Old and New in Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It

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In The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It, Mark Twain regales the reader with tales of Europe and the American West. Though his actual experiences differ vastly between the two volumes, both of Twain’s accounts of his travels show him as the consummate tourist as he constantly, if subtly, contrasts old and new by comparing where he is to where he is from. Europe and the West both get similar treatment as Twain attempts to assure his readers that the cultural relevance of both is outshone by the states east of the western territories—which was, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, the place where his target audience lived.

Throughout Twain’s travels, one thing seems constant: the best and most civilized place is always the place where he is not. No matter where he is, Twain can always find something to complain about—and that something usually pertains to the conflict between old and new. While in Italy, he complains about the “stub-hunters,” who follow smokers to collect cigar stubs, simultaneously insulting Italian tobacco by insisting, “they surely must chew up those old stubs, and dry and sell them for smoking-tobacco,” though he provides no proof that they do not simply smoke them themselves (The Innocents Abroad, Ch. 17). When travelling to Nevada, Twain recounts being served a meal of week old bread, bacon ruled unsafe for consumption by the army, and a beverage called “slumgullion” containing “dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind,” which Twain found so disgusting that he could not eat any of it, though the Westerners at the table have no such qualms (Roughing It, Ch. 4). These stories make both Italy and the West seem horribly uncivilized and second rate, selling products made of scraps and rejected materials as if they were new and nothing was wrong with them.

Twain’s love of home has some thought behind it; his narratives make it clear that he believes that the eastern half of the United States has more relevance to the life of the average nineteenth-century American—cultural relevance, to put it more succinctly—than either Europe or the American West. To Twain, Europe focuses too much on its past to be relevant in the present. The recurring refrain of “Is he dead?” as well as the frequent use of “dead” as an adjective to denounce various tourist attractions in Europe, highlights Twain’s belief that European culture dwells too much on the past to be relevant in the present. He is especially critical of Europe’s valuation of art, stating, “When a man invents a new style of horse-collar … our government issues a patent to him that is worth a fortune; when a man digs up an ancient statue in Campagna, the Pope gives him a fortune in gold coin,” (Innocents Abroad, Ch. 28). Europeans have let their love of the past overrule any inclination to improve; they have clung so tightly to their traditions that they cannot move forward.

On the other hand, the occupants of the American West have strayed too far from American traditions. Twain complains that he was not allowed to take most of his belongings with him, left with “a war footing” of some basic items of clothing and a gun, rather than the waistcoats and gloves that he and his brother were used to (Roughing It, Ch. 2). On the journey, they also encounter a woman who has apparently been out west for so long that she has forgotten how to speak properly or pick up on social cues, much to Twain’s horror (Roughing It, Ch. 2). This lack of civilization in the West contrasts with Twain’s Eastern voice and Eastern sensibilities to produce a feeling of disdain for the comparatively uncivilized West.

Twain’s analysis of  cultural relevance does lack consistency, however. His criticisms of Europe and the West clash as Twain’s position on the superiority of new over old flips once he goes to Nevada. Twain’s Europe focuses too much on national traditions and history, while the West fails to adhere to American traditions and history enough. Europe, in particular, is able to do absolutely nothing right—Twain has found a way to criticize everything. The guides are slimy, the people are annoying, the history is boring, the art is overvalued, no one cares about the present, and so on. In the American West, the people are uncivilized, the food is made of rejects, and the tales he hears are too ludicrous to be true. Twain favors the new only when the new is America, and the old only when the old is the eastern half of the United States, where he had spent most of his life. In short, the West is too new and Europe is too old; nothing satisfies Twain except for what he is accustomed to.

Mark Twain’s contrasts of old and new in both The Innocents Abroad and Roughing It seem to have the same purpose: to affirm that America, and specifically eastern America, was superior to anywhere else in the world. Though Twain almost certainly had readers in both Europe and the West, his target audience was households in the eastern half of the United States. Perhaps not coincidentally, that is the place that, through a contrast of new and old, he glorifies as the pinnacle of modern civilization in order to convince his target audience that he has done all of the onerous travelling for them and that they really are not missing anything by reading his books instead of going themselves. In the end, it appears that Twain does not prefer either new or old over the other, merely using them to glorify what he sees as American.


Works Cited

Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad. Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1869. Project

Gutenberg. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.

Twain, Mark. Roughing It. Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1872. Project

Gutenberg. Web. 17 Feb. 2013.
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