Mark Twain wrote about a trip to Europe and the Middle East in his book Innocents Abroad, and in the course of the book he also reveals much that he observes about American foreign policy in the broadest sense. This means not so much about foreign policy as it is thought of with reference to the policies of the American government but more about the source of such policy, meaning the attitudes of the American people toward foreign climes. On the one hand, Twain criticizes certain behavior on the part of his fellow-travelers which shows them to be arrogant toward as well as somewhat ignorant about many of the regions through which they travel. On the other hand, Twain himself shows many of these same traits as he also assumes the superiority of anything American over anything foreign.
The Innocents Abroad is a book that started as a series of letters written by Mark Twain for a newspaper in San Francisco concerning his 1867 trip on the Quaker City. The travelers on this ship were for the most part motivated by a desire to see the Holy Land. Twain's major purpose in making this trip was to see a part of the world he had not yet seen, and his purpose in writing this book was to reveal to others what he had seen with his own eyes, the reality of the world separated from the interferences of pretense and convention. He wanted the account to be both informative and entertaining. The book that resulted is a mixture of irreverence and the promotion of America as an ideal. One of the central themes in the work is the degree to which the reality differs from the expectations of the narrator. The narrator visits not only the Holy Land but most of Europe, and he reacts to such institutions as Paris, the Old Masters in Italy, and Roman Catholicism. Twain also poked fun at the hypocrisies of the religious pilgrims traveling with him and at such other elements common to travelers as guidebooks and hotel rooms.
The trip -- called the great Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land -- was much advertised before Twain joined. Much of the trip is described as structured on one indignity after another, and putting up with the vagaries of travel is what Twain calls being "foreignized":
We are getting foreignized rapidly, and with facility. We are getting reconciled to halls and bed-chambers with unhomelike stone floors, and no carpets -- floors that ring to the tread of one's heels with a sharpness that is death to sentimental musing. We are getting used to tidy, noiseless waiters, who glide hither and thither, and hover about your back and your elbows like butterflies... (Twain 71).
Twain takes note of many of the problems encountered by the traveler. In Genoa, Twain is exposed to the machinations of a guide, and he describes this experience in a way that evokes in the reader memories of other guides who did not serve the needs of their charges:
Perdition catch all the guides. This one said he was the most gifted linguist in Genoa, as far as English was concerned, and that only two persons in the city beside himself could talk the language at all (Twain 126).
In these passages, Twain displays the style that carries throughout this book, a mixture of humor and serious complaint at the same time. Twain writes a conclusion to his book one year after the trip has ended and makes an interesting observation about memory and travel:
Nearly one year has flown since this notable pilgrimage was ended; and as I sit here at home in San Francisco thinking, I am moved to confess that day by day the mass of my memories of the excursion have grown more and more pleasant as the disagreeable incidents of travel which encumbered them flitted one by one of out my mind -- and now, if the Quaker City were weighing her anchor to sail away on the very same cruise again, nothing could gratify me more than to be a passenger. With the same captain and even the same pilgrims, the same sinners (Twain 555).
Twain's description of his journey is detailed and offers some of the history of the different places visited, observations on the people, and a comparison of the tourist sites in terms of their reality and their image. Twain is fully familiar with most of the history of Europe before he arrives, just as he is familiar with European literature, legends, and religious beliefs. He often takes a somewhat irreverent view of these elements and conveys this through overstatement, as when he is seeking the resting place of Heloise and Abelard:
I am seeking the last resting-place of those "ruffians." When I find it I shall shed some tears on it, and stack up some bouquets and immortelles, and cart away from it some gravel whereby to remember that howsoever blotted by crime their lives may have been, these ruffians did one just deed, at any rate, albeit it was not warranted by the strict letter of the law (Twain 111).
One of the reasons for this is a long-standing competition between America and Europe because Europe was held up as the height of culture, while America had something of an inferiority complex about its own culture. Twain often chafes under this reality and addresses it in various ways in different works. In his novel Huckleberry Finn, for instance, he has Tom Sawyer foolishly using Sir Walter Scott-type adventure stories as a model for action, while Huck Finn as an American would just do the job as simply as possible. Mordecai Richler makes reference to this competition when he writes,
One of the joys of reading The Innocents Abroad is the opportunity it affords us of watching the young Twain liberate himself, and American writing, from the yoke of the European tradition, doing a necessary demolition job on it, and the pilgrims who revere often second-rate pictures, proclaiming them masterpieces (Richler 14-15).
Twain offers comments showing that he sees both the good and the bad about the countries through which he passes. He is not uniformly critical, and neither is he gushingly accepting of all that he sees. He is eager to see much of the world that he has heard about but never seen, and at the same time he is surprised at how much he and the other travelers know of what they will see before they see it, know from reading or from seeing photographs, drawings, and paintings of these places. The book is humorous and instructional at the same time, and Twain serves a good consciousness through which to "see" the world.
Twain can see that one reason for much of American foreign policy is simply that Americans are ignorant of the rest of the world. He notes of the first stop on the trip, think the Azores must be very little known in America. Out of our whole ship's company there was not a solitary individual who knew anything whatever about them (Twain 33).
He does say that many were well-read about other lands, but it is often unclear whether they know more about these other lands than the most famous tourist sites and historical facts. At the same time, Twain himself accepts certain stereotypes as evidence of how people in different parts of the world should be viewed, as when he says of the Azores, "The community is eminently Portuguese -- that is to say, it is slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy, and lazy" (Twain 33).
The other side of the American attitude toward foreign counties is arrogance, and Twain notes this early with reference to a fellow traveler "young and green, and not bright, not learned, and not wise" (Twain 48). He says of the behavior of this person,
Here in Gibraltar he corners these educated British officers and badgers them with braggadocio about America and the wonders she can perform. He told one of them a couple of our gunboats could come here and knock Gibraltar into the Mediterranean sea! (Twain 48).
Another example is offered in France:
We were troubled a little at dinner to-day, by the conduct of an American, who talked very loudly and coarsely, and laughed boisterously where all others were so quiet and well behaved. He ordered wine with a royal flourish, and said: "I never dine without wine, sir" (which was a pitiful falsehood), and looked around upon the company to bask in the admiration he expected to find in their faces. All these airs in a land where they would as soon expect to leave the soup out of the bill of fare as the wine! In a land where wine is nearly as common among all ranks as water! (Twain 72).
Attitudes like this are only one reason why Americans tend to keep themselves isolated, even American officials, as Twain notes when discussing his visit…