Posted by: Lizzie Ross | June 4, 2010

Classic Friday: Mark Twain in Europe

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain (1869), Grosset & Dunlap, 472 pp.

In the first paragraph of Chapter V, Twain notes a lunar rarity.

We had the phenomenon of a full moon located just in the same spot in the heavens at the same hour every night. The reason of this singular conduct on the part of the moon did not occur to us at first, but it did afterward when we reflected that we were gaining about twenty minutes every day, because we were going east so fast — we gained just enough every day to keep along with the moon. It was becoming an old moon to the friends we had left behind us, but to us Joshuas it stood still in the same place, and remained always the same.

When I first read this book for a college course more than three decades ago, I noticed that little exaggeration and had to wonder how much of the rest of the book (another 450 pages) would be equally bent away from the truth. Would Twain be a trustworthy travel guide?

Turns out, it doesn’t matter. He takes such joy in deflating pomposity and over-romanticized history. He perfectly catches the impatience of the traveler who has seen too much art. In Rome, there was no escaping the works of Michelangelo:

He designed St. Peter’s; he designed the Pope; he designed the Pantheon, the uniform of the Pope’s soldiers, the Tiber, the Vatican, the Coliseum, the Capitol, the Tarpeian Rock, the Barberini Palace, St. John Lateran, the Campagna, the Appian Way, the Seven Hills, the Baths of Caracalla, the Claudian Aqueduct, the Cloaca Maxima — the eternal bore designed the Eternal City, and unless all men and books do lie, he painted everything in it!

So Twain and his friends invent a game to “guy the guides”. Whenever their man in Rome shows them a new work, they ask if it’s by Michelangelo. The guide “grows so tired of that unceasing question sometimes, that he dreads to show us anything at all.” When the poor man shows them a letter written by Columbus, they refuse to believe the explorer capable of such poor penmanship. They ask the name of the mummy pointed out to them in the Vatican and complain when they hear the body’s 3,000 years old; they’d prefer to see a fresh corpse.

There is one remark … which never yet has failed to disgust these guides. We use it always, when we can think of nothing else to say. After they have exhausted their enthusiasm pointing out to us and praising the beauties of some ancient bronze image or broken-legged statue, we look at it stupidly and in silence for five, ten, fifteen minutes — as long as we can hold out, in fact — and then ask: “Is — is he dead?”

I can’t resist mentioning one more hilarious moment, Twain’s retelling of the romance of Heloise and Abelard, whose tomb he sees in Père la Chaise cemetery. He thoroughly skewers the two lovers; his sympathy lies with Heloise’s uncle, and you can’t help agreeing with him after reading his version of their story.

Twain’s tour takes him to the Holy Land, where he is finally awed. And who would have thought that one could hear echoes of The Grateful Dead in Twain? But here’s the book’s final paragraph:

At last, one pleasant morning, we steamed up the harbor of New York, all on deck, all dressed in Christian garb — by special order, for there was a latent disposition in some quarters to come out as Turks — and, amid a waving of handkerchiefs from welcoming friends, the glad pilgrims noted the shiver of the decks that told that ship and pier had joined hands again, and the long, strange cruise was over. Amen.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: