45 pages 1 hour read

Mark Twain

The Innocents Abroad

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1869

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Summary and Study Guide


In 1867, the San Francisco Alta Californian assigned its 31-year-old reporter Mark Twain to cover a steamboat pleasure trip to the Mediterranean. Twain’s account of the trip was published in 1869 as The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress. The book would become the most popular and bestselling work of Twain’s career, acclaimed by both critics and readers. Twain’s travelogue chronicles a voyage through Europe and the Holy Land attended by a group of over 60 American men and women from 15 different states. Combining seriousness and his trademark humor, Twain describes the various sights and people they encounter as well as making observations about the society, history, religion, and other aspects of the Old World.

The book’s subtitle, The New Pilgrim’s Progress, is an allusion to John Bunyan’s classic allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress. Twain views his devoutly Christian fellow travelers as “pilgrims” in search of their spiritual roots. At the same time, these travelers are from the New World, the land of progress, efficiency, and technology. Reflecting the viewpoint of the New World, Twain turns a critical eye on the culture and institutions of Europe and the Middle East. He is both admiring of and skeptical of this culture—skeptical of the reverence shown to certain artists of the past, for example, while admiring some “old master” paintings. Twain finds much of the romantic prose written about the Old World to be at variance with reality, and he misses no chance to shatter illusions about this.

Much of the humor of the book comes from cultural misunderstandings, including the clash between liberal 19th-century ideas and the more traditional ways of life that prevail in the Old World. While a fervent believer in democracy, Twain admires certain monarchs whom he considers effective leaders. In matters of religion, Twain represents an American Protestant viewpoint critical of the power of the priesthood and certain traditional religious practices. He is dispirited by the tendency of the Old World to profit on its history, as shown in such practices as accumulating spurious religious relics for display.  

Yet Twain does not hesitate to critique his fellow Americans as well, including their chauvinism and ignorance of the customs of other countries. Thus, The Innocents Abroad is a double-edged sword. Twain also questions many of the conventions of tourism, such as cramming too much sightseeing into a short time frame. At times Twain is fatigued by the trip and by the physically trying circumstances they must undergo. At other times, Twain finds the landmarks they visit to be thrilling and rewarding. Overall, Twain’s experiences reflect those of anyone who has traveled for an extended period in unfamiliar territory.

Originating as a series of letters sent by Twain to newspapers during the trip, The Innocents Abroad consists of 61 chapters and a Conclusion. At journey’s end, Twain realizes that the true value of travel does not become clear until we return home and have time to reflect on it, sifting out the bad experiences and stressing the good ones. The Innocents Abroad proved that Twain’s brand of humor and candor resonated with the American public, and it would establish his reputation and tremendous popularity as an author.