Mark Twain Hates Your Travel Essay


“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 cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

- Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

I may be guilty of violating the main tenet of this site by posting an epigraph so meaningful – dare I say whimsical – but life is too short not to be hypocritical on occasion.  Twain’s position is one of infallibility.  I cannot think of an argument that is capable of diminishing Twain’s assertion that is not saturated with cynicism.

Of course, Mark Twain was a very rich man and the most recognized literary figure in his lifetime. In other words, Twain could afford to travel the world when many others had no such luxury. Twain would be the first to admit his position of privilege; a position he unquestionably earned through his own work and creativity.  Twain was also a failed businessman who lost most of his fortune at one point due to haphazard investments.

Are there questions we can draw from Twain’s quote in an attempt to justify our perceptions of the importance of travel?  Are we under a societal obligation to see as much of the world as possible before kicking off?  Is travel a selfish endeavour?  Are travel writers narcissistic?  

  1. Clearly.
  2. Possibly but not likely.
  3. Usually.
  4. Most definitely.

Twain’s assertion is utopian and he would be the first to admit as such.  We do not expect coal miners to spend a month in Paris every few years.  In fact, if coal miners did spend their free time travelling the world I am certain someone out there would wage a war against the “hedonistic lifestyles of West Virginians” – or at the very least complain about the price of coal.

As a hypothetical, Twain’s idea on the restorative value of travel is absolutely correct.  Perspectives are fundamentally altered by experiences.  How then, can the principle of this hypothetical be distributed to those who do not have the means or opportunities to escape their “little corner(s) of the earth”?

Experiential travel writing is one possible answer.  The problem with travel writing is that it is often loaded with forced metaphors and endless platitudes of self-discovery.  Here is a message I received from a Twitter follower and fellow writer about the current state of travel writing:

“…and if i have to read one more post on having an epiphany on the road from vietnam to laos and cambodia, i quit.”

Harsh but true.  There are few things I care less about than the travel epiphanies of strangers.  The dilapidated bridge that crosses the Siem Reap River is not a metaphor for your broken relationship with your father.  It’s a shitty bridge that has a story that has absolutely nothing to do with you. Chances are, the story of that bridge is a hell of a lot more interesting than your childhood in Simi Valley.

Unfortunately, a travel narrative that compares a broken bridge to a broken childhood would rate among one of the better travel essays I have come across recently.  In an effort to accommodate the diminishing attention spans of the masses, it seems as if many travel websites have reduced content to simplified lists and recycled photographs.  If I have a choice between reading the whimsical stylings of a self-absorbed, self-described  “wandering spirit”, or a list of the 12 best Guatemalan luxury resorts, I’ll take the wandering spirit.   

Considering the alternatives, I suppose I should be happy that people are still willing to write about themselves.  We all have different perspectives and motivations.  Some people see writing as a cathartic experience that should be completely removed from the wants and expectations of readers.  Some people use writing as a way to validate personal or professional pursuits.  Some people use writing as a way to educate.  Some people use writing as a medium for braggadocio.

What made Mark Twain great was that he wrote for all of the reasons above plus thousands of others, and he never apologized for any of it.

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