Magazine May 4, 2020, Issue

Mark Twain in the Time of Cholera

Mark Twain in 1867 (Library of Congress/Getty Images)
The disease afflicted the author as he was writing what became The Innocents Abroad

The first time Mark Twain saw the Parthenon, he was about five or six miles away, on the deck of a ship near the Greek port of Piraeus. “Every column of the noble structure was discernible through the telescope,” he wrote in 1867. Beside it lay the city of Athens. Twain and his companions were “anxious to get ashore and visit these classic localities as quickly as possible.” “No land we had yet seen had aroused such a universal interest among the passengers.”

Then came a problem: The commandant of Piraeus placed Twain’s ship under quarantine. The Quaker City had just come from Italy, where cholera was rampant. Greece wanted to prevent its own outbreak of a bacterial disease that can kill. The commandant ordered the travelers to stay aboard for eleven days before disembarking. This long isolation was too much, and the captain of the Quaker City made arrangements to take on supplies and sail for Constantinople, the next scheduled stop. “To lie a whole day in sight of the Acropolis, and yet be obliged to go away without visiting Athens!” wrote Twain. “Disappointment was hardly a strong enough word to describe the circumstances.”

These lines appeared in print two months later in the Daily Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper that had paid for Twain to join one of the first organized tours of Americans in Europe. The account appeared again almost word for word in The Innocents Abroad, the 1869 book that made Twain famous. During his life, The Innocents Abroad sold more copies than any other book he wrote, which means it outsold the better-known tales about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The traits that have made Twain abidingly popular — humor, irreverence, deep thinking about the nature and promise of the United States — shine from its pages.

It also reveals what happened when Twain broke the Greek government’s quarantine, evaded the police, and visited the Parthenon by moonlight.

When Twain arrived in Greece on August 14, 1867, he was 31 years old. He wore the familiar bushy mustache, but his hair had not yet turned white. He had grown up as Samuel Clemens in Hannibal, Mo., worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, and, during the Civil War, headed to Nevada, where he failed as a miner but started to know success as “Mark Twain,” the writer. In 1865, based in California, he came to the attention of readers in the East with a short story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” The novels that would make him a superstar of American literature lay in the future.

Shortly after moving to New York City, a magnet for aspiring writers then and now, Twain learned about a five-month cruise to the Holy Land, organized by Henry Ward Beecher, the pastor of a church in Brooklyn and the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. A group of about 75 would stop for excursions along the way. Twain cooked up the idea to join and got the Alta to pay his way in exchange for a series of regular dispatches. He produced more than 50. Later, they became the basis for The Innocents Abroad.

Twain delivered an amusing and insightful narrative of people and places, back when travel journalism was less consumer-driven than it is now. Rather than offering lists of things to do, he aimed to deliver a vicarious experience for readers who probably never would make the journey themselves. Readers enjoyed Twain’s grumbling about his fellow passengers, whom he deemed too old and straitlaced: “They never romped, they talked but little, they never sang, save in the nightly prayer-meeting,” he wrote. “The pleasure trip was a funeral excursion without a corpse.”

Twain found much to like across the ocean, but he also loved to demolish European pretensions. In Milan, he visited “an ancient tumble-down ruin of a church,” home to The Last Supper, by Leonardo da Vinci. A dozen artists had set up easels to copy the masterwork. “I could not help noticing how superior the copies were to the original,” he deadpanned. This was a major theme: Older things aren’t necessarily better than younger things. His patriotic point was that the Old World should step aside and watch the New World rise. The Innocents Abroad may be read as a cultural declaration of independence. 

At a town beside Lake Como, which Twain thought less beautiful than Lake Tahoe, police escorted him and his group to a “fumigation” in a cramped room: “Presently a smoke rose about our feet — a smoke that smelt of all the dead things of earth, of all the putrefaction and corruption imaginable.” This was an effort to stop the spread of cholera. Twain provided a lively description of the desperate measure as well as a wisecrack about the lousy washing habits of Italians: He concluded that it must have been cheaper for them to fumigate foreigners than to buy soap for themselves. “I shall still try to pray for these fumigating, macaroni-stuffing organ grinders.” 

Despite this penchant for insults, Twain wrote a sincere tribute to the Dominican friars who were the health-care heroes of his time: “When the cholera was raging in Naples; when the people were dying by the hundreds and hundreds every day; when every concern for the public welfare was swallowed up in selfish private interest, and every citizen made the taking care of himself his sole object, these men banded themselves together and went about nursing the sick and burying the dead. Their noble efforts cost many of them their lives.”

From Naples, Twain’s paddle-wheel steamship made for Greece and its maddening quarantine. Determined to visit the Parthenon, Twain pondered his bad options: “Piraeus was a small town, and any stranger seen in it would surely attract attention — capture would be certain.” That might mean months in a Greek prison.

Twain decided to risk it. At 11 o’clock p.m., he and three others “stole softly ashore in a small boat.” They avoided Piraeus by climbing a hill: “Picking our way so stealthily over that rocky, nettle-grown eminence, made me feel a good deal as if I were on my way somewhere to steal something.” They attracted barking dogs and a man who yelled at them for eating his grapes. At the Parthenon, they bribed the local guards to open a gate. At last, they wandered around “the noblest ruins we had ever looked upon” and admired the sleeping city of Athens: “Not on the broad earth is there another picture half so beautiful!”

On the return trip, they encountered more dogs and vineyard sentries and made it to the seashore. They hailed a boat, but it turned out to be full of police who were enforcing the quarantine. “So we dodged — we were used to that by this time — and when the scouts reached the spot we had so lately occupied, we were absent.” The police headed in the wrong direction. Meanwhile, a boat from the Quaker City showed up. “We rowed noiselessly away, and before the police-boat came in sight again, we were safe at home once more.”

The next month, Twain received his comeuppance: In Damascus, he came down with “a violent attack of cholera,” possibly from bathing in a contaminated river. The sickness prevented him from seeing parts of Syria, but he still found a cause to laugh: It was “a good excuse to lie there on that wide divan and take an honest rest.” He recovered, and the trip continued. Two months later, Twain was back in the United States, ready to write the book that would make him a household name.

The voyage also gave him a household: In 1870, Twain married Olivia Langdon, the sister of a passenger he had met aboard the Quaker City

This article appears as “Twain in the Time of Cholera” in the May 4, 2020, print edition of National Review.

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John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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