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Mark Twain, American Vandal

03/10/2015 09:18 am ET | Updated May 10, 2015

When 31-year-old journalist Samuel Clemens climbed aboard the transatlantic steamship Quaker City in New York harbor in June 1867 for a five-month-long pleasure cruise to Europe and the Holy Land, he had only the vaguest notion of what lay ahead. He planned to write a series of travel dispatches for the San Francisco Alta California newspaper, which was funding his trip. Beyond that, he hoped to have a little fun along the way.

Clemens could not have foreseen that the book he ultimately wrote about the voyage, The Innocents Abroad, would make him rich and famous under his pen name, Mark Twain, and that it would become the best-selling American book since Uncle Tom's Cabin a decade and a half earlier. Nor could he have guessed that the book would revolutionize travel writing and inspire an entire generation of Americans to follow his example and go abroad proudly, uncowed by Old World rituals and traditions. The Innocents Abroad would give readers a new way of looking at the world -- amused, skeptical and unimpressed, which is to say, like Twain himself.

The Quaker City cruise, the first prepackaged luxury cruise in American history, was the brainchild of bankrupt Wall Street shipping magnate Charles Duncan. Originally marketed through the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Congregational Church of Brooklyn (of which Duncan was a member), the cruise attracted a fundamentally religious, socially conservative, independently wealthy group of travelers. Twain was none of those things himself, but he went along anyway.

In going abroad, Twain joined an avalanche of American tourists in the years immediately following the Civil War. Advances in ship design and technology had cut transatlantic travel time in half, allowing Americans to travel to Europe at a fraction of the previous time and cost. These advances, in turn, opened the market to a new pool of self-made, middle-class Americans, who were less likely to be intimidated by long-standing notions of class and convention than earlier, more refined tourists. Mark Twain, an inveterate scoffer, was the perfect travel guide for this new kind of traveler.

Prior to The Innocents Abroad, American travel writers had been deferential to the point of worship when going abroad. Washington Irving, one of the first prominent writers to tour to the Continent, set the template for future travel writers when he announced in 1820 his desire "to wander over the scenes of renowned achievement, to tread, as it were, in the footsteps of antiquity -- to loiter about the ruined castle -- to meditate on the falling tower -- to scamper, in short, from the common-place realities of the present, and lose myself among the shadowy grandeurs of the past."

Twain would take a different approach. An experienced journalist and humorist, he was less concerned with what foreigners thought of him that with what he thought, and could make, of them. As he would later say of The Innocents Abroad, he wanted "to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him. I offer no apologies for any departures from the usual style of travel-writing that may be charged against me -- for I think I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not." Impartial and honestly may have been stretching the point, considering the creative liberties Twain would take with his book, but he definitely saw things with his own set of eyes, and he wrote about what he saw in a wised-up, drolly unimpressed voice -- the voice of the American Vandal Abroad.

The American Vandal represented the best (and sometimes the worst) of the national character. Male or female -- there were 17 women on the Quaker City cruise -- the Vandal was a brazen, unapologetic tourist of foreign lands, generally unimpressed with the local flora and fauna but ever ready to appropriate any historical or religious trinket that he or she could carry off. Literally nothing was sacred to the Vandal. Twain didn't exempt himself from that company. In an advertising prospectus for The Innocents Abroad, he cheerfully posed as a cartoon Vandal, toting a tomahawk, a bow and arrow, and a monogrammed carpetbag. It was a role he would continue to play, when the mood struck him, for the rest of his life.

Twain and his fellow Vandals visited the Azores, Gibraltar, Tangier, France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Russia, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Spain and Bermuda. They saw the Paris Exhibition, the Roman Coliseum, the Greek Parthenon, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Notre Dame Cathedral, Napoleon's Tomb, Milan's La Scala, Venice's Grand Canal, the Vatican, Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii, and the recent battlefield at Sevastopol. In Italy's great churches they saw, by Twain's careful count, "thirteen thousand St. Jeromes, twenty-two thousand St. Marks, sixteen thousand St. Mathews, sixty thousand St. Sebastians, and four millions of assorted monks, undesignated."

Twain kept a running tally of the number of religious relics they were shown: a piece of the True Cross in every church they went into, a keg's worth of nails from said cross, three separate crowns of thorns, and enough bones of the martyred St. Denis "for them to duplicate him, if necessary." As for Da Vinci's "Last Supper," Twain found it inferior to the numerous amateur copies being made of it. Napoleon's horses, he said, "had kicked the legs off most of the disciples when they (the horses, not the disciples,) were stabled there more than a half a century ago." As for the disciples themselves, "Simon looks seedy; John looks sick, and half of the other blurred and damaged apostles have a general expression of discouragement about them."

The tour's ultimate destination, the Holy Land, proved a great disappointment to Twain and the other Vandals. The Sea of Galilee was "a solemn, sailless, tintless lake, as unpoetical as any bath-tub on earth." Jesus's boyhood home at Nazareth was filled with "dirt and rags and squalor; vermin, hunger and wretchedness." Jerusalem was "mournful and dreary and lifeless"; Bethlehem was overrun with "troops of beggars and relic-peddlers"; and the Church of the Nativity was "tricked out in the usual tasteless style observable in all the holy places of Palestine." Twain did confess to shedding a manly tear at the Grave of Adam, but only because he was moved to discover "the grave of a blood relation so far from home." At the Hill of Evil Counsel where Judas Iscariot had hanged himself, Twain wondered aloud why Judas couldn't have hanged himself a little closer to town.

By the time one of the Vandals attempted to chip off the nose of the Great Sphinx in Egypt as a memento, the trip was drawing to a close. On November 19, 1867, the same day that Charles Dickens landed in Boston for his second and last reading tour of the United States, the Quaker City steamed back into New York harbor. Over the course of five months and one week, Twain and his companions had traveled more than 20,000 miles, docked in 15 ports, and visited 12 major cities and countless flyspeck villages in eight sovereign countries and three islands. In true Vandal fashion they had brought back with them great trunk loads of souvenirs -- legally purchased or illegally carried off -- and memories enough to last a lifetime. Thanks to Mark Twain and The Innocents Abroad, they would last a good deal longer than that.

Roy Morris Jr. is the author of American Vandal: Mark Twain Abroad (Harvard University Press, 2015).

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