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Mark Twain's "The Innocents Abroad"

Coincidentally, I re-picked up this 1867 humorous classic travelogue of Mark Twain's for a (re-)glance not too long after Mr. Netanyahu had threatened to (re-)use it for sundry and sordid Middle East polemics. The Israeli Prime Minister had planned to deliver a copy as a gift to Barack Obama last year.

(There's also some general literary special interest in Twain's works going on now, because 2010 is the centenary year of his death.)

The Innocents Abroad tells the tales of the legendary American writer's long trip across Europe and the Near East in the late 1860s. He wrote a series of diary-based articles based on the journey. These ultimately became the book. The travel humor is alive and well today, and not especially outdated, and relates well to the ups and downs of modern tourism. The work, however, is also oft-quoted these days by some Israel supporters, hence Netanyahu's literary excursion.

Twain's account of his desultory Holy Land visit is usually used to demonstrate the minimal presence and/or general backwardness of Palestinian Arab life in the recent past of the area (today: Israel, Jerusalem 2.0, the West Bank, and Gaza with its uncomic Strip). In standard Israeli/Zionist nationalist lore and Paul Newman filmography, the once neglected land is transformed in the 20th Century by the manifestly-destined and returned True Owners from its sleepy grimy primitive empty form into a more clean and civilized place of, well, recurrent terror and strife. (OK, the latter negative reality is not part of the idealized lore.)

Back to Twain and the book in general. Paradoxically and cleverly, America's greatest-ever funny guy manages in Innocents Abroad to both wholly embody and wholly ridicule the classic ugly American on holiday. He and his companions calling all their tour guides "Ferguson", and asking them with fake naivete if this or that great historic figure is now dead, somehow still bemuses.

The book is a bit 19th Century wordy and dense in style, however. Not a totally easy read. And the broad theme, by no means only Twain's, of Americans or Anglo-Saxons going abroad and making fun of backward poor locals for being backward and poor amuses me only occasionally -- ok, a bit more than it should -- but still the book's general humor about our wretched species and the joys and hardships of travel remains steadfastly laugh-out-loud in many places, despite some heavy-handed bigotry and sermonizing.

To use "The Innocents Abroad" in polemics is thus a bit weird. Pro-Israel partisans employing this book to denigrate Palestinian Arab presence and history is like using "This is Spinal Tap" as a rock music guide. Or challenging Sarah Palin's intellect by running a Saturday Night Live sketch.

In Twain's denigrating portrayal of the Holy Land, based on a hot summertime excursion into what are today still the more arid and lesser populated subareas, he was willfully exaggerating ugliness, emptiness, and hopelessness. His primary aim was not anthropology or demographics but to deflate religious Americans who manifest literalist Biblical sentimentalism and credulity.

He spares us no snide put-down or out-and-out defamation about just about any group he comes across, including his own. (His cringe-worthy description of Jews in the town Safed could have been sold to Julius Streicher, and is shamefully or shamelessly overlooked by those advocating the book as a serious resource: "long-nosed, lanky, dyspeptic-looking body-snatchers. . . self-righteousness . . . their specialty.")

For Palestine, he does a more serious job of striking down Biblical sentimentalism by showing as examples what are demonstrably still true today: that the river Jordan is no Mississippi, and Jesus' HQ town of Capernaum is barely a geographic memory.

But that all falls far short of rationalizing the next century's consignment of the descendants of people with whom Twain barely bothers to acquaint himself to the marginalized humanity of refugee camps and collective punishment because, well, things were laughably dirtier and less densely populated a century before.

Like, duh.

The limited value of The Innocents Abroad as a resource on the issue is also actually better found inside the book itself, when read subversively.

For even critics of the misuse of Twain's travel-log in the Palestine debate tend to miss one brief but very revealing passage in Chapter 49. There, Twain momentarily takes in a significantly large expanse of Palestine territory in a different direction from where he is traveling:

The view presented from its highest peak was almost beautiful. Below, was the broad, level plain of Esdraelon, checkered with fields like a chess-board, and full as smooth and level, seemingly; dotted about its borders with white, compact villages, and faintly penciled, far and near, with the curving lines of roads and trails. When it is robed in the fresh verdure of spring, it must form a charming picture . . ..

This little passage about a large expanse viewed as pleasant even in its off-season is forgotten by reader and writer alike. It hardly fits the themes of no-habitation, neglect, or ugliness that are otherwise portrayed. Nor does it fit the image of a complete cynic doing the observation.

Of course, Twain does go on (and then on and on and on and on and on) to say that the whole picture in Palestine is worse than what he just related about the plain of Esdraelon. But he does so first by comparing it to things he witnessed that were also interesting and beautiful around Genoa, Italy. And then he adds that just as in Palestine, the whole place around it is really a dump.

Because no place, not even Italy's Mediterranean coasts and ruins, really makes the cut in Twain's goofball travelogue.

But at least Twain isn't stupidly cited to prove that the Italians never really existed, or that they don't really matter.

Posted by Matthew Hogan at March 6, 2010 09:38 AM
Filed Under: 18th - 20th century , Levant

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