Go East, Young Man
A full-blooded Protestant Christianity dominated educated life in nineteenth-century America. For the professional classes the Holy Land was an important reality, and American missionary activity in the Near East, and in Palestine in particular, was intense. By the 1820s hardy American Protestants had begun to uplift the Arab world, and by the second half of the nineteenth century, genteel but serious tourists from the United States were trekking to Palestine. After the Civil War, the college-trained middle class and some less well educated but sincere believers desired to appropriate the ancient East at a time when robust Protestant belief was under assault.
Academics have taken up this episode in American cultural life with more or less imaginative skill, and works that have studied the issue include David Finnie, Pioneers East (1967); Lester I. Vogel, To See A Promised Land (1993); Moshe Davis, America and the Holy Land (1995); and John Davis, The Landscape of Belief (1996). Scholars have chronicled the travels of the tourists but additionally striven to understand how they imposed their own sense of social verities on the nineteenth-century Near East. Western tourism has recently come under (usually hostile) scrutiny, and some authors have used contemporary theories to investigate the cultural imperialism at work in the experience of Palestine.
Hilton Obenzinger develops some of these themes in this latest contribution to the literature. For him American tourism was in part a sort of re-creation of what the travelers took to be the original Protestant expedition to the New World. The Puritans in America had thought of themselves as latter-day Israelites on a journey into the wilderness that would eventually see the construction of a new promised land. In the nineteenth century, those who made the pilgrimage to Palestine, in what Obenzinger refers to as a "doubling," were reclaiming, re-appropriating the ancient salvific experience of the Israelites; they were corroborating the covenantal journey of the first Euro-Americans.
There is something to this theorizing. The contemporary American fascination with touring the Normandy beaches, especially since the success of Saving Private Ryan, perhaps suggests what Obenzinger is getting at. Being on the ground in Normandy somehow affirms for people the significance of the great events of D-Day, puts them in touch with heroic, bygone days. So in the third-quarter of the nineteenth century when educated Americans felt Christianity under attack from Darwin and the Higher Criticism; treading in the steps of Moses and Jesus verified the legitimacy of the direction in which these ancients walked.
Obenzinger is a learned and erudite guide to these problems. He writes in a tradition of literary criticism that sees great works of art as privileged texts whose close explication will get at truths about the period that may not be available in standard empirical research, or in works that have not been penned by genius. But in addition to emphasizing certain works, Obenzinger is knowledgeable of the period, and has a firm grasp of all the literature written in the West about the Holy Land, from the seventeenth century on.
Nonetheless, the book seems to me fatally compromised by the author's judgment and expository style. He concentrates on Herman Melville's poem Clarel (1876) and Mark Twain's Innocents Abroad (1869). A narrative of a tour of the Holy Land, Clarel runs to almost 18,000 lines. It is based on a trip of Melville's in 1856-7, and laments the crash of Christianity in the wake of Darwin, and what the crash meant to various representative men. The poem is perhaps the least intelligible of Melville's writings, and lacked a critical edition until 1991 when Northwestern published a 900-page version—500 pages of poem, and 400 of scholarly commentary.
Even its devotees have rough going in making Clarel accessible, and Obenzinger himself admits that the poem is "persistently difficult, sometime impenetrable, often boring, and so unpopular it is almost as unread to day as when it first appeared." In pre paring this review, I went back to the original, and could make as little of it as I did some ten years ago when I made my first attempt. What is worse, Obenzinger is no help, for his ability to write intelligible English is limited. I don't believe that I am an ignorant or unserious reader of American Palestine, but I have little idea what Obenzinger is talking about in respect to Clarel. I do think the poem is a very frail reed on which to build any thesis about American interest in Palestine. The only "mania" involved is Melville's.
Better to turn to Innocents Abroad, which was an enormous bestseller through the end of the nineteenth century, and which I read again for the first time in 30 years with pleasure and understanding. This book is Twain's ac count of a European tour he made with some 65 other well-to-do tourists. It is filled with the author's humor, much of it directed at the shrines of Christendom and the reverence of tourists for them. Here is what Obenzinger tells of Twain's wonderful read:
Twain … inscribes a "touristic" vision of violent parodic desanctification and commodification whose "realism" still dominates the way readers regard Ottoman Palestine today [p. 6].
The Holy Land … [for Twain] complicates the paradoxical semiotics enormously be cause the reading of "the authentic 'culture' of places" is now qualitatively altered by the inevitable questions of hermeneutics, faith, and orthodoxy [p. 171].
[Twain] transforms his disappointment [with Holy Land sites] into an appropriation of sacred geography and Holy Land myth for the American imagination, a sensibility that, despite being crude or "innocently" hypocritical, is very much the dead Other's living Other [p. 180].
Twain creates a double of … [the Holy Land] by means of perceptual blurring, a surface literary effect with pro found "internal" consequences: the disappointing, dead land … is resurrected only in the imagination by the effects of distancing or through nature's theatricality [p. 217].
What are we to make of these passages, and so many others throughout the text that mimic what Obenzinger says of Clarel? With Clarel, Obenzinger takes an impenetrable text and makes it worse. With Innocents Abroad, he takes a straightforward work and transforms it into an obscure one, and then obscurely interprets it. Twain does tell us that the main goal of the trip was the Holy Land, but of my 700-page edition of Innocents Abroadd only 250 pages deal with this part of the tour. Moreover, only eight of the 65 passengers on the tour—all youngish men—made the difficult detour through Palestine that Twain's 250-page chunk of text is about. That is, the other travelers for various reasons decided not to walk in sacred steps the way Twain did. Finally the secular popularity of Twain's irreverent text does not suggest the agonized mania that I can extrapolate from Obenzinger's Clarel-like explication of Innocents Abroad. The popularity instead intimates that many Americans who traveled to the Old World were not much absorbed by spiritual anxieties.
Certainly many troubled Christians did tour the Holy Land in the nineteenth century, and their visits complexly expressed their inner turmoil. That is the problem that Obenzinger's tormented prose takes up. But Innocents Abroad is only peripherally a text about this problem—it is rather about American travelers in Europe confronting their Western heritage, largely Christian. For a few that heritage was finally rooted in Palestine. Nonetheless, the issues for Twain are far larger than those for which Obenzinger uses him. Readers of Books & Culture can still read Twain with profit, and if the appropriation of the Holy Land intrigues them, the books listed above are helpful. But I would stay away from American Palestine. It is largely mumbo-jumbo, and where it is digestible, it gets matters wrong.
Bruce Kuklick is Killebrew Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of many books, including Puritans in Babylon: The Ancient Near East and American Intellectual Life, 1880-1930 (Princeton Univ. Press).
Copyright © 2000 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine.
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