Review: The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language.”
~Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Plot summary

“Who could read the programme for the excursion without longing to make one of the party? So Mark Twain acclaims his voyage from New York City to Europe and the Holy Land in June 1867. His adventures produced The Innocents Abroad, a book so funny and provocative it made him an international star for the rest of his life.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain around 1873. Photo: Internet Archive Book Images
Samuel Langhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain around 1873. Photo: Internet Archive Book Images

He was making his first responses to the Old World to Paris, Milan, Florence, Venice, Pompeii, Constantinople, Sebastopol, Balaklava, Damascus, Jerusalem, Nazareth, and Bethlehem. For the first time he was seeing the great paintings and sculptures of the Old Masters. He responded with wonder and amazement but also with exasperation, irritation, and disbelief. Above all he displayed the great energy of his humor, more explosive for us now than for his beguiled contemporaries.” More on Goodreads

On Mark Twain

“Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist. Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, which would later provide the setting for Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. After toiling as a printer in various cities, he became a master riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River, before heading west to join Orion. He was a failure at gold mining, so he next turned to journalism.

He achieved great success as a writer and public speaker. His wit and satire earned praise from critics and peers, and he was a friend to presidents, artists, industrialists, and European royalty.

However, he lacked financial acumen. Though he made a great deal of money from his writings and lectures, he squandered it on various ventures, in particular the Paige Compositor, and was forced to declare bankruptcy. With the help of Henry Huttleston Rogers, however, he eventually overcame his financial troubles.

Born during a visit by Halley’s Comet, he died on its return. He was lauded as the ‘greatest American humorist of his age’, and William Faulkner called Twain ‘the father of American literature’.” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Satire on Americans abroad
  • The nature of people
  • Swindling guides

“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother. I shall always delight to meet an ass after my own heart when I have finished my travels.”
~Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

The Innocents Abroad is the mother book of all travel literature. In 2017, it has been 150 years since Samuel Langhorne Clemens – better known as Mark Twain – took a cruise in Europe and the Middle East. But when one considers the big picture, nothing has changed in the 150 years in terms of human behavior. We are basically still the same, we still possess similar faults and prejudices. And we are still as silly as before, although now we have less fancy hats and poshy clothing.

The Innocents Abroad is a satirical outlook on Americans abroad in the late 1860’s. At the time of the travel aboard Quaker City – a steamship that used to serve as USS Quaker City during the American Civil War – Twain was a young man in his early 30’s.

The sense of humor and level of satire in the book is rather significant, but the contemporary reader feels at times lost in the innuendos and hidden meanings of the time of reporting. Twain leaves no stone unturned, the foreigners of various backgrounds and nations as well as the Pilgrims – as Twain calls his fellow passengers – are mocked without limits. The book could have equally been entitled The Idiots Abroad but I guess the publishers considered the title a bit too harsh.

Image from A history of mediæval and modern Europe for secondary schools (1920). Photo: Internet Archive Book Images (CC)
Crimean Peninsula. Image from A history of medieval and modern Europe for secondary schools (1920). Photo: Internet Archive Book Images (CC)

At many an occasion the contemporary reader might be slightly bored with the eloquent recital on stories from the Bible and at times the description of services and challenges encountered are too lengthy. However, there are very interesting and fruitful passages for the modern reader. I found the description on the Crimean peninsula as well as the parts on what is currently known as Syria as one of the most interesting parts of the book. Twain tells that some of the fellow passengers were interested in collecting travel memorabilia during the voyage. The Crimean War (1853-1856) was not long gone, only a decade had passed when Twain visited Sevastopol and other parts on the Crimean peninsula.

It must have been a breathtaking deal to have been granted an audience with the Tsar Alexander II in Yalta. There are so many historical events in 150 years but on the one hand 1867 only seems to have been yesterday if that makes any sense.

Also check out the book with illustrations available at the British Library.

Photo gallery
The Quaker City in a storm. Photo: The British Library
Quaker City in a storm. Photo: The British Library
Fountain at Versailles. Photo: The British Library
Fountain at Versailles. Photo: The British Library
Patron saint. Photo: The British LIbrary
Patron saint. Photo: The British LIbrary
Other novels and stories by Twain
  • The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County (1865)
  • The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)
  • A Tramp Abroad (1880)
  • The Prince and the Pauper (1881)
  • On the Decay of the Art of Lying (1882)
  • Life on the Mississippi (1883)
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)
  • A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889)
  • Pudd’nhead Wilson (1893)
  • Joan of Arc (1896)
  • The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg (1898)
  • The War Prayer (1900)
  • The Diary of Adam and Eve (1904)
  • How to Tell a Story and Other Essays (1905)
  • The Mysterious Stranger (1916)

More information
Mark Twain Project Online
– Dorothy Butchard: An innocent abroad: Mark Twain’s visit to Russia, published in Russia Beyond the Headlines on 26 February 2015, link retrieved on 4 May 2017
– Project Gutenberg: The Innocents Abroad, released on 16 August 2006, link retrieved on 2 May 2017
– University of Virginia Library: Excerpts from newspaper reviews of Innocents Abroad, published originally in the Buffalo Express on 9 October 1869, link retrieved on 2 May 2017
– William Dean Howells: The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress. A review, published in The Atlantic in the December 1869 issue, link retrieved on 2 May 2017

“Memories which someday will become all beautiful when the last annoyance that encumbers them shall have faded out of our minds.”
~Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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