As American as Mark Twain, Jerusalem, and Shattered Illusions

In time for July 4, an exhibit and catalog at the National Library in Jerusalem highlight 19th Century U.S. interest in a Palestine the visiting Twain bitterly called "dream-land."

If there had been no Holy Land - a literally disillusioning place of unkempt, faith-based absurdity - Mark Twain might have had to invent one. In some ways, for generations of Americans, he did.

Although his 1867 visit to Palestine was a relatively brief stop on a tour of Europe and the Mediterranean, it formed an important part of Innocents Abroad, the runaway best-seller that made Mark Twain America's leading author and humorist years before he would write Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

Twain's visit, as well as those of author Herman Melville and the likes of Ulysses S. Grant and a 15-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, are at the heart of "Dreamland," an exhibit at the National Library in Jerusalem, a joint project of the library and the Los Angeles-based Shapell Manuscript Foundation.

"Palestine is desolate and unlovely," Twain writes, in a passage that lends the exhibition its name. As the exhibit illustrates, Twain almost single-handedly transformed the way Americans saw the Holy Land, from a vigorously marketed, church-appropriate ideal, to a dim colonial backwater. "Palestine is no more of this work-day world," he concludes, with no small exaggeration and over-simplification of his own. "It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land."

Though based on painstaking scholarship, the exhibit features the kinds of arresting, time-traveling connections the sardonic Twain might well have loved. A diary entry in the flowing penmanship of the young Theodore Roosevelt sums up a visit to the Western Wall in 1873:

"In the afternoon we went to the Wailing Place of the Jews. Many of the women were in earnest, but most of the men were evidently shamming."

In a twist that Twain would surely have savored as well as skewered, 120 years after the author stayed and wrote part of Innocents Abroad in the Mediterranean Hotel in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City, then-Minister of Trade and Industry Ariel Sharon sparked an uproar by buying an apartment in the same building, which was later taken over for classroom and living space by the right-wing Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva. A scale model of the hotel as it looked in the 19th century was built especially for the exhibit.

Also on display is the first modern travel guide to the Holy Land, John Murray's 1858 A Handbook for Travelers in Syria and Palestine. A favorite of Twain's, the book offered, in addition to currency exchange rates, advice on which clothes to pack, and opening hours for businesses,  recommendations for how much to dole out in "baksheesh" (bribery payments).

In another display case, a well-preserved, oversized sheet of paper turns out to be a U.S. passport of 1846, issued to the Arabic-speaking, Holy Land-bound missionary and biblical researcher Eli Smith. The passport was personally signed by then-U.S. Secretary of State James Buchanan, later to be president. In an era before passport photos, Smith is identified on the document as "Eyes dark, Nose common, Mouth common, Hair dark, Complexion dark, Face round."

Until bitter accounts of the likes of Twain and Melville reached American shores in the late 1800s, the tendency of artists, authors and traveling lecturers had been to treat the Holy Land with a zealous and often inventive romanticism, stoking illusions in the service of Protestant sermonizing and Sunday School instruction.

An idealized Jerusalem, and the ideal of building the City On The Hill (a New Jerusalem in North America), had informed American clergy and urban planners since the 1600s. But the 19th century, with its emphasis on scientific exactitude and an explosion of new technology, was to radically change both travel and the study of the Holy Land.

The transition can be seen in an original lithograph of Jerusalem by the Scottish artist David Roberts, working in the 1830s and 40s, who insisted that his sketches and paintings were accurate, but who found himself unable to free himself of the cosmetics of the old.

Though Roberts was precise in rendering elements of architecture and landscape, he was something of the Father of Photoshop in carefully excising, as the exhibit's extensive new catalog notes, "the reality, squalor and dereliction that caused Roberts to write: 'I have often laid down my pencil in despair.'"

"Roberts is exacting, but he does do a great deal of 'cleaning up,'" remarks Dr. Milka Levy-Rubin, the library's Humanities Curator. As a result of the mystique and charm created by romanticized images of the Holy Land, "travelers would come here and experience a shock. The smells, the mess, the hardship – all of their fantasies were shattered."

Among those most painfully affected was Melville, whose 1857 visit was so disheartening that he took nearly 20 years before completing an epic poem based on the experience. "A caked, depopulated hell," was how he summed up the Holy Land. "No country will more quickly dissipate romantic expectations than Palestine – particularly Jerusalem."

As the exhibit relates, one of the places Melville came to know was the Mount Hope agricultural colony near Jaffa, established to teach Jews farm work. In an attack a year after Melville's visit, Arabs murdered a member of the colony, and raped his wife and his mother-in-law. The attack, after which the family returned to America, was to haunt Melville. In time, it would also profoundly affect author John Steinbeck, the grandnephew of the murdered man, who nearly a century later would echo the events in his novel East of Eden.

In perhaps the most astonishing display, there is a handbill for "Dickson's Palestine Museum," a traveling show in which only months after the Mount Hope attack, the murder victim's brother-in-law, appearing in "full ARAB DRESS" would give "a thrilling narrative of that awful night."

Accompanied by a collection of Holy Land displays including "Jewish unleavened bread," water from the Dead Sea, scorpions, centipedes and crabs, Henry A. Dickson's presentation, the handbill promised, afforded "the best opportunity ever offered of gaining a correct knowledge of Palestine, agreed by all to be the most interesting spot on the globe."

Ten years, a civil war, and the Lincoln assassination later, with many of Americans' illusions about themselves having been violently dispelled, the public was more than receptive to Twain's mordant, flagrantly irreverent, though occasionally and jarringly sentimental, view of Holy Land travel. During Twain's lifetime, Innocents Abroad, compiled from 51 dispatches to San Francisco's Alta California Daily newspaper, outsold all of his other books.

Part of the reason may have been an instruction that Twain gives himself in the course of his journey, one that resonates no less today: "I must studiously and faithfully unlearn a great many things I have somehow absorbed concerning Palestine."

The exhibit may be seen at the library's second floor gallery, Sunday through Thursday 9 A.M. to 7 P.M.; Fridays, 9 A.M. to 1 PM. Hebrew University, Givat Ram Campus.

On July 4th, at 8 P.M., the library will hold a special event, "America Dreams of Jerusalem," to mark the publication of the catalog, with talks by Hebrew University professors and Army Radio's Yaron Dekel, as well as live music.

Mark Twain exhibit
Shapell Manuscript Foundation