Thursday, June 4, 2009

Mark Twain on Islam and Christianity

Last October, The Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College in Elmira, N.Y., got an unexpected gift: A copy of William C. Prime’s Tent Life in the Holy Land, published in 1857. But this was not just any old copy of Tent Life in the Holy Land. It wasn’t until the donor, Irene Langdon, showed it to the Center’s archivist, Mark Woodhouse, that its value became apparent: it was chock full of annotations by Sam Clemens.

The book was known as one of the important sources for The Innocents Abroad, Clemens’ first major book as Mark Twain (and the book that got him to Hartford, because his publisher was here.) But no one had seen the witty, scathing comments Clemens put into Tent Life. He clearly considered Prime, a widely popular author, as pompous ass and Prime’s attitude toward the people of Egypt and Palestine loathsome. After a syrupy description of an Egyptian evening, Clemens wrote: “The sham Prime.” A paragraph later, when Prime is beating his donkey-boys to get them going in the morning, Clemens writes: “The real Prime.”

At the end of a chapter describing his visit to the purported tomb of Jesus, in an area of Jerusalem under Muslim control, Prime couldn’t control himself: Seeing Christian pilgrims there and the “sneering Turks,” he wrote that Christianity “will ere long – God grant it be soon! – sweep from the face of the earth every vestige of the religion of the camel-driver of Mecca.”

Mark Twain, who could sniff bigotry out from whatever source, wrote acidly next to this passage: “The charity & the gentleness that Christ taught?”

--- STEVE COURTNEY (with thanks to Mark Woodhouse for permission to use this)


Karen said...

I'ld love to see more of his comments. Could you post them? This comment you have shared is consistent with Twain's attitudes that I've read in his autobiography and gleaned from his fiction. I believe he is roughly mocking the likes of Prime and others in Innocents Abroad with his comments about Middle Easterners, and this posting reaffirms my belief in Twain's satirical nature.

john_m_burt said...

I think an abridgement of Prime with all of Clemens' annotations would be a valuable and popular publication.

I urge the Mark Twain House to consider publishing such a book.