American Palestine – Book Excerpt

Book Excerpt

American Palestine
Melville, Twain, and the Holy Land Mania

by Hilton Obenzinger

ap_coverHoly Lands and Settler Identities

Herman Melville’s faith-doubt poem Clarel: A Poem and Pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Mark Twain’s travel satire The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrims’ Progress challenge the religous, cultural, and literary conventions of the extensive literature produced by Americans traveling to Ottoman Palestine before the beginnings of modern Jewish settlement in 1882. Although they are quite dissimilar in style and reception, both are “infidel” books, in nineteenth-century terms. 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 destiny and millennialist restoration. Through Clarel‘s obsessive poem-pilgrimage towards covenantal failure and Innocents Abroad‘s “touristic” vision of violent parody, comic irreverence, and the commodity consumption of “marketable 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.

American Holy Land literature — those texts based on direct experience of Ottoman Palestine — consists of hundreds of books and an extensive array of newspaper and magazine articles from the beginning of the nineteenth century to 1882. A considerable archive embodying an insistent American religious and cultural involvement in Palestine and the Ottoman empire becomes readily evident, particularly when one also includes consular documents, illustrations, panoramas, photographs and other non-literary representations, such as John Banvard’s theatrical Holy Land panoramas, Frederick Church’s Holy Land paintings, Robert Morris’s sales of “Holy Land Cabinets” of bits of stone, wood, flowers, seeds and other items, even the large-scale Holy Land garden erected along the shores of the lake at the Chattauqua Assembly, the institution launched in 1874, according to the son of its founder John Heyl Vincent, as “a gigantic Palestine Class.”1 Holy Land literature draws from a deep cultural preoccupation that actually intersects several genres: religious text (such as tracts, sermons, memorials, exegeses, jeremiads, Sunday School “illuminations,” and missionary journals), travel book, exploration narrative, archeological and topographical treatise (particularly those seeking “evidences” of biblical prophecies), even historical romance and poetry. Such a literature, despite its uniquely “American” qualities, springs from the larger library of Western involvement with Palestine available to Americans, including centuries of British Holy Land books and translations of accounts by C. F. Volney (1781), Ulrich Seetzen (1810), Viscount F. A. de Chateaubriand (1811), Johann Burckhardt (1822), Alphonse de Lamartine (1835), and other Continental travelers and explorers.

A distinctly American Holy Land literature begins to flower with the publication of the correspondences to the Missionary Herald as missionaries Pliny Fisk and Levi Parson departed in 1819 to “occupy” Jerusalem for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. Throughout the century articles and books by missionaries comprise a steady basso continuo to the counterpoint of other texts, with William M. Thomson’s The Land and The Book (1859), written after his sojourn of 25 years in Palestine and Lebanon, becoming a fixture in countless Sunday school libraries and one of the most popular books ever written by a missionary. Another stream of documents was composed by religious innovators and millennialist colonists, such as Elder Orson Hyde’s brief account of his sacred journey to Jerusalem in 1841 to perform the Mormon Church’s first official act: a ritual signaling the imminent restoration of the Jews to the old Holy Land in Palestine and the latter-day saints to the new Zion in North America. The production of biblical knowledge produced other, more descriptive or scientific texts, such as Edward Robinson’s Biblical Researches in Palestine, Mount Sinai, and Arabia Petraea (1841), the first attempt at a scientific archaeology of sacred sites, while Lieutenant Commander William Francis Lynch’s Narrative of the United States’ Expedition to the River Jordan and the Dead Sea (1849), the acount of the expedition undertaken in 1847 during the enthusiasm for Manifest Destiny arising from the war with Mexico, allowed readers to cultivate patriotic sensibilities as the disinterested quest for knowledge.2

Earlier, John Lloyd Stephens, an “amateur,” gentleman traveler, much more like Geoffrey Crayon than was Washington Irving, published his Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia Petraea, and the Holy Land (1836), its great popularity launching the secular Holy Land travel book. By the time Melville traveled to Palestine in 1857, the production of Holy Land travel books had achieved boom proportions, with newspaper correspondences and volumes by J. Ross Browne, William Cullen Bryant, William Curtis, William Prime, Bayard Taylor, and numerous “adventurers,” “gentlemen,” (and occassionally “ladies,” such as Sarah Haight) and others not associated with missionary societies, cultic movements, or millennialist projects appearing during the decade of crisis before the Civil War. After the war, bourgeois tourism, that “tide of a great popular movement”3 which swept Twain into the Quaker City, converged with the “Peaceful Crusade,” propelling ever greater numbers of Americans to join Europeans in imposing themselves upon the Palestinian landscape. As Jerusalem was increasingly turned into a “Christian madhouse,” the Holy Land travel genre expanded dramatically, with articles and books by Samuel “Sunset” Cox, Charles Dudley Warner, and scores of others, including genteel women travelers such as Twain’s friend and confidante Mary Fairbanks.

All of this literary production, no matter its secular or religious orientation, speaks to an ongoing obsession with the Holy Land that insistently entwines itself with secular constructions of national destiny. This is an interweaving of transcendent values with colonial settlement expressed in the idiom of sacred landscape, including the “benevolent disinterestedness” to convert the land’s inhabitants by the early missionaries, the Enlightenment empiricism to measure and “read” sacred sites by archeologists and explorers, the voluntarist compulsion to “facilitate” prophecy by religious enthusiasts, and the literary ambition to edify and entertain middle class readers by worldly travelers.

While the persistent preoccupations with the Bible and biblical geography stood at the ideological core of American colonial expansion, actual travel to Palestine allowed Americans to contemplate biblical narratives at their source in order to reimagine — and even to reenact — religio-national myths, allowing them, ultimately, to displace the biblical Holy Land with the American New Jersualem. In particular, the Protestant doctrines of Jewish conversion and restoration central to the millennialist eschatologies of most travelers provided originary models for America’s narratives of continuing settlement and expansion: if the elect though cursed ur-nation of Israel could be restored, so fallen Anglo-America, the typological new Jews, could also be “restored” as a racialized chosen-people.Consequently, 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. The discrepancy between land and text was heightened by the advent of Darwinism, higher criticism, Enlightenment “Hegelized” Jews, scientific archeology, geology, and other challenges to revealed religion and identity in the post-Civil War period. By situating Melville and Twain within 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 millennialist restoration as each text seeks new grounds for faith and identity.

Clarel’s obsessive poem-pilgrimage demands that readers embark on their own pilgrimage ordeal through engaging Melville’s strange and difficult Minnepean satire as primarily a religious rather than secular literary experience. This pilgrimage leads to death and the failure of all covenants, including the promise of New World restoration, with such exhaustion of meaning and emptying of promise ironically providing the only cause for hope. At the core of all failures is what Melville in his journal calls the “preposterous Jew mania,” the millennialist obsession with the original chosen people and God’s covenant, which gives the poem and Melville’s critique of America a distinctly anti-Judaic cast.Innocents Abroad, in a performance which simultaneously embodies and explodes Anglo-American “frontier” identities, provides a uniquely incisive comic appropriation of the Holy Land. Twain — and here I should acknowledge I am more interested in the invented persona rather than that other, far more elusive fiction of Samuel Clemens — inscribes a “touristic” vision of violent parodic desanctification and commodification whose “realism” still dominates the way readers regard Ottoman Palestine today and whose laughter ridicules the pretentions of Anglo-American identity along with the sacred.


  1. Herman Melville, letter to James Billson, 10 October 1884, in Herman Melville, Correspondence, ed. Lynn Horth, from work by Merrell R. Davis and William H. Gilman (Evanston and Chicago: Northwestern University Press and the Newberry Library, 1993), 483.
  2. William Dean Howells, My Mark Twain: Reminiscences and Criticisms (New York: Harper, 1910), 8.
  3. Edward Wilmot Blyden, From West Africa to Palestine (Freetown, Sierra Leone: T.J. Sawyer, 1873), 9-12.

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