A Fresh Look by Paul Willis
Unlike many of my friends in Santa Barbara, I have never been to Europe. So, when I recently received an invitation to teach a month-long poetry workshop in Italy, I thought that I would prepare myself for the trip by reading Mark Twain’s account of his own first trip to the Mediterranean, The Innocents Abroad. The book, published in 1869, is an account of a five-month voyage in 1867 to Morocco, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, southern Russia, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. By this time in his life, Twain had already worked as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, avoided the Civil War by tagging along with his older brother to Nevada and California, and published his first book, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches. The Innocents Abroad was his second book. In his lifetime, it sold more copies than any other title by Twain.
He did not take this voyage alone. In the employ of three different newspapers, to which he sent various letters during the extended journey, he had joined an advertised pleasure excursion for Americans eager to improve their cultural standing by visiting the approved sights. And he makes great fun of their earnestness. One fellow passenger “was confiding, good-natured, unsophisticated, companionable, but . . . not a man to set the river on fire.” As a group, they “would have shone at a wake, but not at anything more festive.” He is critical of their habit of chipping off souvenirs from ancient landmarks, and gleeful when the more spiritual among them fall to arguing with each another in the sacred precincts of the Holy Land. Worst of all, one of their countrymen feels free to lord it over the locals out of a sense of loudly proclaimed American superiority. “He did not mention that he was a lineal descendant of Balaam’s ass; but everybody knew that without his telling it.”
To his credit, Twain also includes himself among these lineal descendants. In one particularly amusing sketch, he allows himself to purchase a spectacularly ill-fitting pair of kid gloves from an alluring shopgirl in Gibraltar. And on the return journey home, he complains loudly and publicly to the captain of the ship about the quality of the coffee, only to find he is drinking tea. And thus, returning to his master image, he solemnly warns that “the gentle reader will never, never, know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.”
In Twain’s estimation, however, the local inhabitants fare no better than he and his fellow pilgrims. At their first stop, in the Azores, he comments that “the community is eminently Portuguese—that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy.” In Constantinople, “the men were dressed in all the outrageous, outlandish, idolatrous, extravagant, thunder-and-lightning costumes that ever a tailor with the delirium tremens and seven devils could conceive of.” And farther to the east, he singles out a woman who “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.” And don’t get him started on the shiftlessness of Arab men. Twain seems aware of his blatant ethnocentrism; at the same time, he revels in it.
Catholicism is the target of some of his harshest criticism, and here he seems to be playing to his Protestant audience. The great altars of various cathedrals “are a perfect mass of gilt gimcracks and gingerbread,” and the provenance of numerous relics inspire his derision. Upon being shown a portrait of the Madonna supposedly painted by St. Luke, he comments that “we could not help admiring the Apostle’s modesty in never once mentioning in his writings that he could paint.” He does, however, show admiration for Dominican friars who have sacrificed themselves to help the sick in a time of cholera. He is also grateful for the hospitality of a group of monks in the desert wastes of the Dead Sea. Finally, he admits, “I have been educated to enmity toward everything that is Catholic, and sometimes, in consequence of this, I find it much easier to discover Catholic faults than Catholic merits.”
Throughout his travelogue, Twain is at pains to show that the Mediterranean landscape is inferior in every way to that of the American West. In particular, Lake Tahoe is his touchstone of beauty, “much finer” than the celebrated Lake Como, which “would only seem a bedizened little courtier in that august presence.” The Sea of Galilee fares even worse. It “is no more to be compared to Tahoe than a meridian of longitude is to a rainbow. . . . [T]he solitude of the one is as cheerful and fascinating as the solitude of the other is dismal and repellent.” The mountains of Yalta measure up as “a vision of the Sierras,” but Vesuvius “is a very poor affair compared to the mighty volcano of Kilauea, in the Sandwich Islands.” As a lover of the Sierra myself, I wonder if it will become my own standard by which to judge the topography of Italy.
I also wonder if my appreciation of Italian art (I have been specifically asked to teach ekphrastic poetry) will also be on Twain’s level. On the old masters, he says, “Their nauseous adulation of princely patrons was more prominent to me and chained my attention more surely than the charms of color and expression which are claimed to be in the pictures.” Again and again, he observes the raptures of others in the presence of revered paintings but cannot summon the same awe. Of the many depictions of Catholic saints, he says, “To me it seemed that when I had seen one of these martyrs I had seen them all.” He comforts himself for his lack of aesthetic response, though, in a way I have sometimes comforted myself: “If I did not so delight in the grand pictures that are spread before me every day of my life by that monarch of all the old masters, Nature, I should come to believe, sometimes, that I had in me no appreciation of the beautiful, whatsoever.” (Cue Lake Tahoe.) Twain being Twain, however, he transforms his deficiencies into a comic art of his own. On Raphael’s “Transfiguration,” he observes, “The colors are fresh and rich, the ‘expression,’ I am told, is fine, the ‘feeling’ is lively, the ‘tone’ is good, the ‘depth’ is profound, and the width is about four and a half feet, I would judge.”
Having taken pains to belittle the people, religion, places, and art that he encounters on his pilgrimage, Mark Twain arrives at this incongruous conclusion: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, 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.” But we will always take our one little corner of the earth with us, wherever we go. That is the joke Twain plays on us—and on himself.