The Innocents Abroad

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The Innocents Abroad (1869) by Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens, 1835–1910) has lasted as the book of travel written by an American that is the most widely read. Nearly 70,000 copies sold in the United States during its first year after publication, and by 1872 the honest count had passed 100,000 without including sales in Great Britain. There it became the most pirated of Mark Twain's books because the publisher had not protected the copyright. It "sells right along like the Bible" Twain would gloat to a friend (Howells, p. 8), partly because it turned into a guidebook; General Ulysses S. Grant, reporters told the home audience, carried it into Palestine on his closely followed travels of 1879. Twain, ever alert to marketing, several times considered reprising the title somehow in his later writings. In gratitude for its success he first decided to name the house where he would die "Innocence at Home." By 1910 The Innocents Abroad had still outsold his Tom-Huck novels. It has stayed in print with a widening choice of editions since the copyright expired.

Starting out, The Innocents Abroad benefited from the marketability of travel books, particularly about—in the most popular phrase—the Holy Land. American interest in the personages and scenes featured in the Bible was driven by Protestant ministers and educators, by their Sunday schools, sermons, and favorite parables. Twain's account of Palestine has only Christian relevance, blind to the economics and political pressure shaping the present natives he encountered marginally. Still, with the Civil War settled, Americans were thinking more broadly about foreign relations, so they also appreciated his early chapters on Europe, especially France and Italy. While a transatlantic tour cost far too much for most people, they nevertheless liked his emphasis on practical details such as adjusting to hotels, ordering foreign foods, and handling the insistent guides as well as beggars. However, even the travel books that centered on the famous objects and sights gave glimpses of day-to-day problems. The Innocents Abroad was and is uniquely popular because the literary persona of Mark Twain emerged at full height and depth, projecting his unique character. The passages most quoted deploy his greatest talent, his sense of humor. But readers were—and are—ultimately responding to a spirit vibrating between empathy and aggression, between warmth and icy disdain, between irreverence on principle and earthiness, between all of humankind's polarities.


Though any broad fact about Twain needs refining footnotes, the origins of The Innocents Abroad grow clear from a mass of documents—his notebooks, the installments of the commentary that was earning his passage, and the journalistic reports of at least nine other tourists aboard the Quaker City as well as private records and his own personal letters. Those letters prove that he had been yearning to move up from free-lance articles to book form. Just before the Quaker City set out, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and Other Sketches (1867) had issued with faint success. But he had been projecting some more substantial book such as a reworking of his letters from the Sandwich (now Hawaiian) Islands for the Sacramento Union or his letters in early 1867 from the East Coast to the San Francisco Alta California. When the American Publishing Company of Hartford, Connecticut, approached him soon after the Quaker City came home, he was primed to negotiate. That the feeler came from a "subscription" firm suited his ambition to rake in big royalties, which would compensate for being peddled door to door by agents for advance orders. He would later exult over having gambled on a royalty of 5 percent (the edition commonly ordered cost $3.50) rather than a flat payout of $10,000.

The questions of when and where Twain put together the text of The Innocents Abroad are settled. Those facts help judge how severely his shipmate Mrs. Mary Mason Fairbanks had restrained his impulses during the trip and later (very little, actually) or how primly his fiancée, Olivia Langdon, with whom he vetted the proof sheets, censored his western roughness (still less, evidently). Those background facts also clarify the effect of the controversies among the tourists after settling in back home and the interplay between Twain's book and "The American Vandal Abroad," his lecture during the 1868–1869 season. Overall, knowing precisely when and where proves how effectively Twain could work under shifting and distracting circumstances or—less admirably—shows that The Innocents Abroad grew at a tempo that may have intensified its breathless tone.

Having signed a contract in late January 1868, Twain immediately set to work on the opening chapters while supporting himself with dispatches from Washington, D.C., for western newspapers and with freelance sketches, mostly political. Then, to settle the copyright on his letters about the trip for which the Alta California had paid $1,250 in greenbacks (and had added $500 in gold for onshore expenses), he trekked to San Francisco, where in May and June he completed the basic manuscript while lecturing occasionally for income. He headed back east—by a still roundabout, enervating route—in early July. By October 1868 he submitted his manuscript. After a winter of more freelancing, lecturing, and fervently courting Olivia Langdon, he revised during February 1869, started with the proof sheets on 12 March, and fondled bound copies in mid-July.

More than Twain at first intended, probably, The Innocents Abroad recycled his fifty letters (by the most accepted count) to the Alta California, adding some material from his six letters to the New York Herald but little from four minor pieces in the New York Tribune. For a national readership he minimized slang, inside jokes, and western references. Though not able, fortunately, to repress himself for long stretches, he toned down his irreverence, especially about biblical Christianity, and his trademark irascibility as the humorist and even "moralist" of the "Pacific Slope." At the level of craftsmanship he had to turn commentary created on the move, while grabbing at ideas, into what would read like an integrated book. He wove in continuities and a firmer sequence for the itinerary, inserting about 35,000 words into and around his printed yet now diligently revised letters. The Mark Twain persona functioned more clearly and more frequently as "I" and as a raconteur. Yet throughout, Twain stuck with the pattern that had worked for him so far, alternating seriousness and entertainment while trying, however, to pitch the humor at a more cerebral level than his routines in Nevada and San Francisco. Driving for a hefty book (it would issue with 651 pages) he produced too much manuscript. When Bret Harte, whom Twain still looked up to, agreed to cut sub-par passages and even chapters, Twain accepted his editing docilely, gratefully. Otherwise, he felt so assertive as to take active interest in choosing the 254 illustrations that the sales prospectus puffed. (Though Twain used "New Pilgrim's Progress" [singular] in the subtitle, the publisher, whether carelessly or deliberately, made the plural "Pilgrims'" the form commonly used today.)


While The Innocents Abroad dazzles contemporary readers as a solitary beacon, the book of travels has a long pedigree; it grew right along with printing itself. Also, it soon developed a shaky reputation; early travelers tended to imagine marvels that outdid the rarest realities. During the nineteenth century a sounder species evolved. Most specifically, the Americans who began going abroad to study sciences, languages, or the fine arts sometimes published their impressions; the sightseeing travelers who went next attracted a larger if still serious readership. Every stay-at-home who kept informed knew about the experiences of Bayard Taylor, George W. Curtis, and Margaret Fuller. Twain's preface assumed a familiar model when it promised to avoid "the usual style of travel-writing" and "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." Actually Twain's promise to probe beyond stereotypes was already close to a cliché. More distinctively, he avoided promising to edify or educate. His preface started forthrightly: "This book is a record of a pleasure-trip." True, the final chapter, based on his letter published the morning after the Quaker City got back, dismissed its trip as a "funeral excursion without a corpse" (p. 644). But the recurring effect of his book would be comic and exuberant, in tune with the "picnic on a gigantic scale" that he had pretended to expect (p. 19).

Comparativist perspectives show that The Innocents Abroad represented a tourist's rather than a traveler's experiences. The ideal traveler aims to engage another society on its own terms, to interact with another people minding their local affairs. The "programme" for the Quaker City promised an "Excursion to the Holy Land, Egypt, the Crimea, Greece, and Intermediate Points of Interest" (p. 20). Those points took in the Azores, Gibraltar, Morocco, Spain, France, Italy, and Turkey. All that in five months—minus about six weeks at sea. As for living abroad, the party's regular hotel was the ship itself, stocked with American cuisine. The sixty-six paying passengers usually went ashore as a group or in cliques. Twain had few adventures of his own worth mentioning. Guides who bickered over this next flock of sheep to be fleeced knew what services, sights, and illusions they wanted. The Innocents Abroad kept the touring aspect central, reporting on fees and prices, changing hygienes, misunderstandings, and street scenes. Twain's aggressive curiosity, delight in the bizarre, habitual impatience, and tremors of enthusiasm made the Quaker City excursion seem as rushed as tours that now dip into still another European metropolis each day.

Paradoxically, Twain's cross-grained spontaneity left some readers satisfied to do their touring by proxy. At least when Twain felt fatigued, bored, harassed, cheated, or surfeited, they felt better about not affording the trip themselves. Too many of the Quaker City's passengers, leaning toward old age and pompously conventional, turned out to be dull or downright prickly companions, more fun to smile at than travel with. Nor did most sights turn out to be worth so much expense and effort, especially in the Holy Land—the crowning goal of the trip. Besides the heat and the dirt, Palestine was so benighted, Twain joked, that the Second Advent was unlikely: Christ would not care to return. Maybe the smartest move was to settle down with Twain's book in the family circle. While running the gamut of entertainment, it gave the blunt, self-respecting, and quizzical lowdown about the famous places—the Cathedral of Notre Dame, Versailles, Pompeii, Vesuvius, the Catacombs, the canals of Venice, the Mosque of St. Sophia, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and the pyramids. Twain's readers could finish up believing that they comprehended the Old World more realistically than either its inhabitants or his awed, earnest companions (excepting his own clique).

Some readers of The Innocents Abroad enjoyed Twain's landscapes; "scene painting" was a must for travel-tourist literature that he met with pleasure. More as a duty, he grew eloquently solemn at the most venerable sites such as the Acropolis; in Jerusalem he apologized for not shouting louder hosannas. But modern analysts, like a few reviewers in 1869–1870, have fretted over the book's appeal to a less defensible part of the audience (or to a different side of it). The Innocents Abroad sounded the chauvinistic bugle, assuming that the United States, attuned to the present and future rather than a hierarchical past, exemplified progress, powered by its practical know-how. Likewise, Twain as American was supposedly showing how to combat highbrow taste or social practices (except when meeting the tsar of Russia). The Innocents Abroad went far beyond discovering that there's no place like home. Erratically, yet insistently, it flared up into New World swagger, combative alertness to not being taken in ("sold"), iconoclasm toward classical painting, and eagle-eyed readiness to pounce on the gap between pretense and reality, even at the Church of the Nativity.

Less gratifying, consciously, for a readership that supported Protestant Christianity as the quasi-official morality was Twain's irreverence. For these readers his anti-Catholic sermons helped to sanitize his more impious tendencies. But the subtitle of his breezy book alluded to John Bunyan's revered allegory, and several passages came close to parodying the Bible, generally heard as the literal word from Heaven. Uneasy about the reviewers, Twain decided that his irreverence had proved a "tip-top good feature," financially at least (Letters 3:329). Bracketing his impieties with solemn homilies may have further lulled the literalists. Yet crypto-agnostics, old deists, and budding freethinkers could take confirmatory pleasure from The Innocents Abroad. Deplorably, the nativist constituency left over from the Know-Nothing Party must have enjoyed a tangential irreverence: Twain's savagery toward the "savages," that is, the Semitic natives descended from Jesus' people. If the "I" narrator berated the commoners of the Azores, Italy, and Greece as feckless, he heated up to accusatory contempt in Palestine: "Squalor and poverty are the pride of Tiberias" (p. 505).


Surely, humane readers winced at Twain's berating of the poor and luckless, however boldly his publisher featured the book's "mirth" and the consensus among reviewers praised its geniality. That consensus overlooked or excused many traits of its narrating personality. Besides Twain's anti-compassionate politics for export and his slurs on foreign humanity as backward, supine, and gullible, he approached sounding arrogant, even vindictive, declaring his pleasure in taking "satisfied revenge" (p. 459) no matter how petty. Easily irritated, he lashed back—in retrospect—with ridicule, justifying those Hobbesian analysts who find superiority or hostility at the core of humor.

Sometimes Twain as American pilgrim seemed to approve of hardly anyone, including his flawed self. Bret Harte's review was generous in calling him "irascible." His jaunty irreverence kept descending into joking about dyspepsia, dung, disfigurement, diseases, and ungainly deaths. Appropriately, his favorite habits made him expert at gambling and at ordering cocktails. Alert to attractive women, he gauged their availability. Not all of his masculine freewheeling was tolerable as Western since the persona mostly claimed a national identity. Not even the sales-centered publisher recommended The Innocents Abroad for Sunday schools.

Nevertheless, those glitches of character faded when the persona turned on his charm. His humor helped crucially, honed by years of practice in the moves of the literary comedians and, recently, by admiring analysis of Artemus Ward's technique. "Is he dead?" became an international tagline for teasing routinized behavior rather than baiting a guide who was practicing a useful skill. Weeping at the supposed tomb of Adam raised gut hilarity rather than a suspicion of being satirized. The persona also earned much indulgence through honesty about himself, confessing his blunders (famously, his buying gloves at Gibraltar) or his ignorance about the paintings brashly belittled ("we [I] do not know much about art" (p. 423). In switching without apology from the beauty of Genoese women to local tobacco his verve made his free dissociation a virtue, exhilarating rather than disorienting. Defying the rules of either stable character or orderly prose rounded out to an encompassing spirit of play, of delight in feeling, doing, and saying the unexpected. The reader began to discount and then to enjoy Twain's harsh criticisms and even threats as mock violence, as part of a game. Yet, concurrently, Twain was establishing a presence as one of the shrewdest passengers on the Quaker City and, within his clique, a leader of the "boys." Of all his books, The Innocents Abroad most irresistibly overruns any pattern or abstract system that critics propose for it.

Eventually, the critic trying to understand The Innocents Abroad as an integrated construct has to argue that it achieves unity through literary finesse. The opening chapters create an ironic, tolerantly cynical voice that soon adds both verve and worldliness. As the tour moves along, the persona also shows the resilience of getting over his blunders. Though deepening in acerbity he never rages for long or pontificates without his humor poised to interrupt. His self-awareness makes a virtue of his vehemence by declaring that "I like no half-way things" (p. 239). Though oscillating between send-ups and convention-alities—and deadpanning in the middle so craftily that readers have to stay alert—he comes across as basically self-determined. A forceful, colorful, yet easy-jointed prose bonds the diversifying elements. Despite the upsurges of anarchic spontaneity the ultimate effect is like the Washoe Zephyr, which Roughing It would admire for carrying everything and everybody in the direction it wanted to go. While apparently honoring authenticity, Twain invents dialogue, even incident, and develops a crew of supporting characters to help fill his sails. Some critics emphasize his introspective consciousness or a search for inner identity as a master theme. But readers are primarily swept along by an attitude, brilliantly articulated for a personality who reacts and pro-acts impulsively, comfortable with his forceful inconsistency in a complex world.

AFTER 1869

The Innocents Abroad established Mark Twain financially and professionally. His publisher, who concentrated on a few books, promoted it diligently. Newspapers paid unpaid attention because Twain did credit to their world as a reporter-columnist who made his mark (the inevitable pun). Unexpectedly, the sedate Atlantic Monthly carried a long, favorable review, unsigned (from a young William Dean Howells). Twain had upgraded from a freelancer to a writer of books, even of literature, exemplified in the publisher's later prospectuses by the threnody on the Sphynx, "so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient" (p. 629). Revising in 1872 for a new British edition, Twain showed a rising sense of what he had accomplished and how he rated in turn. By 1879, when The Innocents Abroad joined the Tauchnitz editions solidly respected across Europe, he felt gratified but not surprised. It would stay prominent during his lifetime, leading off in the collected edition of his works that finally got on track in 1899.

By 1886, after a string of books, Twain could look at The Innocents Abroad quizzically, echoing its irreverence by pairing it with how God must have felt later about the world He created: "The fact is, there is a trifle too much water in both" (DeVoto, p. 764). But he appreciated how much the writing it and how much the experiences behind it had taught him. On the Quaker City he had mixed, for the first prolonged time, with middle- and upper-middle-class people—including Olivia Langdon's brother, who would introduce Twain to his family. While still wary afterward of highbrow culture, he did try harder to see paintings and choose music its way. Less hearteningly, touring Palestine, especially in continued retrospect, must have shaken any lingering Sunday-school legends and any faith in the Bible as substantive history. Literarily, The Innocents Abroad led to the first stage of mastery of his prose style and of his persona as he aimed to captivate a national readership and its guardians.

See alsoAmericans Abroad; "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County"; Humor; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody


Primary Works

DeVoto, Bernard, ed. The Portable Mark Twain. New York: Viking, 1946.

Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrims'Progress. 1869. Edited by Shelley Fisher Fishkin, after-word by David E. E. Sloane. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. A facsimile reprint of the first edition. Page numbers refer to this text.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Letters. Vol. 2, 1867–1868. Edited by Harriet Elinor Smith and Richard Bucci. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Twain, Mark. Mark Twain's Letters. Vol. 3, 1869. Edited by Victor Fischer and Michael B. Frank. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Secondary Works

Bridgman, Richard. Traveling in Mark Twain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Budd, Louis J., ed. Mark Twain: The Contemporary Reviews. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Cox, James M. Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966.

David, Beverly R. Mark Twain and His Illustrators. Vol. 1, 1869–1875. Troy, N.Y.: Whitston, 1986.

Ganzel, Dewey. Mark Twain Abroad: The Cruise of the"Quaker City." Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

Hill, Hamlin L. Mark Twain and Elisha Bliss. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1964.

Howells, W. D. My Mark Twain: Reminiscences and Criticisms. New York: Harper, 1910.

McKeithan, Daniel Morley. Traveling with the InnocentsAbroad: Mark Twain's Original Reports from Europe and the Holy Land. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

Melton, Jeffrey Alan. Mark Twain, Travel Books, andTourism: The Tide of a Great Popular Movement. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2002.

Obenzinger, Hilton. American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999.

Quirk, Tom. "Introduction." In The Innocents Abroad, edited by Tom Quirk. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.

Smith, Henry Nash. Mark Twain: The Development of aWriter. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Ziff, Larzer. Return Passages: Great American Travel Writing,1780–1910. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000.

Louis J. Budd

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The Innocents Abroad

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