By Chet Yarbrough
The Innocents Abroad: Or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress
Narrated by Grover Gardner
As mentioned in previous essays, Mark Twain is an acquired taste for some. “… Innocents Abroad” fascinates those who are travelers, either for fun or vocation. It is a joy to hear Twain’s reminiscence of a mid-nineteenth century voyage to Europe, Egypt, and the Holy Land. There is added pleasure to a Nevadan because of Twain’s comparisons to Nevada’ open spaces, Lake Tahoe, and the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
“…Innocents Abroad” is a historical document, having been published in 1869. What Twain experiences in the 1800s is both different and the same as travel in the 21st century.
Twain traveled on a ship, the Quaker City, frequently quarantined because of real concern about the spread of disease, and epidemic; a nearly unheard of experience today. Twain rides horses, camels, mules, and carriages in land forays; while today, it is planes, trains, buses, and cars.
Spain, Italy, Greece, and France are romantic ideals to Americans; just as they were in the 1800s, but Twain expresses frustration with European’ incommodiousness. Time does not diminish the romance of these countries; but now, few travelers are inconvenienced or disappointed with European’ amenities.
Travels to more obscure destinations like Turkey and Russia have become more desirable since Twain’s time. In MT’ time Turkey appears dirty, unsophisticated and backward; today Turkey is among the most modern countries of the Middle East.
Russia is a vast country and parts of it, like Siberia, are still written of as rustic. However, a refocus by modern government leaders has modernized major metropolitan areas. The building of a Winter Olympics at Sochi in 2014 show how far Russian modernity has come.
Twain’s description of Sevastopol reflects the horrendous destruction wrought by the Russo Turkish War of 1854 to 1856. Today, Sevastopol is rebuilt.
Twain reflects on the smallness of the real versus the imagined. Like seeing Mount Rushmore and the faces of four presidents for the first time, one is surprised by how small the Rushmore monument is in comparison to images in “North by Northwest” (the Cary Grant movie).
Twain expresses amazement at the smallness of Jerusalem. He wonders how such a small place becomes a symbol for so many. At the same time, he slyly marvels at how many parts of the crown of thorns and pieces of the Martyr’s cross appear in so many places; in so many countries; in so many churches and museums.
As an exception to his theory of the miniaturized size of symbols, Twain suggests St. Peters Basilica in Rome meets the gigantism of imagination.
Twain reflects harshly on Arab culture and religion with disparaging remarks about beggars, cultural habits of negotiation, female beauty and attire. He shows disdain for Arab legend with some ironic remarks about Christianity that will have different meanings to different readers. He disparages the looks of Arab women but notes that he rarely sees their faces. Twain is at once a Christian but remains ironic about tales told in the Bible. One wonders, is Twain being ironic or believing when he tells tales of Jesus, Joseph and Mary, and Mary Magdalene?
There are funny stories that enliven Twain’s narrative. Like the shying horse that can only walk in a straight line when there are streetlights on both sides of the road. There are interesting tales of sites that one would like to see if they travel to some of the places Twain describes.
Twain is irreverent about much of the great art of the world, particularly Renaissance art, but tempers his irreverence with claims of ignorance. He comically refers to Michelangelo as the artist that designed “everything” in Italy.
In this listener’s ear, “The Innocents Abroad” is an irreverent primer on travel to foreign countries; not because everything is the same but because some 21st century world travels are similar; and all world travels are given perspective by Twain’s observation.