(Top) An oil painting of the Quaker City (Shapell Manuscript Collection) (Above) Mark Twain in 1876 (Shapell Manuscript Foundation)

Before he became a titan of American literature and the witty bard of life in the 19th century, Mark Twain was just another young man looking for his big break in New York City.

In the New-York Historical exhibition Mark Twain and the Holy Land (opening Oct. 25), we’re exploring the fabled journey behind one of the bestselling travelogues of all time, Twain’s 1869 book The Innocents Abroad, or the New Pilgrims Progress. Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the book was Twain’s breakthrough, a funny, scathing look at a cruise trip to Europe and the Holy Land that skewered pious pilgrims and tourist traps alike. The exhibition features original documents, letters, artwork, and costumes, all in the service of explaining how this smash book came together. It also offers a snapshot of the author at a tipping point. Just how did a scrappy westerner land a spot on a luxury cruise for well-heeled travelers?

By 1867, the 31-year-old writer from Missouri (born Samuel Langhorne Clemens) had been a printer, a riverboat pilot, a miner, and finally, a journalist of sorts, who’d already won some acclaim for a short story/tall tale about a jumping pet frog named Dan’l Webster. He’d also traveled to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) and reported back to a Sacramento newspaper with humorous tales of his adventures. It was an assignment that would lay the foundation for his next project.

A portrait of Henry Ward Beecher taken between 1855 and 1865 (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection)

But first, Twain had to figure out what that project was. In January of 1867, he came to New York—a city full of “hustler energy,” as his biographer Ron Powers describes it in Mark Twain: A Life—and checked into the Metropolitan Hotel downtown. He had a regular gig with the San Francisco newspaper the Alta Californian and some letters of introduction to Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most famous clergymen in America and patriarch of the renowned family that included Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Twain hit the pavement, networking at the exclusive club, the Century Association, knocking on doors of publishers, and crafting a plan for his next move: He needed to publish a book. But about what? As he cast around for a subject, he crossed the East River one Sunday morning to attend services at the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, where he heard a sermon by the Rev. Beecher. It was an auspicious meeting, and a signal event in Twain’s life. As Powers writes, “Among Samuel Clemens’s most singular and least explicable gifts…was his social radar: his uncanny propensity for finding way his, time and again, into the most consequential circles of American cultural, intellectual and political life.”

Twain soon learned that Beecher was the star player in an irresistible scheme: The first organized luxury cruise in American history, which would take paying passengers on the ship Quaker City (to the tune of $1,250 per person) on a five-month tour through Europe and the Holy Land. The announced guest list was star-studded to attract more passengers and was supposed to include Beecher himself, the Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, the actress Maggie Mitchell, and the congressman Nathaniel Prentiss Banks.

Where others might’ve seen just a cruise, Twain saw copy. He announced the trip in a piece for the Alta, then immediately demanded money from his editors to pay the fare. He secured his spot in a uniquely Twainian way, showing up drunk at the booking office on Wall St. one morning, along with an equally inebriated buddy who introduced him as “the Reverend Mark Twain.” Twain kept himself busy in the intervening months, delivering a triumphant lecture at Cooper Union and then repeat performances at Irving Hall and in Brooklyn, and giving audiences an inkling of the fame that was to come. He also got tossed in jail for a spell after attempting to break up a fight one night.

The only known picture of Twain with the other passengers of the Quaker City. He’s sitting on the floor next to the woman in white. (Courtesy of Randolph James)

As for the cruise, like all good public-relations stunts, it was perhaps less than it was advertised. As the departure date approached, it became clear that almost none of the A-listers would be joining the expedition, including Beecher and Sherman, who’d been called back to military service. The passenger list dwindled to 65. Celebrities or no, Twain was at least pleased to be shoving off in the company of “a splendid, immoral, tobacco-smoking, wine-drinking, godless room-mate” named Daniel Slote, a sidekick who would figure prominently in Innocents Abroad. After a full night of dining and drinking, Twain boarded the Quaker City on June 7, 1867, on the cusp of a lifetime of fame, and bound for adventure in the Old World.

What happened next? Check out New-York Historical’s new exhibition Mark Twain and the Holy Land (on view starting Oct. 25) to learn all about Twain’s journey and the blockbuster book that it inspired. 

Written by Kerrie Mitchell, content editor