A new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society brings the famous writer’s journey back to life.
NEW YORK – In 1867, future Zionist leader Theodor Herzl was seven years old, and the Civil War in the United States had ended two short years ago. That same year, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, known to fans of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn books as “Mark Twain,” did what a handful of Protestant lovers of the bible did in those days – he set off for the Holy Land.
Twain found a clever way to get himself aboard a luxury cruise trip of a lifetime. He arranged to write a series of newspaper columns for a California newspaper and set off from New York’s harbor on the steamship Quaker City. The five-and-a-half-month excursion featured stops in Europe, the Mediterranean and the Holy Land.
An impressive collection of maps, documents, costumes and photographs – mostly from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation – and the only known film clip of Mark Twain, shot in 1909 (incorporated in to the 2017 documentary Dreamland: Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem, narrated by Martin Sheen), are on display in the Mark Twain and the Holy Land exhibit, through February 2 at the New-York Historical Society’s museum and library in New York City.
The exhibit, which occupies a very small, narrow room on the second floor of the impressive museum, was packed on a recent Friday on the day after American Thanksgiving.
“You don’t usually associate Mark Twain with Israel,” observes Jody Friedman of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “It is cool to see Israel through his eyes.” Friedman was here with sons Ethan, 9, and Caleb, 6, and enjoyed showing them such familiar scenes as the Western Wall and the Damascus Gate as they appeared in photos from Twain’s trip more than 150 years ago. Friedman plans to go back for a guided tour of the exhibit with her congregational rabbi, Dr. Meir Soloveichik of Congregation Shearith Israel. Soloveichik is also the director of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.
Another visitor, Eric Douglas, learned of the exhibit when in Manhattan from Sacramento, California, six weeks ago visiting his daughter. He was looking forward to visiting the Twain exhibit on his Thanksgiving trip to New York.
“I love Mark Twain and am a lifelong student,” he says. “I read Innocents Abroad, and I am a lover of travel and travel writing.” Douglas is referring to Twain’s 1869 travel book entitled, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, which chronicles his half-year journey in a humorous, irreverent, incisive fashion. The book sold more than 70,000 copies in its first year and remained the best-selling of Twain’s books throughout his lifetime – outselling his better known classics, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (published in 1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). “In a way, he is the funniest and most engaging travel writer of all time,” says Douglas.
Douglas observes, “The exhibit is very compact and packs a wallop!” He enjoyed the “interactive case” with maps, photos and narrations. Visitors can view “Follow the Journey at Sea,” “Explore Maps from Twain’s Time,” and “Meet the Photographers,” including Francis Frith, Felix Bonfils and William E James. Douglas’s favorite object on display was the Parker Brothers board game, The Amusing Game of the Innocents Abroad. Douglas remarks with a smile, “I would love to rip it out of the case and take it home!”
TOVA WARREN, in town from Hampton, Virginia, with her husband to spend Thanksgiving with her daughter, son in law and granddaughter, also enjoyed seeing familiar scenes. “I lived and worked in Israel for three years,” she reports. “We go back five generations in Jerusalem!”
Warren was especially impressed with the large map tracing Twain’s travels – by ship and train – from New York City on June 8, 1867, via Marseilles, Paris, Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome, Naples, Athens, Constantinople, Odessa, Smyrna, Beirut, Damascus, before arriving in Jerusalem on September 23. He arrived back in New York on November 19, 1867, after stops in Cairo, Alexandria, Tangiers and Bermuda. “Now that I am 70, I don’t take planes anymore,” says Warren. She can relate to Twain’s boat travels, as she and her husband recently returned from a trip they took in May on the cruise ship Queen Mary from the United States to the UK and Ireland and back to the US.
When Twain read an advertisement for a voyage to Europe and the Holy Land, he sensed a golden opportunity. He persuaded the Alta California newspaper to cover the $1,250 cost of the trip in return for weekly columns. Twain next convinced the captain to give him a spot on this high-end steamship, which featured a library, printing press, piano and pipe organ.
As the free museum pamphlet outlining the five parts to the exhibit notes, “For American Protestants, the Holy Land conjured up awe, reverence and mystery. Their visions were shaped by romantic travel literature that described Palestine as majestic and grand. In reality, this area, known as Palestine, was a province of Syria and an impoverished backwater of the declining Ottoman Empire.”
Visitors to the exhibit were similarly impressed in a nostalgic kind of way by the maps and photos of the Holy Land, and by the fact that Twain had ventured there so many years before such travel was in vogue. Twain, however, found the Holy Land disappointing. Israel was not all what he had expected.
Benjamin Shapell, president of the Shapell Manuscript Foundation, observes, “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.’”
“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,” Shapell says.
Twain was not the only famous person of his time to visit the Holy Land in the 1800s. Author Herman Melville traveled there in 1857. The exhibit features letters by such notable fellow travelers to Palestine as President Ulysses S. Grant, Gen. William T. Sherman and Theodore Roosevelt.
A lithograph by David Roberts, the first professional artist to visit the Near East without a patron or a connection to a military expedition or missionary group, is also on display. Roberts sailed to Alexandria in 1838 and for 11 months traveled up the Nile River, across deserts and mountains, through Egypt and the Holy Land. He arrived in Jerusalem on Easter 1839 – almost 30 years before Twain’s arrival. His sketches and paintings provided the basis for the 247 lithographs published with text between 1842 and 1849.
Shapell notes, “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.” The exhibit also provides useful backdrop and insight for students of Middle East history as they continue to discuss and debate various narratives about Palestine (the Land of Israel) in the 1800s.