Mark Twain’s story of a cruise on the USS Quaker City from the United States to Europe, down through the Mediterranean, to the Holy Land, and home again, is something I’ve read about all my life. Elnora has her mother read it in Girl of the Limberlost, for instance.
“If it made you laugh, it’s a wise book,” said Elnora.
“Wise!” cried Mrs. Comstock. “You can stake your life it’s a wise book. It takes the smartest man there is to do this kind of fooling,” and she began laughing again.
But I’d never read it myself — indeed, I have read very little Twain — and since I like travel writing, and this was his best-seller, I thought I’d give it a go.
Honestly, this is less travel writing than stand-up comedy. There are astonishing passages of description, in which Twain lets us see mountains, lakes, or city scenes (though apparently nothing measures up to Lake Tahoe), but everything — every letter he sent home — is infused with his snappy, infinitely dry humor. (Judging by some of the reviews I’ve seen of this book, his humor was too dry for some people in his age and remains too dry for people today. Strive not to take him at his word. I say, I say, it’s a joke, son, and he doesn’t charge extra.)
There are a lot of exquisite unique jokes in this book, some of them self-referential, like the great joke he has confiscated at customs in Rome and never sees again, or his line about the Benton Hotel (“It used to be a good hotel, but that proves nothing — I used to be a good boy, for that matter.”) There are farces, like his loopy midnight adventure in Greece to see the Parthenon, when they weren’t supposed to get off the boat because of quarantine regulations. But the best parts are the running gags (surely the best way to handle a serial comedy.) He complains that he is soon surfeited with the hundreds of artworks in England, France, and Italy, so he begins asking his guide (every guide is named Ferguson, another running gag) if everything is by Michelangelo. No, sir! Bellini! Very famous! Ah, I see. Is– is he dead? This question extends, famously, to a bust of a 13th century doge and to an Egyptian mummy, by which time poor Ferguson doesn’t know whether he has to do with imbeciles or Americans. Another running gag has to do with how many pieces of the True Cross he gets to see, and how many nails from it. Another is that he can never get a decent shave, even in a Turkish bath.
I saw a number of Goodreads-style reviews that accused Twain of racism. 19th-century travelogues can be uncomfortable that way, and I’ve read my share of them. But Twain doesn’t dismiss races or individuals; he engages everywhere he goes with the same wry, curmudgeonly willingness to love or despise what he sees, including his American fellow-travelers. (As a matter of fact, chapter 26 is written about the United States, supposedly from the point of view of an Italian, and it’s both hilarious and insightful.) What makes him angry, even vituperative, is not race but poverty and illness. When Twain is surrounded by disabled beggars, by hungry children with sore eyes, by women who have not got enough to eat, he becomes furious: with them, with their country, with everything. Why aren’t they more like the United States? Why don’t the mothers take better care? It doesn’t matter if the beggars are French or Palestinian, Greek or Berber: he just doesn’t like to see people in that kind of trouble. It might matter here that he was an abolitionist and a generous personal donor to charitable causes.
Many of you have probably seen the famous quotation from The Innocents Abroad: “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.” Twain brought his corner of the earth with him — the Quaker City — but he was already broad and charitable enough for a lifetime. This funny, dry, wise book was popular for a reason and deserves to be popular now.