Mark Twain’s Palestine
by Michael A. Sells
“As I go back in spirit and recall that noble sea, reposing among the snow-peaks six thousand feet above the ocean, the conviction comes strong upon me again that Como would only seem a bedizened little courtier in that august presence.”
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)
Mark Twain was a watery soul. It was water, whether flowing or standing, that quickened his spirit and nourished his words.
Two years after the end of the Civil War, Samuel Clemens embarked on a five-month tour of Europe and the Middle East on the steamship Quaker City. He inherited the V.I.P. berth aboard the Quaker City when Civil War hero William Tecumseh Sherman, busy in his new capacity as commander of the U.S. Indian wars, opted out of the tour. Clemens’ newspaper in California, the Alta, purchased his ticket and paid his other expenses in exchange for travelogue articles. Mark Twain wrote the above words at Lake Como in Italy, in the course of the months-long tour that he would later reshape into his 1869 subscription-service best seller, The Innocents Abroad. The noble sea is Lake Tahoe. Twain, Clemens’ author-persona, mentions it twice: first, in connection with the Italian leg of his tour, and then, a second time at the culmination of his depiction of Syria and Palestine. In both cases, Twain breaks out of his character as a skeptic who satirizes the lands and peoples he visits and his fellow passengers who romanticize them.
In both, spirit contends with spleen directed against “Digger Indians.” The first reverie on the noble sea competes with annoyance over a name (145-6):
Sorrow and misfortune overtake the legislature that still from year to year permits Tahoe to retain its unmusical cognomen! Tahoe! It suggests no crystal waters, no picturesque shores, no sublimity. Tahoe for a sea in the clouds: a sea that has character and asserts it in solemn calms at times, at times in savage storms; a sea whose royal seclusion is guarded by a cordon of sentinel peaks that lift their frosty fronts nine thousand feet above the level world; a sea whose every aspect is impressive, whose belongings are all beautiful, whose lonely majesty types the Deity!”
The curse on the legislature is mild compared to what follows: “Tahoe means grasshoppers. It means grasshopper soup. It is Indian, and suggestive of Indians. They say it is Pi-ute—possibly it is Digger. I am satisfied it was named by the Diggers—those degraded savages who roast their dead relatives, then mix the human grease and ashes of bones with tar, and “gaum” it thick all over their heads and foreheads and ears, and go caterwauling about the hills and call it mourning. These are the gentry that named the Lake.” Mourning [italics Twains’] elicits his passion. What is that he mourns?
Nor do Diggers know poetry, he continues, except for those imagined by his favorite foil, James Fenimore Cooper. “I know the Noble Red Man . . . I have roamed with them, scalped them, had them for breakfast. I would gladly eat the whole race if I had a chance,” he adds in a mock Whitmanesque voice of universal man.
In significant ways, Innocents was written as and has been received as two separate books. The back-jacket blurb of the Penguin edition calls it a “caricature of the sentimental travel books popular in the mid-nineteenth century” and states that in his irreverent treatment of hallowed European landmarks Twain “was as mocking about American manners (including his own) as it was about European attitudes.” Twain’s account of Palestine is not mentioned.
For others, it is the Palestine account that stands out. That account was translated into Hebrew, and published in Israel as a self-standing book: Pleasure Excursion to the Holy Land. It inspired parts of Leon Uris’s 1958 bestseller, Exodus. In his 1973 Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, Shmuel Katz used excerpts taken from Innocents and the impressions of European travelers to argue that Palestine was a wasteland prior to the arrival of European Zionist pioneers. Ruth Peters did the same in her 1984 book From Time Immemorial (157-61); as did Benyamin Netanyahu in his 1993 A Place Among the Nations (38-41), which was updated in 1999 and retitled A Durable Peace; as did Alan Dershowitz in his 2003 The Case for Israel (23-24). The pastiches from Twain in Dershowitz and Netanyahu contain many of the same ellipses, grammatical anomalies, and spelling page-citation errors as in Peters, though neither author cites Peters as a source for his Twain quotes.
Twain, a former riverboat traveler and a devotee of the California lake that shall not be named is, unsurprisingly, unawed by the waters of the old world. “It is popular to admire the Arno,” Twain writes of the river that runs through Florence, Italy (177). “It is a great historical creek with four feet in the channel and some scows floating around. It would be a very plausible river if they would pump some water into it. They all call it a river, and they honestly think it is a river, do these dark and bloody Florentines.”
No surprise also that he is unimpressed with the rivers Albana and Pharpar in Damascus, the river Jordan, and the Sea of Galilee, but in this case his disdain takes a sharply different direction. In Italy, he pokes fun at the Italians and their water, and in the process of comparing Como unfavorably to Tahoe, he digresses on the savagery of Diggers. In Palestine, by contrast, his rumination on the Sea of Galilee and Tahoe takes place amid a portrayal of Arabs as Diggers.
Like those near Tahoe, the Indians near the Sea of Galilee provoke thought of extermination (352): “They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes the white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.” Of his visit to the plain of Jezreel, he recalls (411): “We met half a dozen Digger Indians (Bedouins) with very long spears in their hands, cavorting around on old crowbait horses, and spearing imaginary enemies; whooping, and fluttering their rags in the wind, and carrying on in every respect like a pack of hopeless lunatics.”
After reading “Grimes”—his nickname for the travel-guide author William C. Prime—extol the Madonna-like women of Nazareth, Twain sets the record straight (400). “That is the kind of gruel which has been served out from Palestine for ages. Commend me to Fennimore Cooper to find beauty in the Indians, and to Grimes to find it in the Arabs.” Of the daughter of a bedouin sheikh near Galilee, Twain remarks (354), “She was the only Syrian female we have seen yet who was not so sinfully ugly that she couldn’t smile after ten o’clock Saturday night without breaking the Sabbath.” After complaining that “squalor and poverty are the pride of Tiberias,” Twain notes that some relatively prosperous Tiberias women “wear their dower strung upon a strong wire that curves downward from the top of the head to the jaw—Turkish silver coins which they have raked together or inherited. Most of these maidens were not wealthy, but some few had been very kindly dealt with by fortune. I saw heiresses there worth, in their own right—well, I might venture to say, as much as nine dollars and a half. When you come across one of these, she naturally puts on airs. She will not ask for bucksheesh.” The refusal of the woman to ask for “bucksheesh” (roughly, tips expected for any service, no matter how small) exasperates him (378-9). “She will not ask for bucksheesh. She assumes a crushing dignity and goes on serenely practicing with her fine-tooth comb and quoting poetry just the same as if you were not present at all. Some people cannot stand prosperity.” He tells us nothing of the verses recited by the woman and throughout the Palestine-leg of his tour refrains from asking his dragomans (guide-translators) to facilitate in conversation with local inhabitants.
Twain breaks out of his wise-cracking character in Palestine one time before his Tahoe reverie in the Galilee. “I looked upon the place where the true cross once stood, with a far more absorbing interest than I had ever felt in any thing earthly before,” he writes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (432). Despite all of its “clap-trap side-shows,” the church “is still grand, reverend, venerable—for a god died there.” Centuries of pilgrims wet its shrines with tears and gallant soldiers “wasted their lives away in a struggle to seize it and hold it sacred from infidel pollution.” In his own day, he notes, two rival nations expended “millions in treasure and rivers of blood” in a war over which nation would build its new, golden dome. “History is full of this old Church of the Holy Sepulchre,” he concludes, “full of blood that was shed because of the respect and the veneration in which men held the last resting-place of the meek and lowly, the mild and gentle, Prince of Peace!”
Two nations expended millions of treasure and rivers of blood in another war of his time and far closer to home, but nowhere in Innocents does Twain recall it, at least not directly.
In A Place Among the Nations Netanyahu offers a digest of observations by nineteenth-century travelers on Palestine, and then hones in on Innocents with a full two-page set of pastiches (39), some of them identical to those found in Peters. One pastiche reads:
These unpeopled deserts, these rusty mounts of barrenness, that never, never, never do shake the glare from their harsh outlines . . . ; the melancholy ruin of Capernaum: this stupid village of Tiberias, slumbering under its six funeral [sic] palms. . . . A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and actions. . . . We reached Tabor safely. . . . We never saw a human being on the whole route.
The lines excerpted are intensely poetic. Note the iambic, for example, in “that néver, néver, néver / do sháke the glare,” and the alliterative beat in “slumbering under its six funereal [plumes of] palms.” Or take this pastiche found in Netanyahu (Twain 462 Netanyahu 40), which is itself a slightly condensed version of a pastiche in Peters: “Jericho the accursed lies a moldering ruin today, even as Joshua’s miracle left it more than three thousand years ago . . . [Bethlehem,] the hallowed spot where the angels sang, ‘Peace on earth, good will to men,’ is untenanted by any living creatures.” The first sentence carries a haunting echo:
Twain: “Jé-ri-cho / the ac-cúrsed / lies a móld / (e)ring rú(i)n / todáy.”
Echo: “ John Brown’s/ bódy / lies a-móld / (er)ing in / the gráve.”
In evoking the rhythm and vocabulary of the famous marching song “John Brown’s Body” that inspired the Civil War anthem, The Battle Hymn of the Republic, what is Twain mourning?
Or take the Netanyahu pastiche that begins (40, Twain 462): “Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes. Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energy. . . . Palestine is desolate and unlovely. . . It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land.” The phrase “sackcloth and ashes,” from the King James Bible, is embedded within a strong, almost singsong rhythm, which is then extended out in the second sentence in a metrical chant.
Pá-le-stine / Síts in / Sáck cloth and / Ásh-es
over it Broóds the Spéll / of a Cúrse / that has Wíth / ered its Fíelds / and Fét tered its / Énergy.
The melancholy is both poetic and theological. In place of the creative spirit that brooded over the deep is the spell of a curse that broods over the land. “A hope / less, dréa / ry, / héart bró / ken lánd”: Twain’s incantation calls into being the reality it would describe. As Twain remarks near the end of his Palestine reminiscence (462), “Palestine is desolate and unlovely. And why should it be otherwise? Can the curse of the deity beautify the land?” [Emphasis Twain’s].
Twain mourns the loss of the pre-lapsarian noble sea in California. He mourns the death of a god, Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. He mourns a land that, by theological necessity, he knows must be wasted. And he pines as well for certain “stirring scenes.”
Stirring scenes . . . occur in the valley [Jezreel] no more. There is not a solitary village throughout its whole extent—not for thirty miles in either direction. There are two or three small clusters of Bedouin tents, but not a single permanent habitation. One may ride ten miles, hereabouts, and not see ten human beings.
This passage appears with identical ellipsis and identical brackets in Peters (159), Netanyahu (39), and Dershowitz (23), with the suggestion that Twain is pining for scenes of joyous harvests and verdant fields.
Not so much. The words “such as these,” excised through shared ellipsis, refer to something different (361-2). “This campground of ours by the Waters of Merom was the scene of one of Joshua’s exterminating battles,” Twain explains. “Jabin, King of Hazor, (up yonder above Dan,) called all the sheiks about him together, with their hosts, to make ready for Israel’s terrible General who was approaching.” Their effort was in vain, however, as “Joshua fell upon them and utterly destroyed them, root and branch. That was his usual policy in war. He never left any chance for newspaper controversies about who won the battle.”
In a second scene, the prophetess Deborah orders her general, Barak “to take ten thousand men against King Jabin.” Barak triumphs and applies “the usual method of exterminating the remnant of the defeated host,” but Sisera, Jabin’s general, finds refuge with a woman named Jael. Sisera begs for water, but she brings him milk instead. “He drank of it gratefully and lay down again, to forget in dreams his lost battle and his humbled pride. Presently, when he was asleep, she came softly in with a hammer and drove a hideous tent-pen down through his brain!” Twain then quotes the King James Bible (Judges 5:24-7):
Blessed above women shall Jael the wife of Heber the Kennite be, blessed shall she be above the women of the tent.
He asked for water and she gave him milk; she brought forth butter in a lordly dish.
She put her hand to the nail, and her right hand to the workman’s hammer; and with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote of his head when she had pierced and stricken through his temples.
At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down; at her feet he bowed, he fell; where he bowed, there he fell down dead.
The words “Stirring scenes such as these occur no more” follow then directly.
In 2003, Norman Finkelstein pointed out that Dershowitz used pastiche-quotes of Twain identical to those found in Ruth Peters’ From Time Immemorial and numerous identical errors, but without any acknowledgement of Peters as their source. Dershowitz responded by stating that he had long been citing these passages from Twain to make his case for Israel, and by quoted two distinguished academics that defended Dershowtiz’s scholarly integrity in attributing the passages in question to Twain without mentioning Peters.
My interest here does not rest with the ethics of scholarly citation. Taking Dershowitz at his word, let us assume he had long quoted the same passages he found in Peters to make his case on behalf of Israel. I know of no comments by Netanyahu on his own unattributed use of Peters’ Twain pastiches, but whether or not he came to the ellipsis in question on his own or took from Peters, the same questions apply. Did Peters, Netanyahu, and Dershowitz not notice that Twain’s “stirring scenes” had more to do with sheik-extermination and the milk of Jael than they did with and milk-and-honey and happy valleys?
Did they not sense that by validating Twain as a reliable observer on the Palestine in his day, they validated his observations on its Digger Indians and homely women, for example? Or (378-9), the “the particularly uncomely Jews, Arabs, and Negroes of Tiberias” and “the long-nosed, lanky, dyspeptic-looking, body-snatchers, with indescribable hats on, and a long curl dangling down in front of each ear” that resemble—“verily,” Twain tells us—resemble “the old, familiar, self-righteous Pharisees we read of in the Scriptures.”?
Twain’s Palestine account lacks the geographical precision of his account of Europe. When a batch of his original letters on Palestine were reported lost, he was forced to write new ones aboard the Quaker City on his return trip across the Atlantic under a looming deadline, and once back home, had to rewrite and expand them to more than double their length in only six months. He confined himself to a room with his journals, his guidebooks, and his King James, and wrote in a white heat. The resulting narrative, circles vaguely but obsessively around the Sea of Galilee until finally coming to rest at its shores. There Twain delivers a hymn to the majestic solitude of Lake Tahoe, a caustic rebuke to the repellent solitude of the Galilee, and a lamentation on the sepulchral desolation of Palestine.
In deflating the enthusiasms of his fellow tourists, Twain remarks (384) that he knows “what they will say when they see Tabor, Nazareth, Jericho, and Jerusalem—because I have the books they will ‘smooch’ their ideas from. These authors write pictures and frame rhapsodies, and see with the author’s ideas instead of their own and speak with his tongue.” The authors were Presbyterians “who came to find a Presbyterian Palestine” and Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, or Episcopalians coming to find a Palestine in line with their creeds, and they “entered the country with the verdicts already prepared.”
In California, Diggers polluted the name of the noble sea and betrayed the majesty of its environs. In Palestine they embodied a land cursed by the Deity to be wretched, according to Twain’s reading of the Bible. Like his contemporaries, Twain arrived with verdict in hand and found the Palestine he knew beforehand. “Palestine is no more of the work-day world,” he wrote in concluding his account (463). “It is sacred to poetry and tradition—it is a dream land.”
A later Mark Twain would confront an ingrained reading of the Bible as well as some of the racist stereotypes that he evoked with profusion. In Huckleberry Finn, he would allow Nigger Jim to become Jim and to speak and would allow Huck and the reader to hear what Jim said and to change; a transformative moment in American literature.
As for the Digger denizens of Palestine, if they had a story to tell, the protagonist wasn’t listening, the narrator wasn’t recording, and the reader can’t hear. Twain was not yet there.