Mark Twain and the Holy Land

December 11, 2019
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New-York Historical Society
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October 25, 2019 - February 2, 2020


Of all the topics that might have engaged young Samuel Langhorne Clemens’ imagination in 1867, none was less likely or less promising than Palestine, the Holy Land. Known for his biting satire and humorous short pieces on California and the West, Clemens (1835–1910) found the subject that would propel him to national acclaim almost by accident. 

Clemens’ serendipitous discovery of a “pleasure cruise” to Europe and the Near East, his success at inveigling his way onto the journey, and reactions to his fellow passengers and to the people and places he visited came to happy fruition in The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress. No book of his ever sold more copies in his lifetime.  

2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Innocents, the book that catapulted its author to national fame and made Sam Clemens into Mark Twain. In it, he unveiled a new species: the American traveler, innocent of preconceptions and unafraid of calling them as he saw them. To be American, Twain seemed to proclaim, was to be self-made and unburdened by the weight of tradition.

But The Innocents Abroad is also about the author’s complex relationship with the Bible and the Holy Land. His often jaded view of the sites he visited did not carry over to the Bible, which remained an imaginative touchstone for him.  Hovering above the stark realities of 19th-century Palestine, the Biblical Holy Land endured as a capacious sanctuary of the sacred. Even to Mark Twain.

Mark Twain and the Holy Land is organized by the New-York Historical Society in partnership with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. 

"Human nature appears to be just the same, all over the world."
- The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 23

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For American Protestants of the 19th century, the Holy Land was sacred territory, the land on which Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and Jesus walked centuries ago. All of the different sects and strands of Protestantism united around a single object: the Bible. The Bible was arguably the formative book of the American Republic, a touchstone, the source of truth and the guarantor of honesty. For American Protestants, the Holy Land conjured up awe, reverence, and mystery.

In reality, this area, known as Palestine, was a province of Syria and an impoverished backwater of the declining Ottoman Empire. A mix of settled farmers and peripatetic Bedouins lightly populated the region. Jerusalem, its center, had a population of barely 8,000.  Even as it ebbed, the Ottoman Empire remained tolerant of religious diversity, and Jerusalem accommodated pockets of Christians and Jews.

In the 19th century, romanticism gave visual expression to fantasies of a sublime Holy Land.  The monumental landscapes of David Roberts, for example, portrayed Egypt and Palestine in epic scale. Travelers, such as the New York journalist and art historian William C. Prime, reinforced these visions with dreamy accounts of life in the Holy Land. 

Writing to an admirer who had “unearthed several of [his] buried books,” Melville noted that there was one his spade had not yet succeeded in exhuming: Clarel. He would never locate it himself, the author predicted, so he “disinterred” a copy which he sent along with this note. 

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After a failed stint as a silver miner in Nevada and three years in San Francisco, Twain arrived in New York City in 1867. He was a young, modestly successful travel writer and humorist. His claim to fame: his reports from the Sandwich Islands (present day Hawaii) and the Gold-Rush era story “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” published in The New York Saturday Press. Newspaper columns were his staple, and he had an ongoing relationship with the Alta California in San Francisco. He had come to New York hungry for work, and he wanted more than newsprint.  He wanted a book.

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts."
- The Innocents Abroad, Conclusion.

Twain kept 70 journals over the course of  his long literary career. This manuscript is believed to be the sole surviving leaf from the missing January through May, 1867 journal. Here he describes a trip to the Sandwich Islands and announces his plan to embark on a voyage to the Holy Land: “Has since been ordered by telegraph across the continent to change this route & accompany the Gen. Sherman Pleasure Excursion to Europe & the Holy Land and will sail on the 8th of June.”

The day before his departure, Twain indulged in a nine-hour party, drinking “several breeds of wine” with chums and colleagues from various newspapers. “Naturally enough” after a 3 pm dinner, he dined again from 6 to 9pm with John J. Murphy (the New York business agent for Alta California), and “dined again til 12” with the quirky Dan Slote, his future roommate on Quaker City.

As Twain notes, t​he days spent on Quaker City were mostly “lazy and satisfied”: “Morning, dominoes. Afternoon, dominoes. Evening, promenading the decks. Afterwards, dominoes.” ​Nevertheless, due to the cholera pandemic​​ ​across Europe, ​the ship and its passengers were often quarantined: “The ship is lying here in the harbor of Naples–quarantined. She has been here several days and will remain several more….She is a prison, now.”

Framed painting of the Quaker City with several small boats nearby, with mountains in the distance.

Although the Quaker City cruise was the first organized tourism in American history, it reflected a national surge of interest in travel and tourism.  By 1870, more than 25,000 Americans were traveling to Europe each year. While the Quaker City steamship was opulently outfittedamenities included a library, printing press, piano, and pipe organthe notables who were supposed to participate failed to materialize.  Instead, Twain found himself in the company of respectable, middle-class Protestants, eager to see the Biblical lands of their dreams.  The disappointment soured him from the start. Moreover, the average age of the group was fifty, and most were male.

Quaker City receipt for voyage with wax stamp and postage stamp.

Twain was fortunate in having as his cabin mate Dan Slote, an easy going banker who shared the author’s taste for alcohol and cigars. In addition to Slote, Twain found a good companion in Emma Beach, the daughter of Moses Beach, publisher of the New York Sun. In fact, long after the voyage, Twain remained in contact with Emma Beach, reminiscing about their “pleasure excursion.”

The Quaker City carried its pilgrims to Europe via the Azores and through the Strait of Gibraltar. Of Europe they “cared nothing much about . . . . We galloped through the Louvre, the Pitti, the Uffizi, the Vatican all the galleriesand through the pictured and frescoed churches of Venice, Naples, and the cathedrals of Spain . . . ” Europe and its deep culture were not the object of the trip. That lay further east. In Sevastopol, Twain was tasked by the passengers to draft an invitation letter to the Tzar, and in Constantinople he proclaimed the photographers to be the best in the world.

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1867 photo of people sitting on the floor of the Mediterranean Hotel's inner courtyard in Jerusalem.
Henry Phillips (1843–1911.) Inner courtyard of the second location of the Mediterranean Hotel, 1867. Reproduction courtesy of Shapell Manuscript Collection.


In Beirut, Twain and eight companions were astonished when a “perfect caravan” of horses, 19 “serving men” and 26 pack mules showed up to take them into the Holy Land in grand style for “five dollars a day apiece, in gold.” The chosen routea journey of 155 milesincluded “Baalbec, Damascus, the Sea of Tiberias, and thence southward by the way of the scene of Jacob’s Dream and other notable Bible localities to Jerusalem.”

But that grand style was in glaring contrast to what he found: a small, barren land; impoverished people; oppressive Ottoman rulers; and general misery. The epic narrative of the Bible suggested a vast and monumental landscape. The reality was much diminished. The Sea of Galilee was no sea; in Twain’s view “the dim waters of this pool can not suggest the limpid brilliancy of Tahoe.”  Three Palestines would fit into the state of Missouri. The contrast between expectation and reality is the leitmotif of Twain’s account.

"We toiled up one more hill, and every pilgrim and every sinner swung his hat on high! Jerusalem!" - The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 52
Palestine Exploration Fund. Third location of the Mediterranean Hotel, ca. 1897. Reproduction courtesy of Shapell Manuscript Collection.
1897 photograph of people by the Tower of David, just inside the Jaffa Gate in the old city of Jerusalem.

The Mediterranean Hotel was the favorite lodging of well-to-do European and American visitors to Jerusalem. Originally located between the present Christian Quarter Street and Jaffa Gate, the hotel hosted Herman Melville during his 1857 trip. From 1866 to 1871 it operated close to the Damascus Gate. It is here that Mark Twain stayed in September, 1867. Henry Phillips’ photograph, showing women grinding wheat in the hotel’s inner courtyard, allowed Shapell Manuscript Foundation’s researchers and geographers to locate this forgotten second iteration of the Mediterranean Hotel. In 1871, the hotel moved to its third and final location, just inside the Jaffa Gate, where the  famous Civil War hero and President, General Ulysses S. Grant stayed. In 1873, due to overbooking, Theodore Roosevelt’s family had to stay at the Damascus Hotel.

Chief among sites of particular  interest was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  It was, among other things, built on the site of the Crucifixiona claim Twain did not dispute. However awestruck the pilgrims, though, our narrator was not impressed.  The Church was overrun with relic-peddlers, miracle mongers, and other frauds. Twain saved his most withering satire for the tomb of Adam, where he delivered a biting mock soliloquy:  “The tomb of Adam! How touching it was here in a land of strangers, far away from home, and friends, and all who cared for me, thus to discover the grave of a blood relation.” The claim that Adam was actually buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was preposterous, like so much else in and around the church.

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Twain began working on what would become The Innocents Abroad while on The Quaker City.  Once back in the States, he found a publisher: the American Publishing Company in Hartford, Connecticut.  Now he needed to produce a manuscript, not an easy task for someone as disorganized as Twain.

The author had wanted to call the book The New Pilgrims’ Progress, but he settled for keeping it as the subtitle, hoping to get some bounce from John  Bunyan’s religious bestsellerThe Pilgrim’s Progress from This World, to That Which Is to Come (1678). The title is Twain’s way of caricaturing while praising the new American tourist: innocent in his naivete and so unburdened by the weight of tradition and expectations.  The “innocent” sees the world like a child.  

After many delays, the book finally came out in August, 1869.  No book of his ever sold more copies in his lifetime.

"The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad." - The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 23

Following his return from the Holy Land, Twain resumed his career on the lecture circuit  packing venues in forty-one cities with patrons eager to hear about the wonders of the Holy Land and the new American traveler whom Twain dubbed a “genuine Vandal … an intolerable and incorrigible relic gatherer.”  Twain is not shy to note that “I am one of those myself.”

Down to Business: Mark Twain Promotes “Quaker City” Rommmate Dan Slote to his Publisher as Promoter of the Innocents Abroad

Twain asked the secretary of the American Publishing Company to offer his friend Dan Slote a stock of books at a 40% discount, which his fellow Quaker City traveler could readily sell “only to personal friends.”

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However disappointing the reality of Palestine was for Twain, the region would continue to haunt the imaginations of pilgrims. Disillusionment with the reality of this outback of the Ottoman Empire could not eclipse the profound significance it held for Christian travelers.  Though he was cynical of his pilgrims’ worship of the Holy Land, Twain remained nostalgic about the voyage and kept up correspondence with those whose companionship he cherished. With Emma Beach and others, he shared warm memories of the trip that lacked the acerbic bite of the final pages of Innocents.  

Twain may be better remembered today as a novelist whose fictions are populated by wickedly humorous characters and picaresque plots.  However, he got his start as a travel writer and remained faithful to that genre throughout his long career. The wise-guy narrative technique he used in The Innocents infused later travelogues, as the new American traveler became commonplace.

"Palestine is no more of this workday world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land."- The Innocents Abroad, Chapter 56

“Our Thinning Band of Pilgrims”

In a letter to his dear friend Emma Beach, Twain breaks the news that a third member of the group, doctor George Bright Birch, who had nursed him back to health in Damascus “has gone the way of all flesh.” Despite their “thinning band of pilgrims” the Holy Land still called for their return.

While Innocents did not create a vogue for Holy Land tourism, it certainly fueled ongoing interest. The book’s huge popularity carried it through successive editions. Celebrities made pilgrimages. General William T. Sherman climbed the pyramids in 1871 accompanied by President Grant’s son, Fred. Ulysses S. Grant, who was befriended by Twain late in his life, was welcomed as a “conquering hero” in Jaffa and Jerusalem. He may have even carried a copy of Innocents Abroad.

Port Said ledger with Theodore Roosevelt's signature with U.S. Consular seal on the bottom left with ribbon.

Theodore Roosevelt stepped for the first time in Egypt as a teenager and returned in 1909 after leaving the White House. Parker Brothers turned Innocents into a board game and maritime companies touted new cruises to the Holy Land.

Cook's Nile and Palestine tours poster, featuring a painting of a Sphinx.