American Vandal Mark Twain Abroad by Roy Morris Jr.
Many years ago, before a college semester abroad in Israel, Palestine, Greece and Rome I read The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. I took a paperback copy of the book with me on the six-month trip. Years later I studied at Boston University with James Purvis, a chronicler of the scholarly and imaginative literature about Jerusalem, a heavy load of books indeed. Professor Purvis and I talked a couple times about The Innocents Abroad, how for example the 2oth century Zionists used Twain to prove that Jewish settlers made a dry and miserable Palestine blossom with their improved irrigation and farming methods. Purvis would say, “Twain was a smart-ass: ‘Palestine needs paint!'”
Twain wrote his travel narratives from the point of view of an iconoclastic American with loud-mouth commentary on the ironies of the biblical narrative set against a poor and ordinary Middle East village culture, for example. He was ready with a sneer and a snort for dusty, worn, ordinary scenes, and for pompous old-world European and Middle Eastern customs. He laughed up his sleeve and spit mild new-world sarcasm like tobacco juice.
When I read The Innocents Abroad for the first time, as a college student, unlike Twain I really was an innocent. I had never been on a plane before. I was a quite pious kid from a small prairie town. Looking back I was grateful that this American travel book was in my backpack. Twain was like a smart-talking, cigar-smoking uncle who cracked jokes and was skeptical of everything he saw. That point of view still has the effect of balancing and anchoring a pilgrimage or an academic study tour with direct observation, honest opinion, and humor. Israeli tour companies still take American Christians on guided visits to the places “where Jesus walked”. Strange as it may sound I was almost as happy to have walked where Mark Twain walked.