By Honor Vincent

Twain likely abhorred that rock. (Credit: Library of Congress)

You know who Mark Twain is. (If you do not know who Mark Twain is, here is Wikipedia, come back in a minute.) But for all those whose only encounter with Twain was their sixth grade English lesson on Huckleberry Finn or that quote your friend posted on your wall for your birthday, you might not be fully aware of what Mark Twain was all about: the snark.

The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress by Mark Twain (Credit: All following images from The Gutenberg Project)

After reading Twain’s travelogue The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress, it’s much easier to understand why he’s regarded as the father of American humor. There were no books, no articles and certainly no travel guides that read like his Innocents when it was published in 1897, and there have been very few to reach its glorious level of revelatory sarcasm since.

In Innocents, Twain takes us along on a trip through Southern Europe, the Holy Land and the Near East, sparing no one in between of his snotty, snotty genius. Consider the following:

The nation [of Greece] numbers only eight-hundred-thousand souls, and there is poverty and misery and mendacity enough among them to furnish forty millions and be liberal about it.”

“The community [of the Azores] is eminently Portuguese — that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy and lazy.”

“She was the only Syrian female we have seen yet who was not so sinfully ugly that she couldn’t smile after ten o’clock Saturday night without breaking the Sabbath.”

“I do not think much of the mosque of St. Sophia. I suppose I lack appreciation. We will let it go at that. It is the rustiest old barn in heathendom.”

“Constantinople is an abattoir of crippled beggars and outrageously costumed people, and lunch is often scraped from the floor before serving. Guides are nearly always liars and were all called Ferguson by the traveling party, and camels are the worst: I can not think of anything, now, more certain to make one shudder than to have a soft-footed camel sneak up behind him and touch him on the ear with its cold, flabby under-lip.

Illustration from The Innocents Abroad

On the whole, Twain is unimpressed with the world, with a few brief exceptions (namely, certain Italian women and the incredibly friendly royalty of Russia). As the guidebooks of the time were written in ecstatic hyperbole (he excerpts a few, and they’re nearly as funny as his own prose), Innocents Abroad was an anomaly when it was written and served as proof of Twain’s talents after the first bit of success he saw with The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.

I have to imagine that it’s at once more and less difficult to read things like this over a hundred years after it was written. On the one hand, it can come off as grating racism and stereotyping. On the other hand, you must remember that it was written as satire, and it was written in the late 1800s. If it helps, Twain has a much better claim to bigotry by reason of age than, say, Paula Deen.

Non P.C.-ness aside, the book is also a fascinating record of tourism as it used to be, before the world’s landmarks become well-known and close at hand to anyone with an internet connection and money for a plane ticket. Iconic landmarks are shown to us as they were first seen by people who could appreciate that they’d only heard of them in stories and would probably never see them again. Mark and co. break in to the Parthenon at night, climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and inch forward on their stomachs to peer over the edge, and wander through the ruins of Pompeii.

But the point of the whole excursion is to see the Holy Land, and Christianity is a heavy presence throughout. Though religious, Twain is liberal with his criticisms of the faithful around him. The “pilgrims” he travels to Jerusalem with are constantly chipping off pieces of holy grottos and monuments, firing their pistols into the desert and bickering amongst themselves:

A little mosque stands [in Jerusalem]. … Two or three aged Arabs sat about the door. We entered, and the pilgrims 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 … to inflict 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 altar railings for curiosities, and climb and walk upon the Bible and pulpit cushions? However, the cases are different. One is the profanation of a temple of our faith — the other only the profanation of a pagan one.

 Innocence removes a lot of the romance around the past, which is fully intentional. While Twain laments the loss of his illusions about the reviving spas and jewel-toned cities of the Orient, he isn’t precious about it. He does not add glamour where it did not exist, and so his is above all things a more faithful record of the time than probably any other travel epic written in the 19th century. And for all of his bitterness, Twain does not miss any of the beautiful little mythologies of the cities he visits, like Venice’s superstition of sinking into the sea if the ashes of St. Mark are moved. This is the balance that makes the book more than an amusing satire of old timey globetrotting. Twain is recording and transmitting little pieces of the world that are gone or nearly so, and for that and it’s many depictions of the difficulties of commanding donkeys, the book is invaluable.

If you need a last nudge to read it (aside from the fact that it’s available as a free e-book on Kindle and The Gutenberg Project), know that, with this book, Twain coined the phrase “tricked out.” Yeah.