Updated: Sep 12, 2020
Legacy of a travel writer
On June 8, 1867, a young(ish) American journalist with a magnificent moustache drags himself and his hangover up the rain-slicked gangway of the steamship SS Quaker City in New York. The Quaker City is about to embark on a 5-month ‘grand pleasure excursion’ to the Holy Land (and assorted other Mediterranean destinations) and the journalist has persuaded his editor to book him passage so that he may report on this exciting new holiday venture – the very first round-trip leisure cruise departing the US for Europe. The journalist's name was Samuel Longhorne Clemens, but by the end of the voyage the world would know him as Mark Twain and it would know cruising as a new, convenient and exciting (if perhaps not immediately attainable) holiday option.
A clergyman’s cruise
The idea for this voyage was proposed by famous Brooklyn pastor Henry Ward Beecher and enthusiastically organized by one of his parishioners, Captain Charles Duncan, who would go on to charter and command the SS Quaker City for the voyage. Beecher intended for the voyage to be an religious/educational experience (if not actually a pilgrimage), so it is hardly surprising that many of the participants came from his flock or went primarily for religious reasons. Captain Duncan was perhaps more motivated by turning a profit on the enterprise but ended up disappointed when only 75 out of a projected 110 participants committed to the adventure and the substantial fare of $1.250 per person ($21.800 in 2020 currency).
The round-trip journey was advertised to take 4½ - 5 months and would take travelers across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean, with the Holy Land as the highlight. Port calls were anywhere from 1 to 5 days (depending on popularity) and the itinerary relatively flexible (in as far as call durations could be changed and ports excluded / included by popular vote onboard). Guests also had the opportunity to leave the ship in one port and rejoin in another, should they wish to explore further afield. Shore excursion options were offered, though how the programs were planned and organized in advance is unknown. This was before ship-to-shore wireless communication, so logistical coordination from afar was challenging, especially - one would imagine - if you were on a ‘flexible itinerary’.
The ship and its guests
The SS Quaker City was a wooden sidewheel steamship and former Union Navy blockade ship, built in 1854: 75m / 244 ft long, 11m / 36 ft wide, weighing in at 1.428 long tons and with berths for 150 passengers at full occupancy (take a moment to appreciate that this is significantly smaller than most of the Staten Island Ferries ploughing the New York Harbor today). Advertising for the trip called her ‘beautiful and substantial’, although that would depend entirely on your standards for beauty and substance. The onboard accommodation standard of the time was basic; tiny box-like cabins with spartan décor, no electricity, no in-cabin plumbing, one communal ‘saloon’ (dining/social room) with a library – and that was it. Travel in the age of steamships was frequently cramped, austere, smelly and noisy and the Quaker city was certainly no exception.
This was a 'first’ in many ways; while Europe had dabbled in leisure cruising since the early 1840’s, America had not yet worked up the appetite or the market for it (granted in large part due to the recently ended Civil War, 1861-1865). So this was likely the first ever leisure cruise out of the US mainland, and if not the first, then certainly one of the longest and most expensive, involving one of the first transatlantic round trips. It was also the first time a group of passengers this .. ehm, let’s say ‘eccentric’ embarked on a comprehensive sea journey they were uniquely unprepared for. The 75 middle-aged, wealthy Protestants from the American East Coast (of whom only 17 were women) had clearly signed on for the dream of a 'biblical history experience', not for the harsh realities of a lengthy sea voyage and their lack of forethought swiftly became apparent. Immediate and incapacitating seasickness struck them down like a Biblical plague as soon as the ship entered the Atlantic.
Religion v. entertainment
The religious nature of the group also clashed existentially with one of the most important aspects of shipboard life (and of cruising); onboard entertainment. To pass the time on long sea voyages (Atlantic crossings would take between 2-3 weeks) passenger ships carried a variety of musical instruments, games (deck, board, parlor, cards) and a well-stocked liquor cabinet, as did the Quaker City, but with many of Pastor Beecher’s flock taking a rather puritan view of ‘musical cavorting’, gambling and drinking, none of these entertainment options were of any use. Instead reading, prayer meetings, dominoes (somehow considered the least ‘sinful’ of games) and other sober, devout and ascetic activities became the order of the day. It is hardly surprising that the otherwise fun-loving and exuberant Twain upon his return remarked that the voyage should have been called the ‘The Grand Holy Land Funeral Procession’, rather than ‘The Grand Holy Land Pleasure Excursion’, as advertised.
Despite all that, the grand voyage went about as well as an undertaking on this scale could be expected to. It was considered a success, but was never again repeated (which is another way of saying that it was popular, but not profitable). I am not going to regale you with minute details of the voyage, because I cannot do Twain’s own words justice – his travel reports from the journey are compiled in the book ‘The Innocents Abroad’ and if you are the least bit interested, I highly recommend you pick up a copy. Available at fine book shops everywhere. But the funny thing is; where the actual voyage failed to make any lasting impression in cruise history, you could argue that Twain’s written account of it did.
The people’s travel writer
Mark Twain was at this point not a household name. He had gained some repute for his writings and lectures since first turning to journalism in 1863, but was still far from ‘the father of American literature’ he would eventually become. His motivation for joining the voyage was transparently self-serving; after a stint as travel reporter in the Pacific the previous year Twain had worked up an appetite for discovery and travel, and what curious, single bon vivant would not jump at the chance to see half of Classical Europe in one convenient trip? What prompted the editor of the Daily Alta California newspaper to cough up a fortune to send a rookie correspondent on a 5-month voyage to Europe, is perhaps more of a mystery. Twain was at the time already well-known for his sharp wit, poignant sarcasm, staunch irreverence and straightforward, realistic prose, so if the editor was expecting another verbose, romanticized and solemn travel report for the high society pages, Twain was not the man to deliver it.
"This book is the record of a pleasure trip. “If it were a record of a scientific expedition, it would have about it that gravity, profundity and impressive incomprehensibility which are so proper to works of that kind."
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, foreword
Unlike most American travel writers, stuck in the vein of Romanticism and writing predominantly for fellow intellectuals, Twain was the travel writer for the ‘common man’. He liked to portray himself as the shrewd country boy who barges unprepared into unknown territory and just calls it like he sees it. He broke with traditional travel reporting by focusing squarely and honestly on what he himself thought, felt and learned on his encounters and did not waste time feigning interest or appreciation for something that did not genuinely touch him. By consistently highlighting the discrepancies between ancient (romanticized) history and the ‘real world’ he challenged world views and skewered anyone who harbored erroneous, misguided or dishonest beliefs, including his fellow travelers with their narrow and insular religious views (hence the ‘innocents’ of the title). And he described it in such simple straightforward prose that not only could every man follow along in his story and his thinking, but all to easily imagine themselves in his shoes. To put it simply, Twain injected a healthy dose of social realism into travel writing, well before social realism entered other forms of literature, and his growing readership back in the US, following his every travel letter in the newspapers, loved every word of it.
‘…it has a purpose, which is to suggest to the reader how he would be likely to see Europe and the East if he looked at them with his own eyes instead of the eyes of those who traveled in those countries before him.’
Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad, foreword
The Twain legacy
And this is what Twain did for cruising (or certainly more broadly for tourism) with his travel writing; he demystified and popularized it! He was not alone in doing so – he was part of a broader set of popular writers, like Clement Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James and Charles Dickens who wrote stirring travel accounts and put the idea of travel and tourism foremost in American minds. But Twain specifically wrote an engaging and relatable introduction to middle-class American tourism that planted the idea that everyone could go on vacation and that you did not have to be a worldly scholar to appreciate what lay beyond the horizon. It was a notion ahead of its time – it would take another decade at least for US mass tourism in general and cruising in particular to become a leisure commodity for the common man, but it seems obvious that the seeds were planted here.
As he walked back down the gangway in New York one cold November-day 1867, relieved to leave his pious (and boring) travel companions behind him, Twain had as yet no idea of the impact of his frequently mailed travel reports and what fame and recognition they had brought him. But as he realized he was quick to seize the moment with a series of travel lectures and his first published book (the Innocents Abroad) and ride it all the way to his ‘fatherhood’ of American literature. You may only have heard of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and the Prince and the Pauper but it was in fact his ‘diary of a cruise’ – the biggest bestseller of his career - that placed Mark Twain firmly in the company of great American writers and inspired the American public to explore the world… possibly even by ship.
This is the second article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and abilities and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.