Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 10. The Innocents Abroad

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

VIII. Mark Twain

§ 10. The Innocents Abroad

The Innocents Abroad justified the formula on which it was constructed by selling nearly a hundred thousand copies at three dollars and a half apiece within the first three years. Its initial success was due partly to its novelty and partly to the wide interest which the excursion itself had excited. Both these advantages it has now relinquished, yet, as his biographer tells us, it remains the most popular of all Mark Twain’s travel books, and still “outsells every other book in its particular field.” Time has not reduced the rich variety of its famous topics, though time has somewhat altered the nature of curiosity with regard to the conduct of the pilgrims; but even though their type of tourist were now quite extinct one might still gratify the historical sense by acquaintance with a representative group of Americans on a tremendous picnic with spirits high in rebound from the long depression of the Civil War. One hears in the book the rollicking voice of the ex-pilot, ex-miner, the joyously insolent Western American, emancipated from all terror of the minor or Sunday-school vices, fortified by certain tolerant democratic standards of his own, well acquainted with the great American cities, equipped with ideas of natural beauty and sublimity acquired on the Mississippi, the Great Plains, the Rockies, the Pacific, the Sandwich Islands, setting out to see with his own unawed eyes how much truth there is in the reported wonders of the “little old world.” Mark Twain describes Europe and the East for men, roughly speaking, like himself. He does not undertake to tell them how they ought to look at objects of interest, but quite resolutely how these objects of interest strike a thoroughly honest Western-American eye. He is obliged to report that the barbers, billiard tables, and hotel accommodations of Paris are inferior; that the paintings of the Old Masters are often in a bad state of repair and, at best, betray to a democrat a nauseous adulation of princely patrons; that the French grisettes wear mustaches; that Vesuvius and Lake Como are nothing to Kilauea and Lake Tahoe; that priest-ridden Italy is a “museum of magnificence and misery”; and that under close inspection the glamour of the Holy Land gives way to vivid impressions of fleas, beggars, hungry dogs, sandy wastes, and the odours of camels. But this young traveller with so much of the iconoclastic Don Juan in him has also a strain of Childe Harold. For him as for Byron the deepest charm of the old world is the charm of desolation and decay, felt when the dingy palaces of Venetian doges or the ruined marbles of Athens are bathed in the moonlight. And he like Byron gains many an effect of his violent humour by the abruptness of his transitions from the sublime to the ridiculous or vice versa. He interprets, for example, with noble gravity the face of the Sphinx:

  • After years of waiting, it was before me at last. The great face was so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient. There was a dignity not of earth in its mien, and in its countenance a benignity such as never anything human wore. It was stone, but it seemed sentient. If ever image of stone thought, it was thinking.… All who know what pathos there is in memories of days that are accomplished and faces that have vanished—albeit only a trifling score of years gone by—will have some appreciation of the pathos that dwells in those grave eyes that look so steadfastly back upon the things they knew before History was born—before Tradition had being—things that were, and forms that moved, in a vague era which even Poetry and Romance scarce know of—and passed one by one away and left the stony dreamer solitary in the midst of a strange new age, and uncomprehended scenes.
  • But one turns the page and comes upon the engineer who feeds his locomotive with mummies, occasionally calling out pettishly, “D—n these plebeians, they don’t burn worth a cent—pass out a king.”