Encounters of a Third Kind: Mark Twain, William C. Prime and Protestant American Holy Land Narratives
by Milette Shamir
“Are you pilgrims here?” continued he.
“Only tourists, perhaps?”
“Something that way,” volunteered the Californian. “Just so, sort of half and half—killing two birds with one stone—blending the performance of a spiritual obligation with the desire of seeing the country.”
Albert Rhodes, Jerusalem As It Is (1865)1
William C. Prime’s Tent Life in the Holy Land (1857) is mostly remembered now as the target of parody in The Innocents Abroad (1869), where, eager to promote his own “honest” and “impartial” account of Palestine, Mark Twain mocked the maudlin style of his old-fashioned predecessor. Readers since took their cue from Twain and tagged American Holy-Land narratives as “secular” or “religious,” “realist” or “sentimental,” “factual” or “fictitious.” But an intertextual consideration of Tent Life and The Innocents shows the limits of such taxonomies. This essay traces the various thematic and stylistic strands shared by Twain and Prime in order to reveal the intricate texture of the 19th-century Protestant Holy Land archive, its resistance to linear narratives of secularization. This methodology also addresses some lingering tensions between poststructuralist and humanistic positions in the study of Orientalism.
Visiting Jerusalem in 1867 as part of the famous “pleasure excursion” or “new pilgrim progress” he will recount in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain purchased a handsome Bible for his mother. He chose a volume made of “Balsam-wood from the Jordan,” “oak from Abraham’s tree at Hebron,” and “olive-wood from the Mount of Olives,” and asked a book vendor near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to inscribe it with: “ ‘Mrs. Jane Clemens—from her son—Mount Calvary, Sept 24, 1867’ ” adding “ ‘Jerusalem’ around on it loose, somewhere, in Hebrew” (Fig. 1).2
Fig. 1: A replica of the Bible bought by Twain in Jerusalem (original in the Bancroft Library, Berkeley)3
Coming from an author whose irreverent and sardonic descriptions of the Holy Land shocked and delighted millions, this sentimental gesture is baffling. Is this the Twain who mercilessly ridiculed his fellow travelers’ hunger for cheap souvenirs and pilfered mementos of holy sites? The same Twain who raised doubts over the link between “The Land” and “The Book” and compared his compatriots’ outbursts of religious enthusiasm to “emotions of the nursery”?4
Buying an olive-wood Bible for one’s mother is something we would expect, instead, of William C. Prime. A New York lawyer and journalist, Prime visited Palestine in 1856 and published his account of the trip, Tent Life in the Holy Land, in the following year.5 The book is mostly remembered now as the target of Twain’s parody in the Holy Land sections of The Innocents Abroad. Masking its title as “Nomadic Life in Palestine” and its author as “Grimes,” Twain attacked Tent Life as a specimen of Protestant American Holy Land narratives, a genre he considered mawkish and deceitful. Just as he distinguished his group of straight-shooting “sinner” friends from the self-righteous “pilgrims” on his cruise, so was he eager to elevate his own “honest,” “real,” and “impartial” account of Palestine above what he regarded as the sentimental conventionalities churned out by former travel writers, represented first and foremost by Prime or ”Grimes.” Many readers since took their cue from Twain and divided the corpus of Holy Land narratives into, on the one hand, “secular” and “modern” accounts (such as The Innocents Abroad) and, on the other, “religious” and “old fashioned” ones (such as Tent Life). But the inscribed, olive-wood Bible Twain bought in Jerusalem thwarts such divisions, especially when considered alongside the several moments of religiosity within the text of The Innocents Abroad. These start as early as the book’s first page. Innocents is sentimentally dedicated to the “Aged Mother” on whose knees, Twain said elsewhere, he acquired his “highest and noblest and purest ideals” (Fig. 2).6
Fig. 2: Dedication of The Innocents Abroad
What is at stake, in other words, is not the incongruity between the (sentimental) historical man and the (cynical) literary narrator, but complexities within the book itself.
In this essay, I will seek out such complexities—moments where religious and secular or sentimental and realist modes intermix—in both Innocents and Tent Life. In doing so, I will hope to contribute to the fine work of such critics as Hilton Obenzinger, Brian Yothers, and Brooke Sherrard, who have examined Twain’s position within the rich corpus of 19th-century American Holy Land narratives.7 My larger goal—and what I take to be theirs—is to challenge some obstinate binaries that linger in the discussion around these narratives. Not just Prime/Twain, and not just religious/secular, but related oppositions such as fantasy/authenticity, revelation/disappointment, sentimentalism/realism, and pilgrim/tourist. We find such pairs in literary criticism (where the division between “romantic” and “realist” literature is frequently used), among readers of Holy Land literature (some of whom assume that narratives of “disappointment” such as Twain’s are more historically sound than those of religious affirmation), among sociologist of travel (those who still adhere to the distinction between the pre-modern pilgrim and the modern tourist), and among historians of religion (those who still uphold the secularization thesis). To be sure, there is by now a rich and diverse scholarship in all those disciplines aimed precisely at questioning and dismantling such binaries.8 An early and important forerunner was Edward Said, who argued that all modes of representing the “East”—fantastic, objective, religious, aesthetic, scientific, and onwards—are part of the discursive formation he called “Orientalism.” Declaring at the outset of his seminal book an indifference to “any correspondence, or lack thereof, with a ‘real’ Orient,” Said refused to classify some narratives as more truthful or real than others simply because the writer had been to the East or, like Twain, claimed an objective perspective. He regarded expressions of disappointment with the Holy Land, for example, as no less iterative than the delight over sacred geography about which they were cynical.9
But the discussion that Orientalism continues to inspire suggests that some of the questions it raised are not yet “resolved.” The essay will begin by surveying such questions before considering how an intertextual reading of Twain and Prime can be relevant to them. The main section will analyze The Innocents Abroad and Tent Life in the Holy Land as composed of a given set of thematic and stylistic strands, found also in many other 19th-century Protestant American Holy Land narratives. This will allow me to rethink questions of sameness and difference within this corpus. It would also help me reexamine some prevalent categories used in the discussion that surrounds it. Like the Californian traveler quoted in the epigraph, who refuses to be interpellated as either a pilgrim or a tourist but wished to “blend the performance of a spiritual obligation with the desire of seeing the country,” multi-strand narratives such as Twain’s and Prime’s undo distinctions between religious and secular sensibilities, sentimentalism and empiricism, revelation and disenchantment.
An intertextual reading of The Innocents Abroad and Tent Life—indeed, of any two texts from the Orientalist archive to which they belong— would emphasize differences or similarities according to the critical frame it employs. Twain, in lampooning Prime, directed the reader to notice differences between the two texts. Professional readers too sometimes accentuate difference: literary historians, for example, may be interested in changes in representational techniques from the antebellum Prime to the post-bellum Twain; theorists of literary influence may highlight Twain’s “oedipal” rivalry with his predecessor. By contrast, readers informed by Said’s theory would look for the resemblances between the two works, as they interact within the much larger body of texts that constitutes Orientalism. Inspired by Foucauldian thought, Said defined Orientalism as a discursive formation, a dense and formidable mass of representations that produces “the Orient” by seemingly infinite reiteration and citation. True to Foucault, Said professed in the book’s introduction a lack of interest in the “brute reality” of that part of the world. His work is concerned, he wrote, “not with correspondence between Orientalism and Orient, but with the internal consistency of Orientalism and its ideas about the Orient.”10 In other words, Said advanced a model of intertextual analysis that highlighted sameness, repetition, “consistency.”
But at several points in Orientalism Said seemed to have retreated from this model. Indeed, his ambivalence over intertextual sameness/difference—linked to his ambivalence about Foucault—explains, at least in part, why the book continues to be debated, thirty-five years after its publication. Consider the debates over Said’s historicism. Foucault argued that discursive formations of knowledge/power came into being with the “epistemic break” that led to modernity. Said followed suit by locating the emergence of the discourse of Orientalism at the turn of the 19th century (Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, with his military as well as scholarly apparatuses, provided a convenient starting point). Orientalism’s main sections were thus devoted to what Said called the “secular” Orientalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. But as several of his critics have pointed out, in the first sections of the book Said found Orientalist tropes in Ancient Greece and medieval Europe; it follows that “Orientalism is not really a thoroughly modern phenomenon, as we thought earlier, but is the natural product of an ancient and almost irresistible European bent of mind to misrepresent [the East].” It remains unclear, in other words, whether Orientalism is indeed a historical phenomenon—a by-product of modernity—and if it is, what makes it so.11 One contributor to this debate, political theorist Timothy Mitchell, proposed that Orientalism is indeed modern because it is tightly linked to an apparatus of representation that came into being in the middle of the 19th century. What Mitchell called the “exhibitionary order” was born with the International World’s Fair, the museum, the tourist industry, and the commodification of everyday life. The discourse of Orientalism, he argued, is part of a modern epistemological project that strove to endow the world with order and meaning.12 How would questions of Orientalism, historicism, and modernity enter an intertextual reading of Innocents and Tent Life? If Orientalism is regarded as a style of representing the East shared across time by Aeschylus, Dante, Chateaubriand, and Henry Kissinger, the differences between Twain and Prime—two small atoms within a centuries-long textual chain—cannot be accorded particular importance. If, on the other hand, Mitchell is correct that Orientalism came into being with the modern “exhibitionary order,” then Twain and Prime may occupy opposite sides of a historical “break.” One would expect to find crucial differences between the representation of the East by Twain—widely considered to be a harbinger of the age of incorporation, the tourist industry, and modern consumer society—and that penned by the old-fashioned, antebellum Prime.
There is a further ambiguity that stems from Said’s use of Foucault - it concerns the status of the individual writer within the discourse of Orientalism. For Foucault, an author exists as an effect of a discourse, not as an independent entity that can be credited with that discourse’s origination. One implication of regarding Orientalism as a citational discourse is that the individual writer and his/her particular set of experiences or variety of imagination matter very little, since each writer is straightjacketed (if not “produced”) by the works of those who preceded him or her. But in Orientalism Said refused to fully commit to this premise. Describing himself as a “humanist,” he wrote that “unlike Michel Foucault, to whose work I am greatly indebted, I do believe in the determining imprint of individual writers upon the otherwise anonymous collective body of texts constituting a discursive formation like Orientalism.”13 In a section devoted to 19th-century travelers to the Near East, Said presented such “determining imprints” through the differences between the scientific, objective style of Edward William Lane (An Account of the Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians) and the subjective, experiential style of Gerard de Nerval (Voyage en Orient). He proposed that “every pilgrim sees things his own way” even if “there are limits to what a pilgrimage can be for, to what shape and form it can take, to what truths it reveals.”14 At a later point in the book, Said even suggested that “personal style” or “individual genius” may “finally supersede the political restraints operating impersonally through tradition.”15 Thus, the relation between two writes such as Twain and Prime would be understood depending on which aspect of Orientalism’s theory of authorship is embraced. A strictly “Foucauldian” reading would regard them as effects of highly citational texts within the Orientalist discourse and therefore would minimize the differences between them. A “humanist” reading would highlight each author’s distinct subject position, social role, set of experiences, and talents—what Said calls the “strategic position” of the author in relation to the discourse – and trace their effect on each text.
Thirdly, there is the question of the material East—the “brute reality” in Said’s phrasing—in relation to Orientalism. Does the fact that a particular writer had been to Palestine and seen it with his or her own eyes introduce intertextual difference in Orientalist discourse? From a strictly poststructuralist perspective, which views reality (like an author) as an effect of the discourse, the answer would be no. But on this point too Said was equivocal. While he did differentiate scholars, politicians, or men of religion who wrote about the East from afar from travelers who had actually been there—thus implying that the material encounter does matter—he simultaneously downplayed the distinction. “The ‘real’ orient,” he wrote, “rarely guided” a writer’s vision.16 Said argued that in cases where the “brute reality” of the East challenged the traveler’s Orientalist maxims, the incongruity was either ignored, dismissed as a particular aberration, or quickly pressed in the service of the “truths” it seemed to oppose. 19th-century travelers to the Holy Land “understood their pilgrimages in the order to dispel the mustiness of the pre-existing Orientalism archive” and “their writing was to be a fresh new repository of Oriental experience.” But “this project usually (but not always) resolved itself into the reductionism of the orientalistic.”17 Note the parenthetical qualification: Said here as elsewhere seems to teeter between his commitment to the Foucauldian view of reality as a discursive effect and the intuition that a reality “out there” can sometimes, even if only rarely, introduce difference into the discourse.
Given such ambivalences, it isn’t surprising that the debates on Orientalism never seems to have died down, or that the position that the critique has often taken is either to claim that Said is “too Foucauldian” or that he is “not Foucauldian enough.”18 In the project of relating Innocents to Tent Life, choosing between a “poststructuralist” and a “humanist” position on questions of modernity, authorial agency, and material reality would lead one either to minimize or maximize the differences between the two authors and texts. In the next sections, however, I will attempt to show these positions are not mutually exclusive. I will trace the several conventions that Twain and Prime share as part of a larger Protestant Holy Land archive and argue for the two works’ surprising similarities. But I will also find difference in the way these conventions interact within each text, concluding that a poststructuralist understanding of Orientalism does not necessarily require sacrifice of individual authorship, of material reality, or of historical continuity across modernity’s divide.
Twain and Prime were hardly unique in choosing to come to Palestine or to write about their trip. In the decades after 1840, the number of Protestant Americans visiting the Holy Land climbed dramatically, reaching the level of a “Holy Land mania” (in Hilton Obenzinger’s memorable phrase) after the Civil War. To be sure, Protestant Americans have always been keenly interested in the Land of the Bible as part of their national and religious identity formation. But now a number of factors—material, sociological, political, and spiritual—combined to account for the growing popularity of Palestine as a travel destination. The modernization of bureaucracy and greater tolerance toward non-Muslims that followed in the wake of Mohammad Ali’s invasion of Syria made it easier and safer for Westerners to come to the region, as did improvements in transportation and the local government’s curbing of Bedouin attacks on foreigners. The Ottoman Empire’s growing interest in cultivating diplomatic relations with the West resulted in the opening of foreign consulates in Palestine (the first American consul was appointed in 1844). The growth of modern tourism in the second half of the century—promoted by guidebook publishers (such as the bestselling Murray’s), travel agencies (led by Thomas Cook), and pleasure cruises (such as Twain’s “Quaker City”)—whetted the appetite of leisure-class Americans for the pleasures of Eastward travels. At the same time, contemporary challenges to religious worldviews, especially those posed by Higher Biblical Criticism and Darwinism, encouraged Protestants to seek evidence for the truth of the scriptures in “sacred geography.”19 The increase in numbers of American visitors to the East was accompanied by an enormous surge of Holy Land travel narratives. Stephanie Stidham Rogers counted around 500 such narratives written between 1840 and 1941, with the largest number produced in the second half of the 19th century.20
How to classify this vast body of texts? Said, we recall, offered a typology based on the author’s “strategic location” vis-à-vis Orientalism, positioning, on one end of the spectrum, the “scientific” Lane and on the other the “literary” Nerval. Protestant American narratives too are often classed according to the author’s function, as missionary, archeologist, diplomat, settler, explorer, and so forth. But whether it is possible to reduce an author to a single motivation, and whether that motivation necessarily unifies the style and contents of his or her narrative is questionable. Most visitors (like the epigraph’s Californian or like his author, the diplomat, amateur scholar, and tourist Albert Rhodes) had several reasons to come to Palestine. Most narratives, moreover, resist being lined up in accordance with Said’s polar classification, since they blend an objective, informational mode of writing with a subjective, experiential one. An alternative method of classification involves the level of a writer’s religious commitments. Said, I already mentioned, associated 19th-century Orientalism with secularity and distinguished it from older, religious-based views of the East. But 19th-century American narratives are themselves frequently discussed as either “religious” or “secular.” Brian Yothers, in his illuminating study of this archive, proposed more nuanced categories. He classified authors as mainstream evangelical Protestants, “unorthodox” Protestants, skeptical romantics, and skeptical humorists. He then argued that different emphases, attitudes, and styles characterize each category. Ultimately, however, Yothers’ analysis reveals the overriding similarities between texts across categories, the way that, despite varying religious commitments, they share images, plot elements, attitudes, and ideas.
A productive way of approaching this archive, then, is to identify not authorial positions but the main thematic and stylistic strands that appear and reappear in so many narratives.21 A list of those strands includes: dry-toned, guidebook-style information about Palestine’s geography and history; romantic Arabian-Nights-inspired exotica; a recollection of a biblical story or event triggered by a specific Holy Land site; a farcical or patronizing account of an encounter with locals (dragomen and Turkish soldiers are favorite targets); a sentimental outpouring prompted by sacred geography and often tinged with nostalgia; an expression of disappointment by the landscape’s small proportions or desolation; a self-critical description of western tourists as boorish or vandalistic; an argument with or revision of an earlier traveler’s exegesis of the land; and skepticism over the authenticity of sites or relics held sacred by Catholic or Orthodox Christians. While each of these strands can be dominant in one narrative but marginal in another, many texts contain them all. And since some of these strands are “objective” and some “subjective,” some associated with a secular and some with a religious worldview, some with residual and some with modern sensibilities, their confluence in the Holy Land narrative complicates the task of pigeon-holing authors or works, and problematizes Said’s claim about the “internal consistency” of Orientalism. If anything, they show the discourse’s inherent inconsistencies.
To view Innocents and Tent Life as constituted each by a variety of conventional and often contradictory thematic and stylistic strands is to resist the polarities Twain himself helped instantiate—between “sinner” and “pilgrim,” “realist” and “sentimentalist,” “new” and “old”—and to highlight instead the elements they share with each other and with many other 19th-century Holy Land narratives. Some overlaps are immediately apparent. Both books, for example, deploy the informational, tourist-guidebook voice extensively. Both also contain surprisingly similar descriptions of the experience of being a modern tourist in the Holy Land, delighting, for example, in the luxurious camping conditions or exhorting the pitiful state of the horses with which they are provided. More surprising to readers who know Tent Life only through Twain’s parody would be Prime’s occasional expression of a modern touristic sensibility. These crop up as early as in the Preface to Tent Life. Just as Twain opens his book by scandalously linking the words “Holy Land” with “pleasure excursion” and “a picnic on a gigantic scale,”22 Prime begins with a brew of devotion and self-gratification:
I visited the sacred soil, as a pilgrim, seeking mine own pleasure. I went where it pleased me. I acted as it pleased me, yielding, with delicious license, to the whim of every passing hour. I prayed or I laughed; I knelt or I turned my back; I wept or I sang; and when I sang it was now a song of sinful humanity and now a grand old monkish hymn.23
Indeed, at several moments in Tent Life, Prime sounds distinctly more like Twain and his sidekick “sinners” than like the “pilgrims” with whom Twain allies him. Like Twain, he travels with a group of “boys” who bond over their comic or thrilling adventures (true, Prime also brings a wife along, but she rarely gets to open her mouth). As in Innocents, part of fun involves the inanity or duplicity of the local guides. And like in Innocents, this ridicule does not preclude self-criticism. Prime recalls, for example, “the comical appearance of one of our party,” who is caught greedily pawing the oriental delicacies where he should have been listening to a grave lecture by the Greek Bishop.24 Much as Twain is scandalized by his companions’ habit of stealing pieces of historical ruins as souvenirs, Prime complains of the “vandalism that thus destroys relics of the ancient days” which “none can more thoroughly detest and condemn than do I” (though quickly adding, in what could be read—too generously?—as Twainesque self-parody: “I am not so foolish as to refuse to take what I can”).25
Another strand linking Prime with Twain is the abusive depiction of the local population. The most unpleasant aspect of Tent Life, without doubt, is its narrator’s attitude toward the Turks and the Arabs, one that ranges from the disdainful to the violent. Not two pages into the first chapter, Prime tells how “A party of half drunken Turks nearly rode over us in their carriage, a mishap which cost their driver a swinging blow from the end of my koorbash as he dashed by me.”26 Repeatedly describing the locals as filthy, stupid, or savage, he assumes the right to use his “koorbash” against them whenever it so suits him. This culminates in a particularly off-putting scene where Prime has a family of villagers prosecuted and flogged by the local governor since he suspects them of having stolen his gunpowder. Now Twain was openly irritated by “Grimes” chauvinism, and expressed particular outrage over his lack of pity for the scourged villagers.27 Mark Woodhouse has recently analyzed the marginalia in the copy of Tent Life most likely used by Twain to conclude that he was even more disturbed by Prime’s treatment of Arabs than he had allowed himself to express in Innocents. Woodhouse then contrasts Twain sensitivity and compassion with Prime’s Eurocentric intolerance.28 But to regard Holy Land narratives not as stable and unified authorial expressions but as a mixture of conflicting attitudes, themes, and styles, is to recall the many places where Twain and Prime sound very much alike in their cruel depiction of Arabs. At one point, Twain describes villagers with such adjectives as “degraded,” “nasty,” “squalid,” “vile,” and “pitiable,” and expresses a desire to “exterminate the whole tribe,” all in the space of ten pages.29 The point is not to decide whether Prime or Twain are worse; it is that this conventional representation of Palestine’s Arabs (and Jews and Turks) crops up in both texts, as well as in dozens if not hundreds of other narratives written by Protestant Americans in this period.30
Tent Life overlaps also with those aspects of Innocents that seem to evince Twain’s modernity. As discussed above, Timothy Mitchell linked Orientalism to modernity through what he called “the exhibitionary order” – an epistemology that arises in the second half of the 19th century with the World’s Fairs, department stores, and tourist industry. This epistemology frames, orders, and gives meaning to the East through such apparatuses as the museum exhibit or the tourist guidebook. The exhibitionary order, Mitchell explained, also generates the notion of—as well as a desire for—a “real” orient that lies outside the realm of representation. When the Western subject leaves the exhibition and travels to the Orient, the encounter with that “real” causes a crisis – a sense of chaos and absence of meaning. The Western subject’s response, argued Mitchell, is to bring the “real” back into the representational fold. This can be achieved, for example, by seeking, a lofty position from which to gain a controlled, map-like perspective on the landscape, or by creating a frame through which to transform the “real” back into the “pictorial” (the tourist’s use of the camera is an obvious example). All this is certainly relevant to Twain. Jefferey Alan Melton has shown that what makes Innocents such a precise articulation of a modern, touristic epistemology are the repeated instances where Twain encounters what appears to him as a chaotic, filthy, threatening “real” Orient only to disarm the danger through use of the pictorial. Whether he basks in the distant, dreamlike, panoramic view of Damascus but expresses disgust at the dirty, messy experience of entering that city, or whether he imaginatively transmutes a diseased and flea-ridden human scene into a “perfect oriental picture,” Twain typifies the modern tourist who both yearns for and shuns the “real” Orient.31 What I wish to add is that this modern epistemological drama is played out in Prime as well. Like Twain, Prime experiences his contact with the Orient as a crisis. His entrance into Jaffa sounds very much like Twain’s entrance into Constantinople or Damascus: “The din of voices, was, as usual, intolerable. (…) We now worked our way through the crowd, having yielded to the absolute certainty of the effects of that contact with oriental vagabonds. (…) [the streets were] narrow and dirty. (…) [A] terrible confusion of tongues at the landing.” And like Twain’s, Prime’s preference is to view the Orient from a safe distance, restoring it to the safety and coherence of the pictorial: “the appearance of Jaffa from the sea,” he writes, “is picturesque.”32
As Mitchell explains, an important aspect of Orientalism cum the exhibitionary order is its commitment to realism. The World’s Fair model, the museum exhibit, and the tourist’s guidebook are designed to achieve mimesis. All aim to capture the foreign scene with the outmost detail and accuracy. That Innocents shares this ambition is clear, not just because Twain explains in the preface that his goal in writing involves the immediacy and transparency of realism—“to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes”—but because the work has since been frequently used to illustrate the shift to realism in post-Civil War American literature. Indeed, just as American literary realists such as William Dean Howells or Henry James defined realism by contrasting it with a residual “romance” mode, so does Twain “offer no apologies for any departures from the usual style of travel-writing that may be charged against me – for I think I seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly.”33 His “impartial” “honest” realism will be established in the book precisely through contrast with the romanticism of the likes of “Grimes.” What complicates Twain’s self-proclaimed originality, however, is that the professing of novelty and realism is itself a convention of Holy Land narratives, and appears also in Tent Life. As Yothers points out, “from the most piously conventional to the most comically irreverent,” each Holy Land narrative “vigorously asserts its own claim to originality even while adopting some of the core conventions of nineteenth-century Holy Land writing.”34 Prime, too, advertises his realism in the preface, promising that “I have written the book even as I traveled.”35 His claims for unmediated writing and freshness of insight recur later: “He who shall visit Holy Soil with Murray’s proposed red book in hands,” he pontificates, “will know nothing of the deep pleasure that we experienced (…) the intense delight that flashed across our minds (…) startling because unexpected and wholly original.”36 Sounding much like Twain, he warns a companion not to “let your religion be so absorbing as to forbid your observing the common occurrence of life.”37
But it is Twain’s disenchantment with the Holy Land, with the smallness and barrenness of it all, that is most remembered about Innocents and frequently cited as evidence of his clear-eyed, secular realism. Indeed, it is precisely at moments of bitter disappointment (say, by the meager size of the Sea of Galilee) that Twain issues his most bitter harangues against “Grimes,” accusing him and other travel book writers of falsely beautifying what is clearly a dismal land. But such expressions of disappointment are far from unique to Twain; they are one of the most conventional of Holy Land tropes. As Elliot Horowitz and others have discussed, 19th-century travelers were repeatedly disillusioned and even disgusted by the size and aridity of Palestine.38 Far from adoring all that he sees, Prime too expresses painful disappointment (at times sounding almost like the master of this trope, Herman Melville): “the general aspect of Jerusalem is very melancholy,” he writes; “there is not such thing as cheerfulness about it, even in a sunny, spring day. It is a mass of old houses, cold, somber and sad, presenting only blank walls to the streets, many of them in ruins.”39
There are several ways, then, in which Tent Life resembles Innocents. But there are also several ways in which Twain, in turn, resembles Prime. As Brooke Sherrard has persuasively argued, Twain’s voice is often precisely that of the reverent—even enthusiastic—pilgrim that he parodied. Consider his excited tone here: “a few miles before us, with not a tree or a shrub to interrupt the view, lay a vision which millions of worshipers in the far lands of the earth would give half their possessions to see - the sacred Sea of Galilee!”40 Indeed, his expressions of disappointment can themselves be read as a convention of the religious pilgrim. As Sherrard points out, pilgrims accounted for the desolation of the Holy Land either by blaming the corrupting presence of Catholic and Orthodox shrines, or by regarding it as evidence of the divine curse. Both these explanations are to be found in Innocents. Twain’s disgust with Catholic tradition is everywhere apparent in the book, and his disappointment is frequently dressed in religious-sounding, even biblical, rhetoric. In the description of Palestine’s lizards, for instance, “those heirs of ruin, of sepulchers and desolation,” Twain’s language sounds almost King-Jamesian: “Where prosperity has reigned, and fallen; where glory has flamed, and gone out; where beauty has dwelt, and passed away; where gladness was, and sorrow is; where the pomp of life has been, and silence and death brood in its high places, there this reptile makes his home, and mocks at human vanity.”41 Prime writes that “the curse of God appears to rest on all the country, and the desolation of the land of Israel could scarcely be more total and complete,”42 and Twain echoes back with “Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the Deity beatify a land?”43
The most dominant convention that Twain shares with religious Holy land writers is the reading of the Bible through the land. Edward Robinson (Biblical Researches in Palestine) and William McClure Thomson (The Land and the Book) were the undisputed masters of this convention, and Twain alludes to both in Innocents. His debt to them is evident when he allows the land to inspire him to sermonize on the Bible. While his tone in telling the stories of Joseph and his brothers or the Queen of Sheba is sometimes jovial to the point of irreverence, in other places it is hardly distinguishable from the solemn and awe-filled tone found in Robinson, Thomason, or Prime:
It seems curious enough to us to be standing on ground that was once actually pressed by the feet of the Saviour. The situation is suggestive of a reality and a tangibility that seem at variance with the vagueness and mystery and ghostliness that one naturally attaches to the character of a god. I can not comprehend yet that I am sitting where a god has stood, and looking upon the brook and the mountains which that god looked upon, and am surrounded by dusky men and women whose ancestors saw him, and even talked with him, face to face, and carelessly, just as they would have done with any other stranger.44
Yet another dominant religious convention in the Protestant-American archive is the association of the Holy Land with dreams of one’s childhood and mother. This nostalgic, sentimental theme appears even in narratives not considered particularly subjective, such as Robinson’s Biblical Researches. The scholarly Robinson nevertheless writes: “From the earliest childhood, I had read of and studies the localities of this sacred spot (…) and they all seemed familiar to me, as if the realization of a former dream. I seemed to be again among cherished scenes of childhood, long unvisited, indeed, but distinctly recollected.”45 In Tent Life the sentimental reigns supreme. Prime is repeatedly inspired by the land to daydream about how “Lying in my mother’s arms, year after year, I had slept peaceful sleep as she sang the songs of Christian story” and how “my mother’s hand taught my footsteps their first essays on the sad earth; and lo! Here, what far pilgrimage they had accomplished!”46 (unsurprisingly, Prime will in future years devote a whole book to the hymn “O Mother Dear, Jerusalem”). This reaches a climax in Bethlehem, at the Cave of the Nativity, where Prime reports literally hearing the “sweet voice” of his mother singing “the Star of Bethlehem” to lull him sleep: “Will you dare to laugh at me,” he asks, “when I tell you (…) that at length I sobbed aloud, and, hiding my face in my burnoose, I wept as I lay there in the starlight on the convent roof.”47
Well, Twain for one did dare to laugh. A particularly funny moment in Innocents parodies Prime’s tear-soaked journey through the Holy Land: “He never bored but he struck water,” writes Twain wryly.48 This moment is also immortalized in the often-reproduced “I Wept!” by Twain’s illustrator, True Williams (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3: “I Wept.” Illustration from The Innocents Abroad.
The caption, however, renders the picture a little ambiguous: since it doesn’t mention “Grimes” by name, but uses, instead, the first person pronoun of the narrative as a whole, a careless reader may assume he is looking at a lachrymose Twain. As I suggested in the beginning, however, such a mistake would not be completely outrageous. The sentimental mode is by no means entirely absent from Innocents, beginning with the dedication (it is even typographically kitschy). True, Twain is careful to point out that he did not weep when he first saw Jerusalem. But not weeping can also rendered sentimentally: “I think there was no individual in the party whose brain was not teeming with thoughts and images and memories invoked by the grand history of the venerable city that lay before us, but still among them all was no ‘voice of them that wept.’ There was no call for tears. Tears would have been out of place. The thoughts Jerusalem suggests are full of poetry, sublimity, and more than all, dignity.”49 Twain will end up calling Jerusalem, quite conventionally, “a good home to us.”50 And if Prime channels the song of his angelic mother in Bethlehem, Twain hears phantom voices near the Sea of Galilee. Speaking in the third person, he confesses that “The old traditions of the place steal upon his memory and haunt his reveries (…) in the secret noises of the night he hears spirit voices; in the soft sweep of the breeze, the rush of invisible wings.” Soon, like Mother Prime’s hymn, “the song of old forgotten ages find[s] utterance again” in the pilgrim’s ear.51 Phipps observes that though Twain “considered himself a sinner, he was capable of sensitive expression of pious sentiments” is certainly relevant to such passages in Innocents.52
Twain’s resemblances to Prime transform into direct citation in the climactic (and unusually long) chapter on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This chapter includes some of the most sarcastic passages in Innocents, such a Twain’s serial insults of Orthodox and Catholic relics and his hilarious tears over the grave of his “blood relation” Adam.53 As the chapter approaches its end, however, Twain shifts dramatically and unexpectedly to a serious tone, and presents an argument for the authenticity of the spot that marks the Crucifixion, based on the idea that such an important location would have surely been passed down from generation to generation. The grand finale is Twain’s impassioned argument for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s importance—despite centuries of Protestant prejudice—because “a god had died there,” and because “history is full of this old Church of the Holy Sepulcher – full of blood that was shed because of the respect and the veneration in which men held the last resting-place of the meek and lowly, the mild and gentle, Prince of Peace!”54 For some critics, this passage evinces Twain’s secular outlook, the way opts for history over religion.55 But in the context of this essay, more relevant is that the ideas Twain expresses so vehemently here are not his at all. Twain acknowledges in a footnote that he had borrowed from Prime the argument for the authenticity of the site of Crucifixion, referring to the author of Tent Life for once by his real name: “The thought is Mr. Prime’s, not mine, and is full of good sense.”56 As for the idea that history endows the Church with value, this too is taken from Prime (albeit with no credit). No moment better illustrates not only how “citational” Holy Land narratives tend to be, but also how internally inconsistent they often are.57 Expressing his sentiments upon leaving Jerusalem, Twain sounds again like Prime: “Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition – it is dream-land.”58 As Yothers correctly points out, “Twain’s persona is seen to be reliant on the very accounts that he exposes as utterly ridiculous, and his reader is able to see that the ultimate distinction between Twain and previous travelers is one of degree rather than kind.”59
What can be deduced from the various thematic and stylistic strands that Twain and Prime share? Arguably nothing that concerns literary merit. As Melton puts it, though Twain and Prime share many of the conventions used by Holy Land travelers, “The difference is that Twain is a far better writer, though not necessarily a better tourist.”60 Even if Said was right to suggest that “the individual genius may finally supersede the political restraints operating impersonally through tradition” it certainly doesn’t have to. Twain’s genius, in this case, finds expression within Orientalist conventions, not by transcending them. Said’s “humanistic” belief in the distinction of an individual author does not necessarily need to contradict a Foucauldian emphasis on the citationality of the discourse. Foucault is also relevant here in another sense. If a poststructuralist theory of authorship holds than an author is a textual effect, that a discourse interpellates an author, then the “internally inconsistent” archive of Protestant American Holy Land narratives can only be said to produce very shaky subject positions. A relatively univocal text (no text is completely univocal, of course) may interpellate an author as “religious” or “secular,” “modern” or “traditional,” “realist” or “sentimentalist,” depending on the text. But works composed of various and contradictory strands—Innocents or Tent Life or other such Holy Land narratives—call attention precisely to the unclear and complex status of these categories in 19th-century American culture. Perhaps more than most other cultures in the West, post-bellum American culture resists being read through simplified secularization narratives. As many sociologists, cultural theorists and literary historians have been pointing out in recent years, in the U.S. the secular never “replaced” the religious, just as realism did not simply overthrow sentimentalism, and the tourist did not depose the pilgrim. The composite, unstable subjectivities brought into effect by multi-stranded Holy Land narratives (the way the “Mark Twain” of Innocents Abroad is irreducible to any of such binary terms) demonstrate precisely that.
I wish to return, finally, to the question of Orientalism’s relation to the material. As we have seen, Edward Said seemed at first indifferent to and then ambiguous over whether or not the encounter with the “brute reality” of the East produces discursive change. Is it likely that Twain and Prime would have written these accounts of the Holy Land had they not physically been there? On the other hand, does not their obvious and heavy reliance on the archive’s preexisting conventions suggest that whatever their encounter was, it failed to produce a difference in their writing? My hunch is that the multi-stranded makeup of narratives such as Innocents and Tent Life can help us think further about such questions. For that purpose, I would focus less on how various writers share the same conventional styles and themes, and more on the particular shifts between styles and themes within each text. Twain himself noticed such shifts. In the midst of describing his trip through the north of Palestine, he remembered a passage from Life in the Holy Land where the writer “C.W.E” (“Grimes” is spared this time) deposes on the “sweet and cool” waters and the “fertile plains” of the gorgeous hills of Galilee, only to suddenly move to a gloomy expression of disappointment with that very landscape. Twain writes: “This is not an ingenious picture. It is the worst I ever saw. It describes in elaborate detail what it terms a ‘terrestrial paradise,’ and closes with the startling information that this paradise is ‘a scene of desolation and misery’.”61
But as so many critics have pointed out, such moments of abrupt, incongruous change in narration are one of the main characteristics of The Innocents Abroad. Consider the following passage from chapter 44:
Broke camp at 7 A. M., and made a ghastly trip through the Zeb Dana valley and the rough mountains – horses limping and that Arab screech-owl that does most of the singing and carries the water-skins, always a thousand miles ahead, of course, and no water to drink - will he never die? Beautiful stream in a chasm, lined thick with pomegranate, fig, olive and quince orchards, and nooned an hour at the celebrated Baalam's Ass Fountain of Figia, second in size in Syria, and the coldest water out of Siberia - guide-books do not say Baalam's ass ever drank there - somebody been imposing on the pilgrims, may be. Bathed in it - Jack and I. Only a second - ice-water. It is the principal source of the Abana river - only one-half mile down to where it joins. Beautiful place - giant trees all around - so shady and cool, if one could keep awake - vast stream gushes straight out from under the mountain in a torrent. Over it is a very ancient ruin, with no known history - supposed to have been for the worship of the deity of the fountain or Baalam's ass or somebody. Wretched nest of human vermin about the fountain - rags, dirt, sunken cheeks, pallor of sickness, sores, projecting bones, dull, aching misery in their eyes and ravenous hunger speaking from every eloquent fiber and muscle from head to foot.62
Twain opens with the conventional voice of the weary tourist, complaining about primitive roads, inadequate horses, and annoying Arabs, only to shift unexpectedly in the next sentence to the voice of the inspired pilgrim for whom the Bible comes alive in the pomegranate, fig, and olive trees. He next moves quickly back and forth between three other styles: the informational mode (e.g., “the fountain is second in size in Syria”), parody of the informational (e.g., “coldest water out of Siberia”), and the voice of the “sinner” putting down the “pilgrims.” To complicate things even more, he then shifts gears to a hateful speech against the “Wretched nest of human vermin about the fountain.”
What such a hodgepodge of styles and tones registers, I think, is the encounter with Palestine itself. In the face of something that refused to be contained within any singular or consistent narrative—be it devotional, exotic, cynical, disappointed, or poetic—Holy Land writers responded by groping for alternative, often incongruous styles (say the sudden appearance of the sentimental in Twain, or of the cynical in Prime). The unsettling encounter, in other words, did not necessarily provoke any particularly original observation. But it did lead to such frantic shifts in tone and style as those we see above. The fact that this passage is an extract from Twain’s journal (embedded in the narrative) may be relevant. It is as if the impressions of the encounter have not yet diminished at the time in which Twain first put them down on paper; had he revised the passage at a later time, he would have probably smoothed out many of these narrational zigzags.63 But even with revision the trace of the encounter would not necessarily disappear. Twain’s sudden stylistic U-Turn in the chapter on the Church of the Holy Sepulcher—the irreverent cynicism morphing into a Prime-like grandiloquence—is a good example. Did an intense experience in the Church—a site he learned from Protestantism to disdain but must have seen was difficult to dismiss—catch Twain off guard? Is that why he so strangely retreated to the words of none-other than his literary nemesis? Twain’s encounter with the Church (perhaps what impelled him to buy a Bible for his mother next door) is of a third kind. If we are prepared to fully commit neither to the poststructuralist denial of “brute reality” nor to the humanistic belief in the possibility of transcendence, we can still seek its shadow between the multiple strands that texture Orientalism.
Milette Shamir is senior lecturer in the Department of English and American Studies and Head of the International Program in Liberal Arts at Tel Aviv University. She is the author of Inexpressible Privacy: The Interior Life of Antebellum American Literature (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005) and the co-editor of Boys Don’t Cry? Rethinking Narratives of Masculinity and Emotion in the US (Columbia University Press, 2002).
How to quote this article:
Milette Shamir, "Encounters of a Third Kind: Mark Twain, William C. Prime and Protestant American Holy Land Narratives", in Travels to the "Holy Land": Perceptions, Representations and Narratives, eds. Serena Di Nepi, Arturo Marzano, Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC, n.6 December 2013