Mark Twain: An American's View of Europe from Innocents Abroad (1869)


Throughout its early history Americans suffered from ambivalent feelings about Europe. As settlers in the New World, they claimed to have begun civilization afresh on a fairer footing than the corrupt culture of old Europe, and often took some pleasure in boasting about the superior attractions of their native land. However, they also had to acknowledge that the United States lacked the long historical traditions and great artistic achievements of a country like France. Having founded their nation on a rejection of monarchy they were often fascinated by the actual monarchs they encountered. As many writers such as Henry James and Edith Wharton were to do later, Mark Twain was fascinated by the splendors and wretchedness he encountered on this first trip to Europe, where he had been sent by a newspaper to report on a grand tour mostly populated with pious travelers whose main interest was in the culminating exploration of sacred sites in Palestine. Twain was self-consciously a rowdy westerner and a scoffer, but he was also a Victorian in his attitudes toward sex, which reveals itself in his account of the popular French can-can. He appreciated little of the art he saw, and many of the pictures in the Louvre offended his democratic instincts. Although there are many lavish portraits of nobles in that museum, he may have been reacting even more to the numerous pictures which depict titled lords and ladies familiarly posing with Mary and the infant Jesus.

What is his reaction when he encounters a real-life monarch in the Bois de Boulogne? What contrast in attitudes toward history does he suggest between the U.S. and Europe in the final paragraph?

The dance had begun, and we adjourned to the temple (1). Within it was a drinking-saloon; and all around it was a broad circular platform for the dancers. I backed up against the wall of the temple, and waited. Twenty sets formed, the music struck up, and then--I placed my hands before my face for very shame. But I looked through my fingers. They were dancing the renowned Can-can. A handsome girl in the set before me tripped forward lightly to meet the opposite gentleman--tripped back again, grasped her dresses vigorously on both sides with her hands, raised them pretty high, danced an extraordinary jig that had more activity and exposure about it than any jig I ever saw before, and then, drawing her clothes still higher, she advanced gaily to the center and launched a vicious kick full at her vis_a_vis (2) that must infallibly have removed his nose if he had been seven feet high. It was a mercy he was only six.

That is the Can-can. The idea of it is to dance as wildly, as noisily, as furiously as you can; expose yourself as much as possible if you are a woman; and kick as high as you can, no matter which sex you belong to. There is no word of exaggeration in this. Any of the staid, respectable, aged people who were there that night can testify to the truth of that statement. There were a good many such people present. I suppose French morality is not of that strait-laced description which is shocked at trifles.

I moved aside and took a general view of the Can-can. Shouts, laughter, furious music, a bewildering chaos of darting and intermingling forms, stormy jerking and snatching of gay dresses, bobbing heads, flying arms, lightning flashes of white-stockinged calves and dainty slippers in the air, and then a grand final rush, riot, a terrific hubbub, and a wild stampede! Heavens! Nothing like it has been seen on earth since trembling Tam O'Shanter saw the devil and the witches at their orgies that stormy night in Alloway's auld haunted kirk (3).

We visited the Louvre . . . and looked at its miles of paintings by the old masters. Some of them were beautiful, but at the same time they carried such evidences about them of the cringing spirit of those great men that we found small pleasure in examining them. Their nauseous adulation of princely patrons was more prominent to me and chained my attention more surely than the charms of color and expression which are claimed to be in the pictures. Gratitude for kindnesses is well, but it seems to me that some of those artists carried it so far that it ceased to be gratitude, and became worship. If there is a plausible excuse for the worship of men, then by all means let us forgive Rubens and his brethren.

But I will drop the subject, lest I say something about the old masters that might as well be left unsaid.

Of course we drove in the Bois de Boulogne, that limitless park, with its forests, its lakes, its cascades, and its broad avenues. There were thousands upon thousands of vehicles abroad, and the scene was full of life and gaiety. There were very common hacks (4), with father and mother and all the children in them; conspicuous little open carriages with celebrated ladies of questionable reputation in them; there were Dukes and Duchesses abroad, with gorgeous footmen perched behind, and equally gorgeous outriders perched behind, and equally gorgeous outriders perched on each oŁ the six horses; there were blue and silver, and green and gold, and pink and black, and all sorts and descriptions of stunning and startling liveries out, and I almost yearned to be a flunkey myself, for the sake of the fine clothes.

But presently the Emperor (5) came along and he outshone them all. He was preceded by a body-guard of gentlemen on horseback in showy uniforms, his carriage-horses (there appeared to be somewhere in the remote neighborhood of a thousand of them) were bestridden by gallant-looking fellows, also in stylish uniforms, and after the carriage followed another detachment of body-guards. Everybody got out of the way; everybody bowed to the Emperor and his friend the Sultan, and they went by on a swinging trot and disappeared.

I will not describe the Bois de Boulogne. I cannot do it. It is simply a beautiful, cultivated, endless, wonderful wilderness. It is an enchanting place. It is in Paris, now, one may say, but a crumbling old cross in one portion of it reminds one that it was not always so. The cross marks the spot where a celebrated troubadour was waylaid and murdered in the fourteenth century (6). It was in this park that that fellow with an unpronounceable name made the attempt upon the Russian Czar's life last spring with a pistol (7). The bullet struck a tree. Ferguson (8) showed us the place. Now in America that interesting tree would be chopped down or forgotten within the next five years, but it will be treasured here. The guides will point it out to visitors for the next eight hundred years, and when it decays and falls down they will put up another there and go on with the same old story just the same.


Notes

(1) Ironic term for a dance-hall.

(2) Partner facing her.

(3) A church ( kirk in the Scottish town of of Alloway, from "Tam'O Shanter," a poem by Robert Burns, written 1790.

(4) Horse-drawn cabs.

(5) Napoleon III, overthrown the year after this was published.

(6) The Pré Catelan in the Bois is dedicted to the memory of this now obscure troubadour named Catelan.

(7) The would-be asssasin's name was Berezovsky. Several attempts were made against the life of Czar Alexander II before he was finally killed by an assassin s bomb in 1881.

(8) The name Twain jokingly gave to all his tour guides.


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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.

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