to do him for a century, and is going home shortly. His family seize upon their letters and papers when the mail arrives, read them over and over again for two days or three, talk them over and over again for two or three more till they wear them out, and after that for days together they eat and drink and sleep, and ride out over the same old road, and see the same old tiresome things that even decades of centuries have scarcely changed, and say never a single word! They have literally nothing whatever to talk about." Note the polite picture he sketches:

From Morocco, they north to France. There is little about Europe's treasures that impress Twain, he glosses over the tours that become monotonous and focuses on the misadventures of his companions. In Paris, they find that no barbers give shaves, or at least none that they can cajole to shave them. They get shaved by some wig-makers or people of some other trade in tortuous fashion.
Twain writes rather disdainfully about the endless collection of relics, fake relics, that are displayed in museums and on tours across Europe. They've seen all the various shards of the cross and other imaginable relics that the Catholic Church sold as indulgences and continues to make money in Twain's time, while he remarks the faithful peasants are kept quite poor. Twain remarks that Jesus ranks pretty low in the Roman Church hierarchy, much more attention seems given to Mary, Peter, and more.

The band continues traveling to Milan and on to Rome. As Twain wanders the streets of Europe, he notes the different rhythm than in the US, and again writes something for the 21st century:
"Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, enjoying other people’s comfort and wishing we could export some of it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe — comfort. In America, we hurry — which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe. When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the continent in the same coach he started in — the coach is stabled somewhere on the plains and its heated machinery allowed to cool for a few days; when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord. We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!"

There are other tales of hygiene hijinx, such as bathhouses with no soap. One can only imagine what this travel would be like for a woman. Twain finds Venice to be full of melancholy and decay, not quite the tourist destination it is today. He is definitely not impressed with the Medici mausoleums and other Italian displays, and everyone grows quite tired of Michaelangelo by the time they reach the Vatican in Rome. There is a humorous scene where the Americans troll their guide in Rome who is eager to show them something written by Colombus and a statue/bust of Columbus:
"“Ah — Ferguson — what — what did you say was the name of the party who wrote this?”
“Christopher Colombo! ze great Christopher Colombo!”
Another deliberate examination.
“Ah — did he write it himself; or — or how?”
“He write it himself! — Christopher Colombo! He’s own hand-writing, write by himself!”
Then the doctor laid the document down and said:
“Why, I have seen boys in America only fourteen years old that could write better than that.”
The doctor put up his eye-glass — procured for such occasions:
“Ah — what did you say this gentleman’s name was?”
“Christopher Colombo! — ze great Christopher Colombo!”
“Christopher Colombo — the great Christopher Colombo. Well, what did he do?”
“Discover America! — discover America, Oh, ze devil!”
“Discover America. No — that statement will hardly wash. We are just from America ourselves. We heard nothing about it. Christopher Colombo — pleasant name — is — is he dead?”
“Oh, corpo di Baccho! — three hundred year!”
“Ah — which is the bust and which is the pedestal?”
“Santa Maria! — zis ze bust! — zis ze pedestal!”
“Ah, I see, I see — happy combination — very happy combination, indeed. Is — is this the first time this gentleman was ever on a bust?”

The crew ascends Mount Vesuvius, inspects the ruins at Pompeii, and devise a clever escape from their quarantines in Athens. (Americans definitely don't can't comprehend the ubiquity of 1800s quarantines today.) Then, it's onto Istanbul and Asia. Twain does not have many deep observations about Istanbul. Twain notes the cultural diversity of the city and that Armenians are known Christian liars. The crew crosses the Black Sea and visits Sevastopol too close to the end of the Crimean War for that not to be somewhat somber. The Americans then travel back through Turkey down to Smyrna (Izmir). Twain remarks about this point of his interaction with Russian ladies, their long names and endless charms. So, Russian ladies impress him as much as anything else in Europe or the Holy Land and I'd say that's about right. Smyrna is just a short train ride to the ruins of Ephesus, and Twain seems actually impressed with it as well. He notes the long list of international historical figures who have come through Ephesus from Alexander the Great to the Apostle Paul to many others. He retells the Legend of the Seven Sleepers, it seems like one he wish he'd written himself.

From Smyrna, the group treks south toward Damascus. They have to telegraph ahead to US Consulates in Damascus and Beirut to arrange transport, make sure there are enough horses, etc. It's a 13 hour horse trek to Damascus, and Twain suffers from a bout of cholera while there. Through the Levant, the crew is always hounded by beggars asking for "bakhshish." The poverty and the culture of begging foreigners for money seem quite embedded. Palestine is much smaller than Twain imagined. He makes a good point that there have been many books published by American Christians describing their trips to the Holy Land, but each describes Palestine according to its denomination's desires. None seem to remark that the events of Jesus' life take place in an area the size of an American county. The Holy Land trek inspires Twain to write an awful lot of biblical commentary, retelling the Bible stories with his own insights and dry wit. If you like it, it goes on for quite a while. Eventually, the American travelers exit the future Israel out of the port at Joppa.

There is a stopover in Egypt and the pyramids that Twain didn't seem keen to write about. "We suffered torture no pen can describe from the hungry appeals for bucksheesh that gleamed from Arab eyes and poured incessantly from Arab lips. Why try to call up the traditions of vanished Egyptian grandeur;...?" He ends the description of that rather quickly, and the crew then voyages home and through another quarantine. Twain wrote a newspaper immediately upon return that apparently sparked controversy among his crew mates. "The pleasure cruise was a funeral excursion without a corpse." But Twain has since grown fonder of the memories of the voyage in the year since he traveled. He survived to tell the tale, at least.

I give this book 5 stars out of 5. What book doesn't have flaws, but this is basically an American classic written by the classic American English wordsmith.

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