When we talk about great travel writing, few put Mark Twain in that category, and one reason may be that few have read his book The Innocents Abroad. If you want to know what has—and hasn’t changed—about the travel experience since 1867, we highly recommend you dive into this fascinating piece of writing. Open the book to any page, and you’ll learn something new, even though the words were written more than 146 years ago. Now read Lisa Blake’s current take on Mr. Twain’s travels.
In 1867, Mark Twain embarked on an expedition that took him to ports around the world, some of which are still exotic today. From locations like Turkey, the Azores, Paris, Russia, Egypt, and Italy, he wrote letters recounting his adventures to San Francisco’s Alta California newspaper and the New York Herald that appeared in print as a regular column. Upon his return, they were compiled and edited, and became Twain’s first major book; the often hilarious, always insightful travelogue The Innocents Abroad. Now, in the era of social media, his words have become something else altogether, taking Twain for a joy ride through cyberspace. As a result, meme fans have a new motto to make them feel enlightened, but they completely miss its meaning.
“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 can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Today that quote is everywhere online, from coffee cups to shower curtains. Having just read The Innocents Abroad, which concludes with those lines, I’m pretty sure Twain would find this revelation hilarious, not to mention ironic. Why? His words are a reflection. They are an insight it took him thousands of words, many miles, and a full year of introspection to realize—that the journey had changed him.
When Twain first boards the Quaker City steamer docked in New York Harbor, he’s as ethnocentric, racist, and chauvinistic as every other white man of his era. Then, one by one, he is transformed by the pains of adventure. Conversations with the locals convert him. He begins the journey a tourist but emerges at the end a traveler.
By 1869, when Twain’s sitting in his home in San Francisco composing the book’s last chapter, he is filled with sentimental musings. Even mishaps along the way, moments that seemed catastrophic at the time, are now happy memories. Whatever inconveniences he endured—an endless parade of dreadful tour guides (all of whom he named “Ferguson”), a butcherous shave in Paris, the flu in Syria, being fumigated for cholera in Italy, lame mules in the Holy Land—were now moments he cherished. It’s from this place of gratitude for the opportunity to experience different cultures—having seen the world through the eyes of others—that his heart is opened wide. This allowed him, finally, to come to this conclusion; “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow mindedness…”
I’ve lost count of how many times my big-hearted, well-meaning friends have posted those words on Facebook or pinned them on Pinterest. But this brilliant line is so much more than a meme—even if our high-tech, low-touch world, with its penchant for pithy feel-goodisms, has reduced it to such.
By starting at the end, we lose a great deal. Grasping on to these two concluding sentences and wearing them on a t-shirt misses the profundity of Twain’s message completely. Those lines represent a hard won lesson learned a harder way. Before we can wear the t-shirt or raise the coffee cup, we should also earn that insight. Twain came to accept that life on the road was unpleasant at times. By standing face-to-face with people from different cultures in these faraway lands he had no choice but to confront his biased views. The experience wasn’t always pretty, but he was a better man for it.
Travelers in 2015 should be as open today to the experience of transformation through travel as Twain was in 1867. If you start out thinking you already know everything, then you miss the lessons that adventure teaches along the way.
By Lisa Blake for PeterGreenberg.com