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Mark Twain on Holy Pilgrimages

Mark Twain on Holy Pilgrimages

Mark Twain’s less known book, The Innocents Abroad (1867) was his bestselling book during his lifetime. The sprawling travelogue—six-hundred and eighty-five pages—chronicled his 1869 adventures on the ship from New York to Palestine, the Holy Land, the many stops in between. With Tom Sawyer ingenuity, Twain hustled his passage abroad the Quaker City steamship by convincing the newspaper Alta California to pay for his ticket. The $1250 ticket would be in exchange for serials of his travels, which he sent back periodically while enroute. With humor and brutal honesty, Twaincriticizes everything, from the passengers to the sacred monuments. “But behold how annoyances repeat themselves. We had no sooner gotten rid of the Spain distress than the Gibraltar guides started another—a tiresome repetition of a legend that had nothing very astonishing about it, even in the first place” Basically, it’s Twain unfiltered.
Mark Twain’s less known book, The Innocents Abroad (1867) was his bestselling book during his lifetime.”

Celebrating the book’s 150 year anniversary, the New York Historical Society has created an exhibit Mark Twain and the Holy Land (until Feb 2020), that explores the journey of Samuel Landhorne Clemens aka Mark Twain. Located in a navy blue cavernous room on the second floor, the exhibit includes motley array of collected ephemera—posters advertising grand trips abroad, Steamer Quaker City steamship tickets, maps of the route, a copy of Melville’ pilgrimage book, Clarel, an old copy of The Innocents Abroad, and a Bible Twain bought for his mother among other items. At a quick glance, the collection seems a thread joining artifact with old letters, linked by a video about Twain, just outside the door. Immediately curatorial questions arise, such as how should an author’s work be celebrated? Does one room honor this work? How does one make the printed page come alive in a museum setting? But a closer look, and several loops around the room later, it becomes clear that the exhibit echoes Twain’s premise in The Innocents Abroad, that being the commercialization of the pilgrimage to the to the Holy Land and the realities that lay on the other side of when daydreams of a destination meet reality. In the mid-nineteenth century, a trip to the Holy Land was sold as an exotic, magical journey—improving steamship technology allowed for the new enterprise of tour travel—and the magnificent sales pitches and exaggerations that went with it.

Photo of Date: 1884 Watercolour by Green Nathaniel Everett
Even the initial inspiration for the trip arose from propaganda—Twain was inspired to go after seeing an advertisement. The region, which at the time was known as Palestine, had a small population, mostly farmers and the nomadic Bedouins, and was likely a surprise from the many American Protestants who had great images of the places and the people from where the of the Bible sprang. Jerusalem itself, had a population of 6,000, and was hardly a thriving center of religious activity. The Holy Land, was a place in the mind built on assumptions, inferences, and lust for fascination. The grand tour, the “Pleasure tour”, as Twain refers to the journey, jesting at the illusory aspect  of seeing the rare and the divine, while he tells the backstage realities of such a journey through lively character’s from the regions he travels, referring to them foreigners. Twain asserts that the Holy Land, as was Rome, Venice, even in the most religious of place, was a business. And everyone along the way wanted their payoff.
Twain dispels any and all fanciful thinking of pilgrimage journey’s in his satirical writing.
The Innocents Abroad sold 82,000 in 18 months, and 150,000 copies by 1879. And it’s surprising, but perhaps American audiences were ready for a dose of reality. In 1888, Parker Brothers created a board game The Amazing Game of Innocence Abroad. And Louisa Roope Griswold, who also joined the Quaker City steamship for three months, published A Women’s Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1872).
Placing expectation beside reality, Twain dispels any and all fanciful thinking of pilgrimage journey’s in his satirical writing. He suggests that traveling to faraway destinations lives big and bold in the mind only–as always within reach are ready-made montages, created from images, and words of great destinations—with zero travel time, disappointments, or weariness. Enthralled by fantastic self-manufactured creations—everything is beautiful in dreams of voyages abroad to distant lands. The small exhibit at the New York Historical society guides the viewer through Twain‘s journey of travel motivation, innocent expectation, and his study of the realities and myths of such a pilgrimage.
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