Mark Twain on Why “Travel is Fatal to Prejudice, Bigotry and Narrow-Mindedness, and Many of Our People Need It Sorely on These Accounts” (1869)

Pub­lic Domain image via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

Human­i­ty has come up with many neg­a­tive stereo­types of Amer­i­cans, some of them not entire­ly ground­less: the wide­ly held belief, for exam­ple, that Amer­i­cans don’t get out much. I admit the truth of that one as an Amer­i­can myself — albeit an Amer­i­can who now lives in Asia — because I cer­tain­ly did drag my feet on get­ting a pass­port and get­ting out there in the world at first. Per­haps I can take com­fort in the fact that no less a colos­sus of Amer­i­can let­ters began his inter­na­tion­al trav­els even lat­er than I did, though when he did get around to it, he got even more out of it: not only The Inno­cents Abroad, one of the best-loved trav­el books of all time, but an insight into what makes trav­el so vital a pur­suit in the first place.

The trav­els Mark Twain recounts in the book began in 1867 on the char­tered ves­sel Quak­er City, which took him and a group of his coun­try­men through Europe and the Holy Land, an itin­er­ary includ­ing a stop at the 1867 Paris Exhi­bi­tion and jour­neys through the Papal States to Rome and through the Black Sea to Odessa, all fol­low­able on a hyper­text map at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­gini­a’s Mark Twain in His Times page. “In his account Mark Twain assumes two alter­nate roles,” says the Library of Amer­i­ca, “at times the no-non­sense Amer­i­can who refus­es to auto­mat­i­cal­ly ven­er­ate the famous sights of the Old World (pre­fer­ring Lake Tahoe to Lake Como), or at times the put-upon sim­ple­ton, a gullible vic­tim of flat­ter­ers and ‘frauds,’ and an awe-struck admir­er of Russ­ian roy­al­ty.”

Whether you read The Inno­cents Abroad in the Library of Amer­i­ca’s edi­tion or in one of a vari­ety of free for­mats down­load­able from Project Guten­berg, you’ll even­tu­al­ly come to Twain’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the entire project: not the writ­ing project with its hand­some remu­ner­a­tion and name-mak­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty, but the project of trav­el itself. Though many ele­ments of the Old World expe­ri­ence, as well as pro­longed expo­sure to his fel­low Amer­i­cans, put his for­mi­da­ble com­plain­ing abil­i­ty to the test, the “breezy, shrewd, and com­i­cal manip­u­la­tor of Eng­lish idioms and America’s mytholo­gies about itself and its rela­tion to the past” (as the Library of Amer­i­ca describes him) ulti­mate­ly admits that

I have no fault to find with the man­ner in which our excur­sion was con­duct­ed. Its pro­gramme was faith­ful­ly car­ried out—a thing which sur­prised me, for great enter­pris­es usu­al­ly promise vast­ly more than they per­form. It would be well if such an excur­sion could be got­ten up every year and the sys­tem reg­u­lar­ly inau­gu­rat­ed. Trav­el is fatal to prej­u­dice, big­otry and nar­row-mind­ed­ness, and many of our peo­ple need it sore­ly on these accounts. Broad, whole­some, char­i­ta­ble views of men and things can not be acquired by veg­e­tat­ing in one lit­tle cor­ner of the earth all one’s life­time.

Dis­tinct­ly Twain­ian words, of course, but many oth­er writ­ers have since also tried to express the unique­ly mind-expand­ing prop­er­ties of spend­ing time out­side your home­land. As Rud­yard Kipling mem­o­rably put it to his own coun­try­men, a few decades after The Inno­cents Abroad, in “The Eng­lish Flag,” “What should they know of Eng­land who only Eng­land know?”

Or as one writer friend of mine, well-known for the glob­al­ized nature of his books and well as of his own iden­ti­ty, once said, “If Amer­i­cans don’t trav­el, we’re like a man who lives in a hov­el assum­ing every­one else lives in a worse hov­el.” But it always comes back to Twain, who knew that “noth­ing so lib­er­al­izes a man and expands the kind­ly instincts that nature put in him as trav­el and con­tact with many kinds of peo­ple” — and who also knew that nobody quite real­ized “what a con­sum­mate ass he can become until he goes abroad.” We can all think of much worse rea­sons to head across the ocean than that.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mark Twain Makes a List of 60 Amer­i­can Com­fort Foods He Missed While Trav­el­ing Abroad (1880)

A Jour­ney Back in Time: Vin­tage Trav­el­ogues

Free: Read 9 Trav­el Books Online by Mon­ty Python’s Michael Palin

Petite Planète: Dis­cov­er Chris Marker’s Influ­en­tial 1950s Trav­el Pho­to­book Series

Join Clive James on His Clas­sic Tele­vi­sion Trips to Paris, LA, Tokyo, Rio, Cairo & Beyond

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (7)
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  • saassa says:

    I stum­bled into your page. I have trav­eled and I saw Paris buried under immi­grant hordes, I saw Berlin in chaos dur­ing one fes­ti­val, and my neigh­bour coun­try, Swe­den, is becom­ing islam­ic hor­ror state. I want to love this web­site but you are mak­ing it dif­fi­cult.

    europe is dying and you are feed­ing the fire.

  • Paul says:

    Proof pos­i­tive that trav­el is not a sure­fire cure for prej­u­dice.

    Some peo­ple just see what they expect­ed to see all along.

  • Amy says:

    I’ve found this to be so true. See­ing oth­er coun­tries and talk­ing to peo­ple on my trav­els has done so much to show me the same­ness of human­i­ty amid the stark con­trast of our cul­tures. Trav­el­ing brings me such joy.

  • Michael Wilson says:

    I’ve been liv­ing in Asia for a dozen years and have yet to meet a dozen for­eign­ers, mean­ing Euro­peans or North Amer­i­cans, who have expe­ri­enced the salu­tary effects of trav­el that Twain and this arti­cle wish to cel­e­brate. West­ern­ers in Asia, expats and trav­el­ers alike, tend to judge every­thing from a west­ern per­spec­tive and- sur­prise sur­prise- Asia and Asians come up lack­ing almost every time.

    There may be some truth that inquis­i­tive open-mind­ed rel­a­tive­ly intel­li­gent peo­ple can have their eyes hearts and minds opened by expe­ri­enc­ing oth­er cul­tures direct­ly. But I sus­pect those peo­ple could gain the same from books or spend­ing time in the mul­ti­cul­tur­al cities in the west­ern world.

    And I should add that the con­stant dis­cov­ery of “same­ness despite dif­fer­ence” is just anoth­er west­ern lib­er­al tech­nique for obscur­ing the real­i­ty of actu­al dif­fer­ence. No mat­ter how many times Ben Affleck and his acolytes insist that every­one just wants to “eat some sand­wich­es” there will remain bil­lions of peo­ple who absolute­ly do not.

  • Bendeguz79 says:

    Trav­el around the world makes you learn about the great vari­ety of human cul­tures, cus­toms, etc, yet will open your eyes to real­ize how much we are all the same.

  • Zack Wyatt says:

    To Mr. Wil­son:

    I’ve been liv­ing in Amer­i­ca all my life, and I am unsur­prised to hear that “West­ern­er” white peo­ple con­tin­ue to judge oth­er coun­tries by their own stan­dards, and con­sid­er them­selves favor­ably in every met­ric. This is iron­ic, when one con­sid­ers the vol­ume of racism and vit­ri­ol that cir­cu­lates sup­posed metrop­o­lis-filled coun­tries such as Amer­i­ca and Britain. It is obvi­ous that Asian coun­tries do bet­ter than the West in plen­ty of things, and the West does bet­ter than the East in plen­ty of things; and this vague insis­tence that “Asian coun­tries come up short” is mere­ly idi­ot­ic.

    Tell us, Mike, what do they lack? What are you judg­ing them by, except by your own igno­rance? And tell us how the black man is wel­comed in the South­ern states of Amer­i­ca, frat­er­niz­ing with white daugh­ters, chased out by the bar­rel of the fat police­man. Then tell us how the Euro for­eign­er is wel­comed in Asia, asked where he comes from, com­pli­ment­ed super­fi­cial­ly on his lan­guage skills. Do com­pare their expe­ri­ences!

    Com­pare East­ern coun­tries with West­ern coun­tries on met­rics of growth, tech­nol­o­gy, cul­tur­al influ­ence, wealth, mil­i­tary strength, etc. You will find that all coun­tries are dif­fer­ent in their spe­cial­iza­tion, and no coun­try is eas­i­ly pigeon­holed.

    The “West” has had hun­dreds of years to accli­mate to their self-imposed mul­ti­tude of races and cul­tures, and it comes up short every time, not because of lib­er­als — but because of con­ser­v­a­tives, racists, and big­ots like you. And guess who are those who make cul­tur­al progress in Amer­i­ca? Lib­er­als, minori­ties, and those with the mind to con­sid­er oth­er cul­tures with human­i­ty.

    Moron­ic pricks who fetishized oth­er coun­tries, only to be met with dis­ap­point­ment that the world isn’t a dream­land in any cor­ner, are to be blamed for their own short­com­ings. You, Michael, are one of these unfor­tu­nate souls, and worst of all, you aren’t even aware. Well, igno­rance only bur­rows its head deep­er when it sees itself reflect­ed in the mir­ror. Its vis­age is too hideous.

  • Mary McGarvey says:

    One thing a west­ern­er has to learn is that most coun­tries def­i­nite­ly con­sid­ered women sec­ond class. Either the west­ern vis­i­tor learns to accept it or in the end, reject the cul­ture that prac­tices this idea. Much as the black male isn’t sup­posed to date a white female in the south­ern USA, a west­ern­er female must be very care­ful when trav­el­ing in the Mid­dle East or in Africa sim­ply because of entrenched views of women and espe­cial­ly for­eign women who trav­el (espe­cial­ly with­out a male west­ern­er with them).

    I won­der if Mark Twain ever noticed these prob­lems when he went on excur­sions as a white, rather wealthy, west­ern­ers. If I were a man, I sup­pose I wouldn’t have noticed much either. But it did col­or enor­mous­ly my view of Turkey and Italy.

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