Mark Twain and the Holy Land On View October 25, 2019 – February 2, 2020
New-York Historical Society celebrates the 150th anniversary of one of the best-selling travelogues of all time with Mark Twain and the Holy Land, on view October 25, 2019 – February 2, 2020. This new exhibition traces the legendary American humorist’s 1867 voyage to the Mediterranean and his subsequent 1869 book—The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress—through original documents, photographs, artwork, and costumes, as well as an interactive media experience. Organized by New-York Historical in partnership with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, it is curated by Michael Ryan, vice president and director of the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library, and Cristian Petru Panaite, associate curator of exhibitions.
“Setting sail from New York for a great adventure abroad, Mark Twain captured the feelings and reactions of many Americans exploring beyond their borders, inspiring generations of travelers to document their voyages,” said Dr. Louise Mirrer, president and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “We are pleased to partner with the Shapell Manuscript Foundation to present the history behind this influential book by Twain, a uniquely American writer whose work helped to define American culture in the postbellum era.”
In 1867, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910)—known professionally as Mark Twain—departed New York harbor on the steamship Quaker City for a five-and-a-half-month excursion, with stops in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Holy Land. Known at that point for his biting satire and humorous short pieces on California and the West, Clemens had serendipitously discovered a “pleasure cruise” to Europe and the Near East, and successfully inveigled his way onto the journey with an assignment from the San Francisco newspaper Alta California. Twain was to supply the paper with weekly columns about the trip and his fellow passengers. When he returned to New York and then to Washington, D.C., he began reshaping those columns and other notes made during the trip into a book, The Innocents Abroad (1869). It was this work that catapulted Twain to national fame, selling more copies during his lifetime than any other book he ever wrote.
“Musing about the voyage in a passage later published in Innocents Abroad, Twain so aptly noted: ‘Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,’” said Benjamin Shapell, President of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. “That his travelogue espoused such a liberal sentiment while at the very same time also exposing the deep closed-mindedness of his fellow shipmates is the very reason why Twain’s biting perspective comes across as so fresh to us even today. We are pleased that the New-York Historical Society has brought together these rare manuscripts and artifacts, bringing Twain’s lively, influential, and singular experience to life.”
American Protestants approached the Holy Land in awe and reverence, their visions of it having been shaped by romantic travel literature that described Palestine as majestic and grand. Examples of this literature are on display along with contemporary illustrations of the Holy Land, such as Hubert Sattler’s View of Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (1847), on loan from the Dahesh Museum of Art. In reality, the Holy Land in the 19th century was a remote and neglected outpost of the Ottoman Empire.
The Quaker City cruise was the first organized tourism trip in American history; the steamship was opulently outfitted with a library, printing press, piano, and pipe organ. A Quaker City passenger list, receipt for voyage, and an oil painting of the steamship are on display, as well as a journal entry from April 1867, in which Twain announces his plan to embark on the voyage. Photographer William E. James was also on board and documented many of the sights in stereoscopic images; James’ camera and a selection of seemingly three-dimensional stereoscopic images are on view on an interactive touch screen.
After stops in Europe, the travelers were greeted in Beirut by a grand caravan of horses and mules for a journey of 155 miles to “Baalbec, Damascus, the Sea of Tiberias, and thence southward by the way of the scene of Jacob’s Dream and other notable Bible localities to Jerusalem.” But the pomp was in glaring contrast to the reality of a small, barren land, which was not the vast and monumental landscape suggested by the Bible. Twain was disappointed that “a fast walker could go outside the walls of Jerusalem and walk entirely around the city in an hour,” and a manuscript leaf on view features Twain’s withering satirical soliloquy about the Tomb of Adam at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: “The tomb of Adam! How touching it was here in a land of strangers, far away from home, and friends, and all who cared for me, thus to discover the grave of a blood relation.”
Twain’s caustic view of the Holy Land, with its nomads, beggars, and ruins was the author’s way of proclaiming the arrival of the new American traveler, someone who saw the world for what it was, without the distorting lenses of tradition and received authority. Twain had sampled the guides and travel volumes and found them all without foundation.
The voyage of the Quaker City was well documented, and the exhibit presents not only the photographs by James, but manuscripts and letters by Twain, a Dragoman costume, and Turkish slippers worn by Twain’s future bride, Olivia Langdon.
It took Twain and his publisher a good two years to bring Innocents to fruition in 1869, but once in print, its success was immediate. Twain’s scabrous humor found an eager and receptive audience, well documented in contemporary reviews on display in the show. Innocents undoubtedly contributed to the vogue for traveling to the Holy Land, and the exhibit features letters by such notables as President Ulysses Grant, Gen. William T. Sherman, and Theodore Roosevelt, each of whom journeyed to Palestine.
Mark Twain and the Holy Land introduces visitors both to a young Mark Twain on the eve of celebrity and to Palestine in the 19th century, captured by artists, writers, and photographers.
On October 24, Jonathan D. Sarna, University Professor and the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, and Gil Troy, Professor of History at McGill University, will discuss Mark Twain and the Holy Land: A New Look.
Exhibitions at New-York Historical are made possible by Dr. Agnes Hsu-Tang and Oscar Tang, the Saunders Trust for American History, the Seymour Neuman Endowed Fund, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature. WNET is the media sponsor.