No. 9: “The Innocents Abroad” by Mark Twain
Travel Blog • Michael Yessis • 05.23.06 | 9:32 PM ET
To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Territory covered: Europe and the Holy Land
Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad marks a turning point for both the author and American travel writing. In 1867, Twain boarded the ship the Quaker City for a five-month Journey through Europe and the Holy Land, and he convinced the Daily Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper, to pay him $1,250 to file letters from abroad for publication. He sent 51, and those, along with a few others written for newspapers in New York, comprise “Innocents Abroad.” The dispatches, followed by lectures he delivered based on his travels, helped establish Twain’s voice as an American original. During Twain’s lifetime, “Innocents” was his most popular book, and today it remains perhaps the most celebrated travel book by an American writer. Some critics credit its longevity to its fresh approach: It was written from a different angle than most travel books of its time. As Twain writes in the preface:
THIS book is a record of a pleasure trip. If it were a record of a solemn scientific expedition, it would have about it that gravity, that profundity, and that impressive incomprehensibility which are so proper to works of that kind, and withal so attractive. Yet notwithstanding it is only a record of a pic-nic, it has a purpose, which is to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him. I make small pretense of showing anyone how he ought to look at objects of interest beyond the sea—other books do that, and therefore, even if I were competent to do it, there is no need.
The passage, like the rest of “The Innocents Abroad,” is classic Twain: witty, insightful, original. Twain may not have attempted to write with profundity and gravity, but in the end, through the sheer force of his observations of people and life on the Continent and the Holy Land, that’s just what he delivered.
Outtake from The Innocents Abroad:
We left Milan by rail. The Cathedral six or seven miles behind us; vast, dreamy, bluish, snow-clad mountains twenty miles in front of us,—these were the accented points in the scenery. The more immediate scenery consisted of fields and farm-houses outside the car and a monster-headed dwarf and a moustached woman inside it. These latter were not show-people. Alas, deformity and female beards are too common in Italy to attract attention.
—Michael Yessis is the co-editor of World Hum.