MARK TWAIN IN THE HOLY LAND

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PALESTINE, 1867 — On a blistering summer day, when the Holy Land was still trod by donkeys and camels, eight bedraggled Americans came riding on horseback from Damascus toward Jerusalem.  Most were wealthy businessmen indulging their imaginations.  But one was a young writer whose own imagination would change American literature.

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By the time he began this “picnic on a gigantic scale,” Mark Twain had piloted steamboats on the Mississippi, crossed the American West by stagecoach, and prospected for gold in Nevada.  His story about a jumping frog in a California mining town had recently brought wide acclaim.  Now he parlayed budding fame into the journalist’s assignment of a lifetime.

“It was a brave conception,” he wrote.  “It was the offspring of a most ingenious brain.”  For $1,250 — mid-five figures in today’s shekels — adventurous souls would embark on the steamship Quaker City.  After crossing the Atlantic, they would dock at Mediterranean ports, then go inland by train or coach to see their dream cities.  Paris.  Venice.  Rome.  Athens.  Constantinople. . . Finally they would trek by horse to Jerusalem.  “Human nature could not withstand these bewildering temptations,” Twain wrote.  And so he signed on, settled in, and began to write.

From the first, he was amused by his shipmates.  Each thought himself a walking encyclopedia of Western culture.  The man Twain nicknamed The Oracle held forth in non-sensical babble.  Arguing with him was The Enthusiast who bubbled over every site.  Assorted captains and crew chimed in.  And from Gibraltar onwards, passengers read romantic travelogues, keeping themselves in “a constant state of quixotic heroism.”

Their dreams held fast in Europe, which the travelers found curious and delightful.  Strange, though, how every church had the original nails from Christ’s cross.  But when they entered the Holy Land, only Twain noticed that not all was as described in the Bible. 

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Under Ottoman rule in 1867, Palestine was parched, treeless, and desperately poor.  As the group trudged on, Twain faced the traveler’s eternal battle between lofty expectations and facts on the ground.  “If all the poetry and nonsense that have been discharged upon the fountains and the bland scenery of this region were collected in a book,” he wrote, “it would make a most valuable volume to burn.”

The Oracle, The Enthusiast and others stood in awe at sites where Jesus slept, where Mary wept.  But Twain, too, had read the Bible.  While reverent about Jesus, he wondered why everything in Biblical times had happened in a grotto.

“It is an imposture — this grotto stuff — but it is one that all men ought to thank the Catholics for.  Wherever they ferret out a lost locality made holy by some Scriptural event, they straightaway build a massive — almost imperishable — church there and preserve the memory of that locality for the gratification of future generations.  If it had been left to Protestants to do this work, we should not even now where Jerusalem is today.”

His companions were steeped in the New Testament, but Twain recalled the violence of the Old.  Here, he noted, was a valley that Joshua had turned into “a reeking slaughter pen.”  There was the site where not-so-good Samaritans, “for an offense done to the family honor. . . exterminated all Shechem once.”  

At first he was charmed by shepherds, camels, timeless traditions.  Yet ancient ways soon got old.  Here were people who “still hold themselves aloof from all the world; they still live as their fathers lived, labor as their fathers labored. . .  I found myself gazing at any strangling scion of this strange race with a riveted fascination, just as one would stare at a living mastodon.”

Spending 12-hour days in the saddle, this “fantastic mob of green speckled Yanks” trudged on.  “The further we went, the hotter the sun got, and the more rocky and bare, repulsive and dreary the landscape became.”  But finally, after crossing “more stupid hills,” they reached Jerusalem.  Here Twain’s cynicism melted away.  

“For several hours I have been trying to comprehend that I am actually in the illustrious old city where Solomon dwelt, where Abraham held converse with the Deity, and where walls still stand that witnessed the spectacle of the Crucifixion.”

Twain and company toured the Old City, home to just 14,000 people.  Then, satisfied they had traversed Western culture, the passengers of the Quaker City headed home.  

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Back in San Francisco, Twain wrote The Innocents Abroad, then hit the road again.  Pioneering the celebrity book tour, he gave talks across the country telling of his adventures.  The Innocents Abroad became the best-selling book of the late 20th century and cemented the name Mark Twain in the American consciousness.  But the “picnic” had one other legacy.

One of Twain’s fellow pilgrims was a wealthy industrialist.  One slow day on deck, Charles Langdon showed the young writer a picture of his daughter, Olivia.  Back in America, Twain “came a’callin.”  Mark Twain and Olivia Langdon married in 1870 and spent the rest of their lives together.