Day after day and night after night we have wandered among the crumbling wonders of Rome; day after day and night after night we have fed upon the dust and decay of five-and-twenty centuries - have brooded over them by day and dreamt them by night till sometimes we seemed moldering away ourselves, and growing defaced and cornerless, and liable at any moment to fall a prey to some antiquary and be patched at the legs, and "restored" with an unseemly nose, and labeled wrong and dated wrong, and set up in the Vatican for poets to drivel about and vandals to scribble their names on forever and forevermore.
And so, and as if in response to Alexis de Tocqueville who only a few years earlier came to America to describe its democratic anarchy, Mark Twain approaches Europe and the Middle East in a journalistic endeavor that spanned a number of months and was later converted into this travelogue of 1867.
By boat, train and a menagerie of ill-suited animals the king of codgety commentary dives head-first into the lands of History and Religion and finds them sincere, sincerely dissimulatory and rather lacking. For those who believe that the tourist industry is a recent phenomenon, and that only your aunt would haggle for pesos over a fake kiln-fired Colombian death mask outside the hotel's beach-side cabana bar, rest assured that a hundred and fifty years ago Twain's compatriots were also wandering somewhat wasted in places like Paris and Constantinople picking up bits of touristy jargon and ruin rubble to trade for expressions of awe upon their return to whatever social cliques flitted about back in the day. Mark Twain's tack is a slightly different take however, and he and some Man Show type buddies that he meets during the initial vomiting stages of the ship's departure get up to a bit of mischief not only with the bevy of guides (all of whom they call Ferguson), but also with the guards of the quarantined Parthenon which they had to break into and steal bits of, like sophomoric prep school escapees.
To give a better impression of the trip we take over the six hundred plus pages (illustrated), the tour group that Twain is a part of boats to Morocco and then France (of which he remembers mostly a series of painful shaving experiences), then on through Italy and the lands of Myth (where he is swarmed by crippled beggars) to short sections of Asia and down to the birth-places of Religion in Egypt and Palestine.
Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of a Deity beautify a land?
Palestine is no more of this work-day world. It is sacred to poetry and tradition - it is a dream land.
If Mark Twain has not found what he was looking for it is because that is how he sees, and anyone that is tired three busts in at the Uffizi or distracted from Chartres by the line of panini vendors can sympathize with his character through a similar dissatisfaction with the expectancies built up over a lifetime of education. The book's title is perhaps the only education we get from this rude little sojourn in that its ambiguity leaves us with a usefully confusing question. Would Twain have said that those porters and priests and Bedouins and beggars were the innocents he was encountering, or were these peoples encountering the tourists, in all their innocence, abroad from a newly achieved, anarchic and uneducated America?
The gentle reader will never know what a consummate ass he can become, until he goes abroad.