Thursday Reviews: The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

The Innocents Abroad
Mark Twain

When you read this travelogue, Twain’s first book, it’s sometimes hard to believe it was written in 1867. Some of the attitudes come through, but Twain’s descriptions of life aboard a converted Civil War ship, his travels in France and Italy, and some of the people around him sound rather recent.

But some things stand out. Twain and his companions meet the Czar. Israel (Well, Palestine in the vernacular of the day) is not the modern desert region or the war torn battlefield we see on CNN. It’s a wasteland not unlike some parts of the American West. And the passengers are much more religious than you’d find today. Contrast that with Chelsea Handler’s description of a disastrous Carnival Cruise she and a roommate took, where the only religious people were a group of self-righteous ass hats.

But all the hazards of a long cruise are there: Seasickness, greedy natives descending on tourists, language barriers in Europe (where some of the French, it seems, can’t speak proper French like they used to teach in America.) Still, the times do show in this in more ways than historical differences. Twain is less than charitable to Greeks, Bedouins, and Portuguese. His comments today would probably be reworded. On the other hand, if you want to put the number of Antebellum N-bombs from Huckleberry Finn into perspective, Twain quotes one passenger who has a rather optimistic view of his own intelligence. In this scene, Twain calls him out on referring to some of the crew as “n—–s,” then proceeds to skewer him as only Twain can. Only 32 at the time of this trip abroad, and already Twain sounds like a cranky old man.

The book is, over all, raucously funny. He pokes holes in all the travel cliches that persist to this day. The section on Italy reminds me of an old Ron White bit about honeymooning on a Greek island “because there was one more church in the Mediterranean we hadn’t seen yet.” One can even hear Twain do White’s “You can have the donkey, or you can take the tram. It is the same price” bit, though I doubt Twain would do it with a French accent like White.

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