Mark Twain’s travels with the ‘savages’
Italians are superstitious. Portuguese are lazy. Turks are dishonest.
And the French? They’re fat, and filthy besides.
Welcome to the world of Mark Twain, who died 100 years ago this week.
We know Twain best from his novels about life in America, especially The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In his
time, however, he was more famous for documenting his adventures,
overseas. He made his name as a travel writer, not as a novelist.
Twain’s jabs at Italians and other groups come from his first travel
book, Innocents Abroad (1869), his best-selling work during his
lifetime. Then came A Tramp Abroad (1880) and, much later, Following The
Equator(1897). Name a place where Americans went in the late 19th
century, and Twain probably went there. He likely wrote about it, too.
But Twain’s travelogues changed over time, with important lessons for
our own day. From the scornful, often bigoted cynic of Innocents Abroad,
Twain evolved into a passionate defender of diversity. Foreigners were
not automatically worse than Americans, he decided; indeed, sometimes
they were better.
Yet they remained different to him. Despite his later sensitivity
toward other peoples, Twain never doubted that they were - and should be
- distinct. That idea continues to pervade our world, discouraging us
from mixing and melding in the ways that matter most.
Twain’s first overseas expedition began in 1867 in New York, where he
boarded a steamer headed for Europe and the Middle East. When Innocents
Abroad came out two years later, Twain’s satires of naive American
tourists made readers snicker. But he reserved his sharpest invective
for his foreign hosts, particularly if they were Catholic.
“We were in the heart and home of priestcraft - of a happy, cheerful,
contented ignorance, superstition, degradation, poverty, indolence, and
everlasting unaspiring worthlessness,” Twain wrote from rural Italy.
“And we said fervently, it suits these people precisely; let them enjoy
it, along with the other animals.”
And so it went, into Syria and Lebanon and Palestine. Though
impressed by some of the buildings and landscapes, Twain was alternately
bemused and revolted by the people inhabiting them. Middle Easterners,
especially Muslims, were “thieves,” “rascals,” and most of all
More than a quarter-century later, Following the Equator reveals a
very different Twain. From Australia and New Zealand to South Africa and
India, he was struck first and foremost by the ways white colonists
oppressed and dehumanized their subjects. In South Africa, Boers shot
blacks with impunity; Australians did the same to aborigines.
“In many countries we have taken the savage’s land from him, and made
him our slave, and lashed him every day, and broken his pride, and made
death his only friend, and overworked him till he dropped in his
tracks,” Twain wrote. “There are many humorous things in the world:
among them the white man’s notion that he is less savage than the other
When the United States acquired the Philippines in 1898, Twain would
become one of the most vociferous critics of American empire. “I am an
anti-imperialist,” he announced. “I am opposed to having the eagle put
its talons on any other land.”
At the same time, Twain worried that “other lands” were imitating
America. In Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), he was appalled to encounter a group
of students dressed just like the visitors in his delegation. “I was
ashamed to be seen on the street with them,” Twain wrote of his American
companions. “Then I looked at my own clothes, and was ashamed to be seen
on the street with myself.”
Even as he developed a new appreciation for different countries and
cultures, Twain demanded that they stay different. A similar assumption
permeates many present-day critiques of “globalisation,” which is
allegedly drowning other traditions in a pallid Western gruel. Thanks to
film, TV, and the Internet, people are becoming more like us. And we
don’t like it any more than Twain did.
But why not? In defending “traditional” cultures from the Western
behemoth, we make ourselves the arbiters of tradition itself.
And we dismiss the dreams and desires of non-Western peoples who
might have their own good reasons to change.
On the centennial of Mark Twain’s death, let’s renew his commitment
to human freedom and difference. But let’s also insist that all remain
free to alter their differences as they see fit. Only then will we
realize the common humanity that should bind us all.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and is the
author of “Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century.”
- Philadelphia Inquirer