Mark Twain is revered today for his liberal sympathies, as a satirist who punctured pomposity, hypocrisy, and pretension. But to dwell only on the “irreverent” aspects of his work is to see only a partial picture. His Christian background is evident throughout “The Innocents Abroad,” which reflects the journey of all human beings to the heavenly homeland.

In 1867, the San Francisco Alta Californian assigned its 31-year-old reporter Mark Twain to cover a steamboat pleasure excursion to the Mediterranean. Twain’s account of the trip was published two years later as The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress. The sprawling travelogue became the bestselling book of Twain’s career, fixing his voice and persona in the public mind.

The book’s irreverence has been often noted (and quoted) but less remarked upon has been its shape, which has the mythic quality of a great epic. It is in a true sense a pilgrimage, as Twain’s subtitle suggests; the allusion to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is not meant frivolously. The book has a definite American resonance too. The Pilgrim Fathers emigrated to the New World in search of freedom from the despotism and corruption in Europe. By Twain’s time, a class of “new pilgrims” felt themselves drawn back to the Old World, for reasons both spiritual and cultural. Twain’s traveling companions aboard the Quaker City were pious Christian folk interested in discovering their roots, and that is why the journey culminated in the Holy Land.

That grand goal came only after the travelers had genuflected at many cultural spots in Europe. Twain has reactions similar to those that many travelers in Europe still have today—admiring the ease and gracious living of the French and Italians, for example, and contrasting this with the driven and businesslike pace of life in America. He views Old Master artwork with a mixture of admiration and skepticism—suggesting, for instance, that they might have varied their usual repertoire of saints and martyrs with a canvas or two of Columbus discovering America.

Twain’s candid reactions to foreign cultures savor of an age that knew nothing of political correctness. The further removed a society is from Anglo-Saxon norms, the dimmer Twain’s view of it, with Islamic societies receiving the sharpest invective (“these degraded Turks and Arabs”). He finds the Hagia Sophia mosque dingy and gaudy, and a hilariously disastrous session in a Turkish bath explodes all his illusions about Middle Eastern luxuriance.

His comments on Catholicism are more complex and interesting. Twain freely admits to the anti-Catholicism of his upbringing and that this has conditioned him to “find it much easier to discover Catholic faults than Catholic merits.” He then breaks with custom and praises the Catholic monks that hosted him and his fellow travelers in the desert of Palestine. He later declares that “all men ought to thank the Catholics” for preserving sacred sites as centers of devotion; “If it had been left to Protestants to do this most worthy work, we would not even know where Jerusalem is today.”

Twain lavishes praise on the Gothic Cathedral of Milan, calling it “the princeliest creation that ever brain of man conceived” and showing real appreciation for the qualities that make up the Gothic style. Yet he can also complain that the excessive decoration in Italian churches would be better used to help the poor and applauds the Italian government’s policy of confiscating church property. If Twain sounds a little like Judas in the story of the Anointing at Bethany, perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that the “fripperies” he complains about were just that.

By the time they reach the Holy Land, the pilgrims are surfeited with sightseeing; yet their journey has just begun. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the apex of the entire trip. Here, in the shadow of the Cross, Twain’s biting sarcasm gives way to a sincere reverence for the places associated with Christ’s life, which bring home for him the reality of the Incarnation. “Nazareth. . . has an air about it of being precisely as Jesus left it, and one finds himself saying all the time, ‘The boy Jesus has stood in this doorway—has played in that street—has touched these stones with his hands—has rambled over these chalky hills.’ ”

Yet for Twain the Holy Land also brings a certain disillusionment. He is astonished to realize that much of the region could easily fit into one of the states of the Union, and that some Old Testament kings governed a territory that was no bigger than a typical American county. “The word ‘Palestine’ always brought to my mind a vague suggestion of a country as large as the United States…. I suppose it was because I could not conceive of a small country having so large a history.”

Twain is also put off by the the dirt, poverty, and the barrenness of the landscape, all of which erase the idyllic images he formed as a child in Sunday school. Twain concludes that some places are best kept as an idea or ideal in the mind, a stimulus to imagination and belief. “Palestine is no more of this workaday world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition—it is dreamland.”

By journey’s end, and after having swum in the Sea of Galilee and eaten lunch under a fig tree near Caparnaum, Twain and his companions have changed mentally and spiritually. The Old World, which they had previously known only through pictures and books, has become real for them. They have acquired the ability to laugh at their own foolishness and gaucherie as they bumble across the landscape: “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can be until he goes abroad.” Twain concludes that it is the spiritual purpose of a journey, rather than the hundred-and-one annoyances we suffer along the way, that remains in the memory to nourish us.

Along the way, Twain never misses an opportunity to snipe at one of his favorite satirical targets, spurious relics. A visit to the traditional burial place of Adam gives rise to a lampoon that is secretly profound: “The tomb of Adam! How touching it was, here in a land of strangers, far away from home and friends and all who cared for me, thus to discover the grave of a blood relation. True, a distant one, but still a relation.” One of the most endearing aspects of Twain is that he includes himself in the brotherhood of sinners and fools that make up humanity.

Twain is revered today for his liberal sympathies, as a satirist who punctured pomposity, hypocrisy, and pretension. Yet the author of The Innocents Abroad is a man whose sensibilities are in some ways alien to our times. Many of his blunt remarks on foreign societies would not pass muster today. But even more remarkable is how Twain identifies both himself and his civilization, not as “Western,” but as “Christian,” without any qualification. This implicit self-understanding is a measure of the gulf that separates us from Twain, for whom the symbols of Old World culture were more than items on a tourist’s checklist, but touched the life of the viewer on the deepest level.

That Christian background is evident in the shape of the book, which reflects the journey of all human beings to the heavenly homeland—even if Twain gives us a salutary reminder that most of the earth is far from heavenly. But to dwell only on the “irreverent” aspects of The Innocents Abroad is to see only a partial picture. Twain’s mixture of burlesque and wide-eyed wonder is a more real, a more Catholic, reaction to the world than many a more reverent travel guide.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Mount Tabor” (1855) by Catherine Tobin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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