The following review appeared 20 July 2000 on the Mark Twain Forum.
Copyright © 2000 Mark Twain Forum
This review may not be published or redistributed in any mediumwithout permission.
Joseph B. McCullough <firstname.lastname@example.org>
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Commissions are donated to the Mark Twain Project
In the nineteenth century, American tourists, scholars, evangelists, writers and artists flocked to Palestine as part of a "Holy Land mania." Many saw America as a New Israel, a modern nation chosen to do God's work on Earth, and produced a rich variety of inspirational art and literature about their travels in the original promised land, which was then part of Ottoman-controlled Palestine. But as Hilton Obenzinger recognizes in his new book, American Palestine: Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania, most American writers of Holy Land books stayed in Palestine only briefly. They were travelers, explorers, adventurers, pilgrims, and tourists "passing through the Levant," observing the natives and their peculiar customs, visiting shrines, "reading sacred geography" with the Bible either in their hands or firmly planted in their heads-and almost all of them soon returned to the United States to inscribe their experiences in books.
Within this context, Obenzinger explores two "infidel texts" in this tradition: Herman Melville's Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage to the Holy Land (1876) and Mark Twain's The Innocents Abroad: or, The New Pilgrim's Progress (1869). He demonstrates that these works undermined in very different ways conventional assumptions about America's divine mission. He suggests that travel to Palestine allowed Americans "to read sacred geography," to experience an exegetical landscape at the mythic core of Anglo-America's understanding of its own covenantal mission as a New Israel, yet Melville's dark pilgrimage and Twain's explosive laughter create narratives that run counter to the dominant ones of typological destine and millennialist restoration. "Through Clarel's obsessive poem-pilgrimage toward covenantal failure," he argues, "and Innocents Abroad's touristic vision of violent parody, comic irreverence, and the commodity consumption of market sentiments, Melville and Twain write their own sacred geographies. Both books, shaped by frontier encounters from maritime and western contact zones, undermine the assumptions of American exceptionalism, even as they remain complicitous with colonial expansion."
For Obenzinger, Holy Land literature--and the entire cultural "mania" with the Holy Land--became a crucial forum for negotiating American settler identity, a site rendered even more complex by the jarring disjuncture between imagined biblical narrative and the actualities of a non-Western, "fallen" Palestine. Thus, by situating Melville and Twain with this complex of religio-national myths, along with the disjunctures of actual travel, American Palestine examines the ways both of their books run against the dominant grain of typological destiny and the millenialist restoration as each text seeks new grounds for faith and identity.
Obenzinger recognizes that most studies have examined Clarel and Innocents Abroad as part of each author's oeuvre and not in conjunction with each other or within the broader field of Holy Land literature. But he also anticipates that, except for the most partisan of Melville's advocates, few readers have endured Clarel, a four-part poem of 150 cantos that runs to almost eighteen thousand lines. Even Melville himself anticipated its oblivion, when he wrote to his young English correspondent, James Billson, in October of 1884 that Clarel was "a metrical affair, a pilgrimage or what not, of several thousand lines, eminently adapted for unpopularity." As a consequence, many of Obenzinger's complicated arguments and detailed discussions are more difficult to relate to Clarel than the more accessible and more widely read Innocents Abroad.
On the whole, this is a useful book, voluminously documented, even if the reading is at times difficult. It is not a book for the casual reader. But Obenzinger does a distinct service by placing his discussion of the two major works in a broader context than can usually be found. He examines American Holy Land literature within an overall framework that regards American society and its culture as manifestations of covenantal settler-colonialism, with this descriptive frame heightened even to the point of an "alienation effect." Thus before moving on to Melville and Twain, he examines in four chapters in Part One, titled "Excavating American Palestine,": "Holy Lands and Settler Identities"(Chapter One), "George Sandys: 'Double Travels' and Colonial Encounters" (Chapter Two), "'Christianography' and Covenant" (Chapter Three), and "Reading and Writing Sacred Geography" (Chapter Four).
In Part Two ("The Fatal Embrace of the Deity": Herman Melville's Pilgrimage to Failure in Clarel), Obenzinger explores in four chapters the darkly philosophical Clarel, in which Melville found echoes of Palestine's apparent desolation and ruin in his own spiritual doubts and in America's materialism and corruption.
Part Three, the final section (The Guilties Abroad: Mark Twain's Comic Appropriation of the Holy Land in Innocents Abroad ), devotes a full eight chapters to Twain's use of the Holy Land for his comic extravaganza. Here Obenzinger develops how Twain's satiric monologue, in contrast with Melville's work, mocked the romantic naivete of American abroad, noting the incongruity of a "fantastic mob" of "Yanks" in the Holy Land and contrasting their exalted notions of Palestine with its prosaic reality. He demonstrates, however, that Melville and Twain nevertheless shared many colonialist and orientalist assumptions of the day, revealed most clearly in their ideas about Arabs, Jews, and Native Americans.
Finally, by paying careful attention to the context of American writings
about Palestine, American Palestine throws new light on the construction
of American identity in the nineteenth century. Its chapters on Twain are
particularly rich, and throw additional light on the growing and complicated
consideration of Twain's racial and ethnic views.