Monday, August 20, 2018

America’s Pilgrim Progress

In 1867, Mark Twain toured Europe and the Holy Land.  He published his observations about his trip two years later in The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrim’s Progress.  I read the book many years ago, but after our recent trip to England, our cruise in the Baltic Sea, and a friend presently reading the book, it seemed fitting for me to read it again.  Twain and his  fellow travelers sailed from New York City on a retired Civil War ship (USS Quaker City) and toured many of the places I have visited.  Twain’s travelogue includes not only descriptions of the places visited, but also adds hilarious and sarcastic comments about his fellow tourists and their American arrogance, the tour guides, the cultures and customs of other lands, and the people he meets along the way. 

While visiting Rome, Twain imagines himself a modern (1867) inhabitant of the Roman Campagna (who he describes as superstitious and ignorant) traveling to America.  He describes what his Roman visitor would see, for the first time:  a nation with “no overshadowing Mother Church”;  educated country children reading books; cities where people drink milk and where the streets are not crowded with goats; houses with “real glass windows”, and  people who own land not rented from the church or nobles, and on and on.

Then Twain wrote something that struck me deeply.  He said his Roman visitor to America would see Jews “treated like human beings, instead of dogs.”  The visitor would see in America, Twain wrote, how “a Jew is allowed to vote, hold office, yea, get up on a rostrum in the public street and express his opinion of the government if the government don’t suit him!” In the words of his imagined visitor: “Ah, it is wonderful.  The common people there know a great deal; they even have the effrontery to complain if they are not properly governed, and to take hold and help conduct the government themselves…”

Twain’s musings in 1867 described an America only ninety years in the making—an America that had just passed through a horrendous civil war—yet he raised up that America’s basic democratic principles.  I wonder what a European visitor might see and say about America today?
O beautiful for patriot dream that sees beyond the years
thine alabaster cities gleam, undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw, confirm thy soul in self-control,
thy liberty in law.

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