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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