Guilty Innocents

On this day in 1867 Mark Twain set off on the European/Mideast tour that would become The Innocents Abroad, his bestselling book in his lifetime. Many of Twain’s observations about the Grand Tour are in the debunking mode, a raised eyebrow at the hallowed tourist sites, or the various subspecies of Dumb Tourist — for instance the encyclopedic and garrulous Oracle:

I will explain that the Oracle is an innocent old ass who eats for four and looks wiser than the whole Academy of France would have any right to look, and never uses a one-syllable word when he can think of a longer one, and never by any possible chance knows the meaning of any long word he uses or ever gets it in the right place; yet he will serenely venture an opinion on the most abstruse subject and back it up complacently with quotations from authors who never existed, and finally when cornered will slide to the other side of the question, say he has been there all the time, and come back at you with your own spoken arguments, only with the big words all tangled, and play them in your very teeth as original with himself.

But there are different sorts of moments, such as when Twain, or the little boy from Hannibal, gazes up at the fabled Sphinx:

After years of waiting, it was before me at last. The great face was so sad, so earnest, so longing, so patient…. It was gazing out over the ocean of Time — over lines of century-waves which, further and further receding, closed nearer and nearer together, and blended at last into one unbroken tide, away toward the horizon of remote antiquity. It was thinking of the wars of departed ages; of the empires it had seen created and destroyed; of the nations whose birth it had witnessed, whose progress it had watched, whose annihilation it had noted; of the joy and sorrow, the life and death, the grandeur and decay, of five thousand slow revolving years…. And there is that in the overshadowing majesty of this eternal figure of stone, with its accusing memory of the deeds of all ages, which reveals to one something of what he shall feel when he shall stand at last in the awful presence of God.

Then the Dumb Tourist strikes again: Twain’s reverie is interrupted by the sight of someone trying to chisel a bit of souvenir rock from the Sphinx’s face.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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