This Day in Jewish History

1869: Mark Twain Visits the Holy Land and Is Supremely Unimpressed

In 'Innocents Abroad,' his book on Palestine (among other places), Mark Twain sought realism over romance and, frankly, his impressions were not good, ranging from 'unpicturesque' to 'unsightly'.

AP

On July 20, 1869, Mark Twain published his book “Innocents Abroad,” his account of his journey to Europe and the Holy Land. It was the second book of the 33-year-old writer, and ended up being the best-selling of his works published during his lifetime.

The genesis of “Innocents Abroad, or, The New Pilgrims Progress” – its full title – was in his decision to join a “great pleasure excursion” organized by the Brooklyn, New York,  Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, in early 1867.  Plymouth Church was led by the nationally known figure Henry Ward Beecher, a leading abolitionist prior to the Civil War (and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the anti-slavery polemic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”).

Some 70 members of the church joined the voyage, which took place aboard the steamship Quaker City, which several years earlier, during the war, had been leased for use by the Union army.

Twain (who was born Samuel Clemens in 1835, and died in 1910) arranged with the San Francisco newspaper the Alta California, to join the church’s deluxe tour of Europe and the Near East: The paper would pay the $1,250 expense of the 163-day voyage, and the writer would turn out two letters a week describing his experiences. 

The Quaker City departed New York on June 8, 1867, and returned on November 19 that same year. Before arriving in Palestine, it sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and made stops in Marseille, several ports in Italy, Athens, Constantinople, Odessa and Smyrna.

The touring group entered Palestine on horse-back from the north, by way of Lebanon and Damascus. Once in the Land of Israel, they visited such sites as the Banias, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Jenin and Nablus before arriving at Jerusalem.

An unromantic at heart

The Quaker City departed New York on June 8, 1867, and returned on November 19 that same year. Before arriving in Palestine, it sailed through the Straits of Gibraltar and made stops in Marseille, several ports in Italy, Athens, Constantinople, Odessa and Smyrna.

The touring group entered Palestine on horse-back from the north, by way of Lebanon and Damascus. Once in the Land of Israel, they visited such sites as the Banias, the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Jenin and Nablus before arriving at Jerusalem.

“Innocents Abroad” is famously known for its unsentimental descriptions of sites in the Holy Land, which Mark Twain deliberately meant to contrast with the language of other recent travelogues, such as those by William Cowper Prime and William M. Thompson, which he felt were grandiose and romanticized.

In terms of the appearance of the land, he writes, as he finishes his visit, that “Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent.” 

Little less wind and water?

The travelers left the Holy Land via the port of Jaffa, from which they journeyed to Alexandria, Egypt, and Tangiers, before heading back across the Atlantic.

Upon returning home, Twain began almost immediately reworking his letters, which he later claimed needed to have “some of the wind and water squeezed out of them.” (He also removed some of the more irreverent lines.) He then signed a contract with Elisha Bliss, owner of the American Publishing Co., of Hartford, Connecticut, to republish the correspondence in the form of a book.

When he learned that the Alta California claimed to own the copyright and was planning a book version of its own, Twain traveled to California, and worked out an agreement with the paper.

After finishing preparation of the manuscript, he showed it to his friend, the writer Bret Harte, who gave him extensive editing recommendations, and Twain, as he wrote to another friend, “followed [his] orders strictly.”

The book was sold by subscription, by a sales force of some 100 agents, who traveled around the U.S. with a prospectus, and presold it, at a cost of $4. Both before and after publication, Twain partook of grueling speaking tours, intended to sell additional copies.

He did well, selling 70,000 units of the book in the first year after publication.