On “The Innocents Abroad” and “The Odyssey”

Lunch and a good book
The Innocents Abroad and my lunchtime farro bowl with leftover grilled chicken and zucchini, peas, and roasted corn. Yum!

I’ve been reading Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad for a literary book club. I’d never read it before, although I love great travel writing like John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley, Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory (an achingly evocative trip down the Mississippi in the late 1970s, capturing both a space and a time) and Passage to Juneau, Jerry Ellis’ Walking to Canterbury (a modern tracing of the old pilgrimage route), and Jack Hitt’s Off the Road (a modern – and at times hilarious – account following the route of pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela). I even thoroughly enjoyed William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways and Peter Jenkins’ A Walk Across America. Given all that, it’s a little weird that I hadn’t read Innocents Abroad.

Since I’m also reading Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey, it occurred to me to look for some overlap and skip ahead to the sections of Innocents Abroad where Twain’s “pilgrims” make their way around the ancient world. Even though I’d already started it, it feels a little like the way The Odyssey, rather famously, starts in media res. So, the slightest of nods to reading Homer while reading Twain.

Twain mentions Scylla and Charybdis as a tourist attraction, and the plains of Troy and where Agamemnon’s fleets joined forces. And he writes this poignant and seemingly eternal truth:

I suppose that ancient Greece and modern Greece compared, furnish the most extravagant contrast to be found in history. George I, an infant of eighteen, and a scraggy nest of foreign office holders, sit in the places of Themistocles, Pericles, and the illustrious scholars and generals of the Golden Age of Greece. The fleets that were the wonder of the world when the Parthenon was new, are a beggarly handful of fishing-smacks now, and the manly people that performed such miracles of valor at Marathon are only a tribe of unconsidered slaves to-day. The classic Illyssus has gone dry, and so have all the sources of Grecian wealth and greatness. The nation numbers only eight hundred thousand souls, and there is poverty and misery and mendacity enough among them to furnish forty million and be liberal about it.”

(Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad, chapter 33.)

Twain goes on to talk about Greece’s history of wasteful state spending, concluding “ten into five goes no times and none over.” I get the feeling he would have been utterly bemused by the costly facilities built in Athens to host the 2004 Summer Olympic Games, that now sit as broken by years as the Golden Age temples by centuries. But at least the older ruins earn their keep.

In other news, I recently joined The Tudor Society, an online medievalist group focusing on the Tudor era. It includes access to a chat forum/message board, live presentations by experts, and video travel to Tudor-era sites. As a special promotion, my membership came with three online courses, and I’m eager to jump into one!

So many great books to read, so much great history to discover!

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