The Reports of Mark Twain’s Travel Quotations Are Somewhat Exaggerated

September 8, 2019 § 2 Comments

USS_Quaker_City

Quaker City, Mark Twain’s steamship in The Innocents Abroad

In 1866 and 1867, Mark Twain wrote a number of letters to the San Francisco newspaper Alta California, detailing his travels from California to New York, by way of Nicaragua. In 1940 they were collected and published under the title Mark Twain’s Travels with Mr. Brown. In one of those letters, a dispatch from New York dated May 18, 1867, we find what has become one of his more famous quotations on travel:

[N]othing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people.

In context, Twain is describing “The Traveller’s Club”:

That is a human institution. Its President is a Californian, and its members hail from more places than there are on the Atlas. They have kindly complimented me with the privileges of the place for a month, and I went up the other night at ten and spent a very pleasant evening till two or three o’clock in the morning.

Of course I met pleasant people, because nothing so liberalizes a man and expands the kindly instincts that nature put in him as travel and contact with many kinds of people. An Englishman, an Irishman, a Scotchman, an Italian or so, several Frenchmen and a number of Americans were present, and you couldn’t ask a question about any possible country under the sun, but some fellow in the crowd had been there and could give the information from personal experience. . . .

They said they were going to send me a formal invitation to make a speech before the Club, as Du Chaillu did, and I said I would be glad to accept it, but I did not know then that they go and invite a whole raft of ladies to be present on such occasions, to look at a poor victim and make him lose his grip, and so I hope they will forget to send the invitation, now.

You ought to start a Travellers’ Club in San Francisco. You have got an abundance of material, and that sort of an organization is much pleasanter than political one-idea affairs, such as clubs generally are.

Subsequent letters to Alta California didn’t need to wait so long to be put into book form. Published in 1869, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, chronicles his trip to Europe and the Holy Land and became a classic in travel literature. Volume two of the book contains an even more popular (in my estimation) travel quotation, in the form of

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.”

The full paragraph is as follows:

I have no fault to find with the manner in which our excursion was conducted. Its programme was faithfully carried out—a thing which surprised me, for great enterprises usually promise vastly more than they perform. It would be well if such an excursion could be gotten up every year and the system regularly inaugurated. Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Twain’s view sounds right, but don’t take my word for it, just ask SCIENCE. As reported in PsyPost, researcher Jiyin Cao says that he and his colleagues were “intrigued” by Twain’s quotation, so they conducted five studies to test the idea. The results suggest that Twain knew what he was talking about:

In this paper, my coauthors and I tested this assumption: Does travel make people more trusting? Does travel lead people to have a more charitable view of humanity? Given the trend toward globalization and the increasing popularity of foreign travel, this will be an important and interesting question to explore. In addition, we compared two aspects of foreign experiences: the number of countries one visits (breadth) and the length of time one spends abroad (depth), and explored which one plays a critical role in the process. Across five studies, using different research methods including a longitudinal study, we found that breadth but not depth of foreign experiences increases generalized trust. In other words, the more countries one travels, the more trusting one is. Breadth is important here, because breadth provides a great level of diversity in people’s foreign travel experiences, allowing them to reach such a generalized assumption.

Earlier in The Innocents Abroad, Twain has more to say about the benefits of travel: self awareness. (This one I don’t see quoted much.)

The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad. I speak now, of course, in the supposition that the gentle reader has not been abroad, and therefore is not already a consummate ass. If the case be otherwise, I beg his pardon and extend to him the cordial hand of fellowship and call him brother.

And then there’s the well known

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Yes, Twain had a lot of things to say about travel . . . but this last quotation isn’t one of them. Despite many online and offline sources attributing it to Twain, Quote Investigator‘s Garson O’Toole finds it no earlier than in 1990, when H. Jackson Brown, Jr. included it in his book P. S. I Love You. The inspirational author credits the saying to his mother, Sarah Frances Brown.

And as long as we’re trekking down this path, so to speak, Twain also didn’t say, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” (I know, this is stretching the travel theme a bit, but the word is in there.)

Back to O’Toole: He writes that Bonnie Taylor-Blake located the phrase “falsehood will fly from Maine to Georgia, while truth is pulling her boots on” in an 1820 issue of the Portland Gazette. And then in 1821, William Tudor, in The North American Review, ascribed “a Lie would travel from Maine to Georgia while Truth was getting on his boots” to congressman Fisher Ames. In Twain’s writings, though, nothing similar appears.

Bummer! Mark Twain didn’t say everything.

But now I’ll leave this discussion on a more positive note—positive because here’s something that did come from Twain, and positive because it recognizes another beneficial aspect of getting out and about. With Huckleberry Finn as his spokesperson (a passenger, by the way, in a boat held aloft by a balloon, floating around the world), Twain wrote the following in 1894:

I have found out that there ain’t no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.

Yes, Huck, you said it. You sure did. And I figger we don’t need no research to know that it’s true.

(Mark Twain, “Letter 18,Alta California, June 23, 1867; Twain, The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims’ Progress, American, 1869; Eric Dolan, “New Study Confirms Mark Twain’s Saying: Travel Is Fatal to Prejudice,” PsyPost, December 9, 2013; Garson O’Toole, “Twenty Years from Now You Will Be More Disappointed by the Things You Didn’t Do than by the Ones You Did Do,” Quote Investigator, September 29, 2011; O’Toole, “A Lie Can Travel Halfway around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes,” Quote Investigator, July 13, 2014; Twain, Tom Sawyer Abroad, Charles L. Webster, 1894)

[illustration: USS Quaker City,” by Clary Ray, c. 1890, public domain]

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