“I cannot call to mind a single instance where I have ever been irreverent, except toward the things which were sacred to other people.” Mark Twain. Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909).
Mark Twain’s Autobiography, written sporadically over the final decades of his life, was not published until 100 years after his death. This century of censorship was self-imposed, justified in a letter sent to writer/friend William Dean Howells in June, 1906: “To-morrow I mean to dictate a chapter which will get my heirs and assigns burnt alive if they venture to print it this side of 2006 A.D. — which I judge they won’t. There’ll be lots of such chapters if I live 3 or 4 years longer. The edition of A.D. 2006 will make a stir when it comes out. I shall be hovering around taking notice, along with other dead pals. You are invited” (Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. eds. Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013, p.522).
Twain had no need to rely upon the determinations of his associates, however, as he had already made his 100 year plan earlier in 1899. Although Twain readers then and since have been denied the opportunity to see thousands of pages of his most intriguing and inflammatory contemplations, our generation has become the beneficiary of some of the author’s most reliable testimony on matters of religion, collected in the various fragments that make up the Autobiography. Here were the writings of a scribe unconcerned with whether they would be published, sold, or even read, thus freeing him to be the candid truth-teller that constituted his essential being.
The “chapters” Twain spoke of to Howells address myriad concerns over religion and its ill-effects; and the assault of satire we see therein makes its indelible mark on multiple fronts.
While self-censorship reflected a begrudging acceptance that his controversial writings might endanger his loved ones, Twain could not abide censorship from others. Both then and now, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn remains not only one of this nation’s most adored, enduring, and critically revered novels, but also one of its most censored. Although the objections of today’s school boards mostly relate to concerns about the use of racial epithets or the subtlety of the use of irony in a book read by a large demographic of children, it was the book’s perceived blasphemy that led to many libraries in late 19th century America keeping the classic from its shelves. When the library in Concord, Massachusetts (the town Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne called home), banned Huck Finn, the author’s initial response was not dissimilar to that echoed by the rock and rap acts that landed on the PMRC sticker list a century later: That should boost sales!
In Volume Three of the Autobiography, however, Twain recalls the frustrations he felt seeing censorious librarians misinterpreting his work. He shares one incident in an August 1907 entry in which he challenged a librarian to list the objectionable passages in Huck Finn and he would do the same with The Bible. Both lists would then be posted on the library bulletin board. Not surprisingly, the librarian, presumably cowed by Twain’s implicit charges of hypocrisy and selective morality, refused to take up the challenge (Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3. eds. Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015. p.97).
Although Twain was not averse to satirizing religious denominations beyond the Presbyterianism of his own upbringing (as evidenced by the anti-Catholicism of his European travel writings), it is Protestant Christianity that is the focus of much of his final anti-establishment writing. “Ours is a terrible religion”, he writes in June, 1906, “The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilt” (Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. p.132).
Re-invoking a theme he had harkened upon since his lecturing days 30 years prior, Twain implicates Christianity for the imperialism running rampant throughout the second half of the 19th century. Whether it be the British in South Africa, the Americans in the Philippines, or the various imposing adventures of King Leopold II of Belgium, Twain saw Christianity as both their motivation and justification. “There are no peaceful nations now, except those unhappy ones whose borders have not been invaded by the Gospel of Peace”, he writes in an entry about one of many Jewish pogroms sponsored by the “ultra-Christian” government of Russia (p.135). He speculates that such on-going atrocities will ultimately lead to the demise of this religion, just as so many others have come and gone before. Yet, he also argues, “Ours is the worst God that the ingenuity of man has begotten from his insane imagination”, then adds with a prescience still resonating today,“There isn’t anything so grotesque or so incredible that the average human being can’t believe it” (p.135).
Many humorists are willing to satirize institutions of religion and some even mock the gullible that flock to their churches; few, however, dig deep into the articles of faith, into the scriptures themselves. For Twain, here lie the roots of religion’s evils. Yes, “our” Christianity is “bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory”, argues the author, but it is still far preferable to what The Bible has to offer: the invention of hell and the concept of original sin — what he calls “infant damnation” (Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. p.132).
Sounding more like Christopher Hitchens than a lapsed Presbyterian from the 19th century, Twain rips apart Testaments Old and New, assessing, “It is perhaps the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere. It makes Nero an angel of light and leading, by contrast” (p.128). Drawing from what James M. Cox refers to as “all the humor he had to humor the anger he felt” (Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2002. p.xii), Twain mixes eloquence with biting insult humor as he dismisses the creation story of Genesis as “so malign and so childish” (Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2. p.128). Deconstructing like an adept literary critic, Twain wryly exposes the immorality of punishing man for eating the forbidden fruit: “[Adam] was in no way the superior of a baby of two years of age; he could have no idea of what the word death meant”. Where is the “justice and fairness”? the author implores (p.128).
As much as Twain’s analysis of scripture elicits the humor and anger combination Cox speaks of, his charges of plagiarism regarding The Bible speak to ethos issues, irritating both the writer and humorist in him. Questioning its authenticity, and thus legitimacy, Twain argues that the Golden Rule was stolen from Confucius, that Noah’s flood was a Babylonian myth, and that the immaculate conception idea was borrowed from the Hindus and Buddhists, if not the Greeks and Romans. In each instance, The Bible “gives no credit, which is a distinctly immoral act” (p.130). How could such pervasive pilfering occur and its publishers “copyright it without a blush”? asks the mock-exasperated writer (p.130).
The Character of God
Much of Twain’s literary exegesis of The Bible comes in the form of character analysis, particularly of its leading protagonist, God, and of the “watery intellect” that invented the creation myth and other “banalities”. Twain quips, “none but a God could listen to [them] and not hide his face in disgust and embarrassment” (p.129).
The god of the Old Testament, opines Twain, is without either morals or mercy: “His acts expose His vindictive, unjust, ungenerous, pitiless and vengeful nature constantly. He is always punishing — punishing trifling misdeeds with thousand-fold severity” (p.128). Previewing the kind of “sophomoric” questions Kurt Vonnegut would later pose in his literature, Twain asks: Why doesn’t Jesus/God cure all the blind, cripples, and starving, rather than just a few? If God is omnipotent, why does He blame man for what He inflicts upon him? Why not raise all the dead?
In an entry into his Autobiography in June, 1906, Twain attempts to answer some of his own questions: “When we pray, when we beg, when we implore, does He listen? Does he answer? There is not a single authentic instance of it in human history. Does he silently refuse to listen — refuse to answer There is nothing resembling proof that He has ever done anything else” (p.130). Like Randy Newman in many of his religion-related songs, Twain here creates an existence for God in order to ironically deny and debunk that very existence.
The Exploitation of Children
Sometimes forgotten when considering the sophistication and subtlety of the critical irony at the core of Twain’s literature is the fact that he was most renowned and respected as a writer of children’s stories, written to be read by children as well as adults. This is, of course, why he has been such a perennial target for would-be censors; but more importantly, this highlights the sympathy and sensitivity he holds for the innocents. Like so many humorists, Twain is an eternal child operating in a children’s playground; he uses humor to contrast authentic “out of the mouths of babes” truth-telling with the corruption, exploitation, and hypocrisy that dominate adult life and institutions. It is apparent that in this regard Twain perceives religion as the enemy of children and a threat to blissful innocence itself.
He cites “harmless calves and lambs” alongside “innocent children” as the regular victims of the vengeful god of the Old Testament (p.128). We call him “Father”, but he is clearly an abusive one, for “we know quite well that we should hang His style of father wherever we might catch him” (p.139). Such condemnations show Twain bursting another bubble, deconstructing the mystique of god-worship in order to attack the delusion and destructiveness that manifest from it.
Preachers and Missionaries
Serving as gods on earth — or at least as representative spokesmen — religious leaders are treated with similar scorn. How can priests and rabbis praise and applaud the various teachings of The Bible that are, prima facie, immoral and cruel? Twain asks. Yet, for all the satirical portraits that mock preachers throughout his lifetime of writing, the author always had close friends and associates from within the clergy. Did he merely suffer fools gladly, or did he draw a sustenance and/or pleasure from their company that is often absent from his literary portraits?
One religious leader Twain was largely unforgiving of was Mary Baker Eddy, the head of the Christian Science movement. Her faith healing claims made her a pet enemy for the author in the latter years of the 19th century, as her kind was to become for the magician/debunker Houdini a few years later. Eddy’s recruitment book, Science and Health (1875), was, posited Twain, not only an offense to rational-minded citizens, but to grammarians everywhere! “A remorseless tyrant”, “a brass god with clay legs”, “a Christian for revenue only”, and a despot seeking only “money, power, [and] glory” were among the less offensive insults the author hurled at the woman he tagged “Eddypus” (Qtd. in Michael Sheldon. Mark Twain: Man in White. The Grand Adventures of His Final Years. New York: Random House, 2010. p.69-70).
Held in equally low esteem by Twain were missionaries, whom he regarded as the frontline troops of global imperialism. “That least excusable of all human trades”, the author blamed missionary activities for the 1901 pillages of China in his article from the same year, “To My Missionary Critics” (Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 3. p.131). Such critiques caused a stir and a backlash; nevertheless, Twain continued to unmask the looting, impositions, and arrogance of the missionary “trade” throughout his final years.
Despite the drift towards a sharper anti-theist philosophy in these later years — what some regard as his “dark” times — Twain’s popularity continued to soar. By the time of his death in 1910, a consensus of the nation regarded Twain as its most beloved writer and wit. Not only did his incisive truth-telling elevate him to the status of being seen as the soul of the nation, but his omnipresent public persona made him, what Roy Blount, Jr. termed, “America’s Original Superstar” (“Roy Blount, Jr.” The Mark Twain Anthology: Great Writers on His Life and Works. Ed. Shelley Fisher Fishkin. New York: Penguin, 2010. p.469). The bully pulpit he occupied also saw him assuming the role of secular preacher in-chief, this in a country even more enveloped in its righteous sense of manifest destiny than it is today.
Some might find it ironic that the novelist’s journey towards becoming the scourge of religion would end in the graveyard of a Presbyterian church, the institution that first nurtured him but which he turned on as he matured in age and reason. However, Twain was not a dogmatic anti-theist in the way we might consider today’s “new atheists” to be, and his rejection of faith was reluctant, resisted, and even painful. Moreover, as much as he railed against its many shortcomings, Twain was always cognizant of the personal and social comforts faith could bring, as well as the community it provided for so many, including himself. Ultimately, Twain wanted religion to do good, but reality told him too often that it did otherwise, and his pen was incapable of responding contrarily.
The writer’s legacy is too wide, distant, and deep to account for here, well beyond “mark twain”, one might say. His influence as a writer, orator, wit, and intellect, likewise, are beyond measure. America’s greatest writer? Check. America’s greatest literary humorist? Check. America’s first stand-up critical comedian? Check. America’s most eloquent yet plain-speaking satirist of religion, faith, and scripture? Check. In finally choosing to confer with his mind over his heart on such matters, Mark Twain also personifies the essential dichotomy between the critical humorist and religion: the inclination of the former towards truth-telling candor will always be at loggerheads with the latter’s propensity to (self-)delusion and irrational belief in the supernatural.