- The Good: An honest and witty take on being an American tourist
- The Bad: Uneven and long
- The Literary: Twain’s best selling book throughout his life
The very-American Mark Twain boards the paddle steamer Quaker City in June 1867 in pursuit of the Old World and the Holy Land. Compared to the insufferably romantic travel books in circulation at the time, Twain offered a no-nonsense, honest, and delightfully funny alternative, which helped catapult him into fame.
Twain and his compatriots hire tour guides in just about every city and look forward to regaling their friends and family back home with stories of their adventures and encounters with local idiosyncrasies. It turns out most of their tour guides do not speak English so well, or get a small percentage if they buy from certain shops, or worse, have dreadfully dull and forgetful names. So Twain and company get endless hours of fun from calling each and every one of their tour guides by the name of Ferguson, despite none of them being so named. And in each museum they ask of every renowned Renaissance man, “Is he dead?”
Antics aside, of which there are many, Twain gives quite honest reports of the endless tourism, walking about all day, seeing important churches and works of art one after the other. In Italy, he decides all the paintings of the Madonna and the most appreciated paintings in the world are not so great after all. In the Holy Land, his suspicion of all the relics and ancient landmarks increases as his pocket lightens from all the requisite donations and fees.
Occasionally there is a sense of wonder in the numbers of people in the street in Constantinople, or the great sad face of the Sphinx in Egypt whose eyes “gaze over the ocean of time,” or the ruins of a long dead and great civilization where lizards now live in the Appian way. Most of all, modern travelers will see themselves in the small details of everyday life between cultures, whether it be the lack of soap in a hotel bath, or the times of meals, or the number of beggars on the street. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness”, but at the same time one can’t help but think of how much better we do it at home.
It’s an extremely long book, appearing to be a day-by-day account of the entire journey. The witty musings are interspersed with long dry descriptions of places and people, contemporary or historical. The tone is problematically uneven, so it’s difficult to tell when he’s genuinely interested in a subject or landscape or story. I struggled to hold my attention between the plain spoken folksy humor. It’s clear this is an unpolished early work.
As much as I enjoy Mark Twain and his work, he was a fallible man. On the subject of race, this book shows a decidedly forward thinking position regarding the rights and abilities of black people. His feelings are justified when he encounters successful and educated black people in Europe. It’s refreshing to come across these opinions in his writing. But for almost every positive reference to black people there is a negative references to Native Americans. He jokes that he’ll bring one of the savages over to scalp someone whose been rude to him. It’s no joke—Twain wrote more than once that he supported extermination of the race. I had hoped in a book about his travels to Europe I could enjoy his wit without acknowledgement of his violent racism.
Still, I recommended for Twain fans and travelers!
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.