Friday, May 18, 2012

Book Review: The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain (1869)

Mark Twain's first book, The Innocents Abroad or the New Pilgrims' Progress, was a huge success.  Even today people love reading an American's take on the "old world".

This is one of my all-time favorite books.  There's no plot, no mystery, no surprise ending.  It's not a novel, it's one of Mark Twain's five books of travel.  The others are Life on the Mississippi, A Tramp Abroad, Following the Equator, and Roughing It.  They are all memoirs, or travel logs.

In 1867, just a few years after the Civil War, Mark Twain found himself growing more famous through his lecture tours and newspaper columns. He was a sort of minor celebrity.  His true fame was yet to come.  He signed up for a six month cruise to Europe and the Holy Land, and would write about it by sending letters back to a few newspapers.

What we end up with is a description of the voyage in humorous detail.  To understand the book, it helps to know some background.  America was still a fairly new country.  It was still heavily tied to its European roots.  American art and literature was in its infancy, and for the most part artists and writers simply copied the style that was prevalent in the old world.  Here's everyone's favorite Victorian Historian, Patrick Allitt.
"If you were an American writer, the trick was to became famous and popular in Britain first, and then once the British had validated you, then you became famous in America as well.  Although America obviously had broken away politically from Britain, it still had a little bit of a feeling of intellectual inferiority and subordination.  So Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Washington Irving, these early 19th century American writers were all famous in Britain first, then became famous in America as well."
So you have to understand in what high esteem the old world was held for a large class of Americans.  You simply did not insult them.  Even today we find that same attitude.  Modern reviews of this book commonly state that Mark Twain had no right to criticize Europeans because he was an American.  And that in fact Americans today should feel some sort of inferiority towards Europeans, and accept them as our betters.

That's the barrier that Mark Twain knew about but was willing to question.  He had all the dreams and visions of visiting France, Athens, the Italian Riviera and the rest.  But he did something that had never been done.  He looked at it through American eyes.  Mark Twain spent many years living out west and that bold, fresh outlook on life was now brought to bear on the old world.  How dare he!

For example, he noticed that many people on the continent did not bathe or use soap.
These Marseillaises make Marseillaise hymns and Marseilles vests and Marseilles soap for all the world, but they never sing their hymns or wear their vests or wash with their soap themselves.
He had all his preconceived notions and didn't mind writing about when those notions were confirmed,
It was a pleasure to eat where everything was so tidy, the food so well cooked, the waiters so polite, and the coming and departing company so moustached, so frisky, so affable, so fearfully and wonderfully Frenchy!
or refuted,
There was a stage at the far end and a large orchestra; and every now and then actors and actresses in preposterous comic dresses came out and sang the most extravagantly funny songs, to judge by their absurd actions; but that audience merely suspended its chatter, stared cynically, and never once smiled, never once applauded! I had always thought that Frenchmen were ready to laugh at any thing.
But that he wrote about it in such a flip manner was the hardest thing for many people to take.  Instead of holding Europeans in reverence, he pulled the curtain back on a number of old world myths.  The biggest of all was art, but let's look at a couple of others first.

In Paris, he decided to get a haircut.
From earliest infancy it had been a cherished ambition of mine to be shaved some day in a palatial barber-shop in Paris. I wished to recline at full length in a cushioned invalid chair, with pictures about me and sumptuous furniture; with frescoed walls and gilded arches above me and vistas of Corinthian columns stretching far before me; with perfumes of Araby to intoxicate my senses and the slumbrous drone of distant noises to soothe me to sleep. At the end of an hour I would wake up regretfully and find my face as smooth and as soft as an infant's. Departing, I would lift my hands above that barber's head and say, "Heaven bless you, my son!"
What he got was far different.
...they took us into a little mean, shabby back room; they got two ordinary sitting-room chairs and placed us in them with our coats on. My old, old dream of bliss vanished into thin air!...I sat bolt upright, silent, sad, and solemn. One of the wig-making villains lathered my face for ten terrible minutes and finished by plastering a mass of suds into my mouth. I expelled the nasty stuff with a strong English expletive and said, "Foreigner, beware!" Then this outlaw strapped his razor on his boot, hovered over me ominously for six fearful seconds, and then swooped down upon me like the genius of destruction. The first rake of his razor loosened the very hide from my face and lifted me out of the chair.
He writes as if he's still writing about cowboys out west, with little or no flowery reverence for the French.  The odd thing is, I can just see people rising up in defense of the barber and trying to explain why Mark Twain was wrong in his thinking.  That is exactly the barrier he faced with this book, and exactly why America so desperately needed it.

Here he is with similar dreams of a Turkish bath.
Many and many a time, in fancy, I have lain in the marble bath, and breathed the slumbrous fragrance of Eastern spices that filled the air; then passed through a weird and complicated system of pulling and hauling, and drenching and scrubbing, by a gang of naked savages who loomed vast and vaguely through the steaming mists, like demons; then rested for a while on a divan fit for a king; then passed through another complex ordeal, and one more fearful than the first; and, finally, swathed in soft fabrics, been conveyed to a princely saloon and laid on a bed of eider down, where eunuchs, gorgeous of costume, fanned me while I drowsed and dreamed, or contentedly gazed at the rich hangings of the apartment, the soft carpets, the sumptuous furniture, the pictures, and drank delicious coffee, smoked the soothing narghili, and dropped, at the last, into tranquil repose, lulled by sensuous odors from unseen censers, by the gentle influence of the narghili's Persian tobacco, and by the music of fountains that counterfeited the pattering of summer rain.
"Naked savages"!  Isn't he just the typical racist, imperialist American?  Okay, not really, but people in his time were just coming up with the whole idea of the "noble savage", and here he is actually traveling around the world and meeting these people and writing about how they really were.  He did the same thing with the American Indians in Roughing It.  Needless to say his experience with the Turkish bath was similar to the barber.

Finally, we come to art.  Here, Mark Twain commits his most vile indiscretion.  Even his traveling companions were abhorred by what he had to say.
Now it does give me real pain to speak in this almost unappreciative way of the old masters and their martyrs, because good friends of mine in the ship--friends who do thoroughly and conscientiously appreciate them and are in every way competent to discriminate between good pictures and inferior ones--have urged me for my own sake not to make public the fact that I lack this appreciation and this critical discrimination myself. I believe that what I have written and may still write about pictures will give them pain, and I am honestly sorry for it...It is impossible to travel through Italy without speaking of pictures, and can I see them through others' eyes?
That sums up the entire book.  He is seeing Europe and the Holy Land through his own eyes.  Through the eyes of a true American.  He is not toeing the line, being a sheep, and writing what he is "supposed" to write.  And for that, we thank him.

I would end the review there, but a few more things are worth mentioning.  Mark Twain was just as willing to write about fellow Americans.  On a few occasions, he encountered some that were loud, boisterous, bragging, and willing that everyone around them should hear their conversations, "where all others were so quiet and well behaved".  He laughed at how some of his fellow Americans were becoming "Europeanized", or spoke of American "braggadocio".  I think it's important to bring this up because Mark Twain did not have some kind of vendetta against Europeans.  He saw everyone for who they were.

In the Holy Land, he spoke impudently of Muslims.  He referred to himself as a Christian, and brought the idea that Christian was synonymous with white European.  He spoke often of how the Muslims hated "Christian dogs".

He called the Mosque of St. Sophia the "rustiest old barn in heathendom."  He said, "Of all the unchristian beverages that ever passed my lips, Turkish coffee is the worst."

In the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, he picked up the antique sword used in the Crusades by Godfrey of Bulloigne.  "I tried it on a Moslem, and clove him in twain like a doughnut."

Seriously, that made me laugh out loud...even if it was insulting.  In fact, you don't have to go far to find something that someone will find insulting.
It hurts my vanity to see these pagans refuse to eat of food that has been cooked for us; or to eat from a dish we have eaten from; or to drink from a goatskin which we have polluted with our Christian lips, except by filtering the water through a rag which they put over the mouth of it or through a sponge! I never disliked a Chinaman as I do these degraded Turks and Arabs, and when Russia is ready to war with them again, I hope England and France will not find it good breeding or good judgment to interfere.
But what we have to remember is that he is a person, too.  He was just as entitled to his opinions as anyone.  Plus, he had a really funny way of expressing it.

When in Italy, he was forced to be "fumigated" to ward of cholera, he had this to say.
They must either wash themselves or fumigate other people. Some of the lower classes had rather die than wash, but the fumigation of strangers causes them no pangs. They need no fumigation themselves. Their habits make it unnecessary. They carry their preventive with them; they sweat and fumigate all the day long. I trust I am a humble and a consistent Christian. I try to do what is right. I know it is my duty to "pray for them that despitefully use me;" and therefore, hard as it is, I shall still try to pray for these fumigating, maccaroni-stuffing organ-grinders.
Wow.  Maccaroni stuffing organ-grinders.  Try getting that past a modern day editor.

Overall, this book is hilarious.  There are parts of it that most people could find insulting.  No one is really immune from his satire - Christians, Muslims, Americans, French, everyone is lampooned in some way.  The best thing you can do if you want to enjoy this book is just skip the parts that you don't like and move on.  You will definitely find something worth laughing at.

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