Commonplace · vol. 4 · no. 3 · April 2004

Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom
Traveling with Twain in an Age of Simulations
Rereading and reliving The Innocents Abroad
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV


I have been a Mark Twain fan since I was six years old, even though I did not read a word he wrote before turning ten. What made me a fan was not hearing one of his stories read aloud. Nor was it seeing a play, television show, or film that did it. What made me a fan was my first trip to Disneyland. One of my favorite sections of the theme park immediately became Tom Sawyer’s Island, and I concluded that anyone who could provide the inspiration for it was worth admiring. When I finally got around to reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, I was gratified to discover that Twain really was the great writer that I had imagined him to be. I was also relieved that the characters I met on the page behaved like the ones I had conjured up during Disneyland daydreams.

Things have not always worked out quite this way with expectations formed at Anaheim’s famous theme park. Sometimes, the real thing has failed to live up to the promise of the simulation. Other times, encountering the original has left me feeling that Disney did not do it justice. Learning to drive a car fits into the first category, while seeing the Alps fits into the second. Most books first encountered in childhood and revisited years later fit someplace in between. While The Adventures of Tom Sawyer pleasantly confirmed a set of preconceived notions, encountering other books of Twain’s has often worked out quite differently. When I took a course devoted to the author while a college sophomore, I found that some of the texts we read fit in neatly with images I brought with me into the class. Others, however, most definitely did not. By that point, there was a lot that I knew–or, rather, thought I knew–about the author’s life and work. Many different kinds of things had shaped my notions about him–not just those early trips to Disneyland, but also assorted films and television shows, and even some firsthand encounters with Twain’s books. Taking the class, I found that some of my notions were simply wrong. For example, I came in thinking of Twain as someone who only wrote short stories and novels. It was a surprise to find out how large a role travel writings and essays had played in establishing his reputation as a writer. And in my mind Twain was linked only with the South and the Midwest, so it was surprising to discover that he had spent important parts of his life in California and on the East Coast. I guess, most of all, I was surprised to find out how many works by Twain had not been transformed into shows or films. The works I read for that class that I had already been exposed to in some way beforehand, such as A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and The Prince and the Pauper, were certainly enjoyable. But the books that made the deepest impression on me then were several that I had never heard of before.

There was something refreshing about reading a book like this, which I came to completely unburdened by expectations. There was no need to ponder, as I read, whether The Wonderful World of Disney had handled the material well.

One of these was The Innocents Abroad, which first appeared in 1869. The book offers a humorous account of an 1867 trip to Europe and the Middle East that Twain took as part of an early group tour. There was something refreshing about reading a book like this, which I came to completely unburdened by expectations. There was no need to ponder, as I read, whether The Wonderful World of Disney had handled the material well. Nor did I find myself thinking about the odd choice a studio had made when casting the lead for a cinematic rendition, as happened when I read Connecticut Yankee with images of Bing Crosby in my head.

Instead, reading Innocents Abroad, which was adapted from letters to newspapers that Twain wrote while taking his tour, I could focus on appreciating the writing simply for its own sake. Well, not quite. The professor teaching the class, though he did a great job at bringing Twain and his times alive, was a bit obsessed with Freudian ideas for my taste. This meant that his students were told to remain vigilantly on the lookout for the appearance of certain kinds of symbols and images. And we were encouraged to be mindful always of how Twain’s humor was linked to a dark view of life and a pessimistic vision of human nature. The professor’s injunctions, though, did little to hinder my uncomplicated enjoyment of books like Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, another book previously unknown to me that became a favorite. In fact, when I started to reread the former, fittingly enough during a recent trip to France (one of the countries described in its pages), I could not remember a single passage that had revealed a Freudian outlook. When I returned to the book some twenty-two years after first encountering it, the only specific passages from it I remembered were silly ones that had made me laugh.

Fig. 1
Fig. 1. Palace of the Tuileries and Louvre, from Anna Eliot Ticknor, An American Family in Paris (New York, 1869), 51. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

If one section of Innocents stuck most in my memory, it was the part of chapter 27 that finds Twain describing, to delirious effect, how he and some mischievous co-conspirators flummoxed one of their innumerable guides. Sick of having various guides in Italy tell them endless stories about Christopher Columbus, assuming that the great "Christo Columbo" was the one Italian about whom all Americans wanted to know everything, Twain and his partners in mischief took to pretending that they had never heard of the explorer. When the guide showed them a document written by Columbus, they merely commented on the poor quality of the penmanship. ("Why, I have seen boys in America only fourteen years old who could write better than that," one of Twain’s companions says.) They then asked naively whether this Columbo fellow was dead, a query that greatly irritated the poor guide. So, too, did their irrelevant follow-up questions, such as whether Columbus had died from measles and whether his parents were still alive.

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