"The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims' Progress" is Twain's second book, though he undoubtedly would have preferred it be his first book, given his destruction of the plates for "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches". Nevertheless, this is an early work, and yet it already shows Twain's skill as a writer, and his development into one of the greatest writers of all time.
The Oxford Mark Twain series is a wonderful collection. Each book is a facsimile of the first editions of his works (with a few noted exceptions), and the works are supplemented with a "Foreword" by the editor of the series (Note the Foreword appears to be the same for each book in the series), an "Introduction" from a writer for whom the work had particular impact, and an "Afterword" from a scholar who examines the work in the context of the time and place in which it was written. The editor of the series is Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a professor of American Studies and English and an author of multiple books on Mark Twain. The "Introduction" in this volume is by Mordecai Richler, and the "Afterword" by David E. E. Sloane.
In the "Introduction", Mordecai Richler (Canadian author, screenwriter, and essayist) discusses his view of travel, and contrasts that with Twain's wonderful journey to Europe and the Holy Land. He also discusses the impact that Twain had on his life and continues to compare his experiences with Twain's. It is a good introduction, and Richler has some interesting points to make about the role this book had on history, and literature.
The book itself is an incredible work. At around 650 pages, Twain delivers a very humorous book, pieces of which could fall into areas of history, travelogue, sociology, or even religion. Overall though, this is yet another splendid example of Twain's ability to tell stories. There are a couple of parts early on in the book where the humor feels a bit forced, but those sections are few, and once you get past the first third of the book they are gone from his writing. Twain takes aim at everything in the course of this book, from his fellow passengers and crew of the ship, to the tour guides, the endless supply of religious artifacts and questionable claims, to the cultures of the areas that he visits. Nothing seems to escape his keen wit, and the reader benefits from this as much today as they did in 1869 when the book was first published.
David E. E. Sloane has written an outstanding "Afterword" for this volume. In which he discusses all the work that Twain put into turning his columns into the book. Twain cleaned up the language, and really sharpened his focus, which undoubtedly is why this was one of his bestselling books while he was alive, and continues to be one of his most read works. Mr. Sloane also discusses the history of the times surrounding this book, and in particular influences such as Artemus Ward and P. T. Barnum, as well as other works from the time. He also provides a section for further reading, which gives those who are interested some valuable resources to find out more about Twain and the writing of "The Innocents Abroad".