FOR AMERICANS, Mark Twain is something akin to gravity, a massive and foundational force whose magnificence has worn off through familiarity. We all read Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and The Prince and the Pauper in middle school, and for a great many that was it—Twain was relegated to that same corner of the brain where we kept Flowers for Algernon and how to add fractions, never to be seriously revisited again.
And while Twain’s characters form eight-tenths of our sense of what an American is, we’ve drawn a very prim and distinct line as to which characters and ideas are allowed into our memory. If it was written after A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889), we’ve decided as a literary nation that we aren’t interested, and in doing so we have denied ourselves access to some of Twain’s most vigorous, dark, and powerful moments. Which is precisely what the handlers of his memory wanted. Upon his death, his biographer and daughter collaborated to suppress Twain the anti-imperialist, Twain the religious satirist, and Twain the determinist in order to paint the picture of a storyteller who was a bit raucous, but only just enough to be entertaining. America’s scamp.
Of all the ways to parse Twain’s life, perhaps it’s best to think in pre-Huck and post-Huck terms. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1884, represents the last moment of unqualified commercial success before Twain threw himself into a spiral of diminishing sales and a whirlwind of mad, toxic investments that burned through all of the money that Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, Tom Sawyer, The Gilded Age, and his extensive speaking schedule had brought in. Before that, a Twain book was guaranteed to sell forty thousand copies, and his appearances on stage defined the cutting edge of how comedic monologues were done. And after? Let’s talk about after.
By 1884 Samuel Clemens had been a Mississippi riverboat pilot, a riotously unsuccessful silver mine prospector, a drunken frontier journalist, a Southern soldier for all of about three days, a genre-defining comedic orator (carrying a glass of water onstage to drink from? Twain invented that), and the author of the travel accounts and novels that broke America definitively from its dependence on cumbersome Victorian civilities. He was making money with effortless abandon and wanted more.
Crackpot inventors smelled a rube in the water and sought out the great man for financial support for inventions that were very nearly, or nearly very nearly, ready for public demonstration. Twain invested tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars in these schemes, using up all of his book royalties, his wife’s inherited wealth, and every last dime from his fledgling publishing company. In pursuit of the next big technological breakthrough, Twain became so indebted that he, America’s most renowned author, could no longer afford to live in America.
Thus began the dark years, pulling his family this way and that across Europe, writing substandard sequels to his beloved intellectual properties to make enough money to throw into the black hole of his latest doomed technological investment. These were the years of Tom Sawyer Abroad and Following the Equator, of his slapdash cash-grab playwriting attempts, of the Mark Twain Memory Enhancement Game. His oldest daughter died suddenly of meningitis while he was an ocean away, and his youngest drowned in a bathtub during an epileptic fit.
Twain was at the fragile nadir of his existence, looking deep into the contents of his beliefs and the actions of his country on the world stage and finding humbug everywhere he looked. Previously, he had ameliorated his religious and political scorn to mollify the high sensibilities of his wife, his personal advisors, and his editor. The succession of personal tragedies pummeled the last vestiges of that high society reserve and, at last, for the first time since his wild frontier journalist days, Twain let himself write whatever and however he wanted. As much as I love the classic Twain, it is this guy, the bitter, no-holds-barred skeptic of the early twentieth century, who keeps me coming back.
He read and pondered David Hume and came out of the experience a devoted determinist, with results popping up all over his late works, but especially and perfectly in the delicious 1906 dialogue, “What Is Man?” In its one hundred brief pages, Twain savages every cherished self-myth of humankind. We are machines, guided by a temperament not of our choice and pushed by an environment likewise foreign to us, and we deserve just as little praise for happening to do well as we do scorn for happening to fail. We are pushed around by a set of weighted desires that act for us and, in conjunction with memory and doctrine, give us an illusion of free choice. Even at our most noble, our most apparently self-sacrificing, we are simply propelled along by a deep calculus as inevitable as magnetism or oxidation. “What is Man?” is a work that hesitates before no conclusions and devastates any attempt to reestablish the old order of humanity’s unique and metaphysical self-possession. It was a hundred years ahead of its time and is still too extreme even for most skeptics. But for those wanting to plumb the depths of human motivation without pretense, illusion, or jargon, it’s an eternal wellspring.
And he kept slashing away. Twain’s essay, “As Concerns Interpreting the Deity” (1905), is a wry, crushing assault on religion’s historical over-comfort with interpreting world events as a sign of divine will, starting with the absurdities of Roman augury and ending with early modern Christianity’s fumbling attempts to show God’s wrath and will at work.
In “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” (1899), Twain weaves one of his best stories around the subject of a town, over-prideful of its reputation for clean morals and boundless honesty, that is put to a test and ripped apart. The message, once again, is the deterministic creed that environment, experience, and training—working together with temperament to produce morality—is a much more powerful force than abstinence, theory, and doctrine.
These are all great reads, but I expect the work that most humanists leap to as their secret pleasure in the Twain canon is, and will always be, Letters from the Earth. It was written in 1909, a year before he died, and was considered so subversive that it wasn’t actually published until 1962. It’s Twain’s parting gift, a perfect marriage of American frontier skepticism and emerging modernity. The premise is simple: Satan gets kicked out of heaven for a bit and wanders down to earth to check on how things are going, then writes a series of letters back to his friends reporting his findings. Those letters are nothing less than a full-throttle roast of Christianity and its fundamental assumptions.
Satan starts by reviewing the absurdity of humanity’s notion of heaven in one of religious humor’s most-quoted rants:
He has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race—and of ours—sexual intercourse!
It is as if a lost and perishing person in a roasting desert should be told by a rescuer he might choose and have all longed-for things but one, and he should elect to leave out water!
His heaven is like himself: strange, interesting, astonishing, grotesque. I give you my word, it has not a single feature in it that he actually values. It consists—utterly and entirely—of diversions which he cares next to nothing about, here in the earth, yet is quite sure he will like them in heaven. Isn’t it curious? Isn’t it interesting? You must not think I am exaggerating, for it is not so. I will give you details.
And he does, a viciously funny point-by-point detailing of heaven and how, in each and every one of its attributes, it consistently rejects everything that we actually care about and enjoy and amplifies everything we find tedious and horrid. If it were up to me, I’d spend the entire rest of this article just quoting it. Twain talks about sexual pleasure with straightforward abandon, dismantles the hollow patriotism of imperialism (his prior condemnation of the U.S. annexation of the Philippines was a landmark of literary resistance to government propaganda), reminds the reader of the continuing racist ugliness of the American landscape, and calls out hymns for being blunt instruments of mental torture.
That is just by way of introduction. The rest of the work represents a complete gutting of the holy literature, from the curious and disgusting morality of the Adam and Eve tale to the divine pettiness of the Great Flood to the personal odiousness of Jesus Christ:
The first time the Deity came down to earth, he brought life and death; when he came the second time, he brought hell…the Deity perceived that death was a mistake; a mistake, in that it was insufficient; insufficient, for the reason that while it was an admirable agent for the inflicting of misery upon the survivor, it allowed the dead person himself to escape from all further persecution…this was not satisfactory. A way must be conceived to pursue the dead beyond the tomb. The Deity pondered this matter during four thousand years unsuccessfully, but as soon as he came down to earth and became a Christian his mind cleared and he knew what to do. He invented hell, and proclaimed it….the palm for malignity must be granted to Jesus.
Letters from the Earth is a deeply fun, deeply serious book, as could only have been produced by the greatest humorist of his generation squarely facing death and resolving to tell the truth to its fullest extent at last. It was one of the first, and longest-buried casualties of the sanitizing of Twain’s legacy carried out by his family and biographer, a sanitizing that silenced one of the most penetrating and sustained critiques of imperialist, Protestant America. The harmless proprieties of The Prince and the Pauper were hauled out for display and the Letters were buried in the basement. And while it’s true that every time we put The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn into a kid’s hands society as a whole comes out the winner, perhaps we’ve finally come to the point where “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” can appear on our general intellectual menu. And a few centuries hence, when we’re strong enough for it, let’s put “What is Man?” there as well.
FURTHER READING: When Mark Twain was writing under the subscription system, he had a tendency to pad out his works so that they seemed like a better deal on the door-to-door circuit. Look how many pages you get! Sometimes, this tendency allows him to digress brilliantly. Other times, he’s just copying down facts and passages from other books. So, you have to be a bit picky. If I could pick just one non-standard Twain work for the world to read, it would probably be “What is Man?” The essay collection Letters from the Earth is more fun, but “What is Man?” digs deeper and is more dangerous. For biographies, Ron Powers’s Mark Twain: A Life is pretty much all a person could conceivably want (though I was disappointed that Twain’s meeting with Tesla was left out—ah, well).
This article was first published at TheHumanist.com on March 3, 2016, as Episode 35 of The Cartoon History of Humanism. A series of essays by Dale Debakcsy, each is accompanied by a Count Dolby von Luckner cartoon which follows the adventures of a character named Dave. After carelessly poking fun at a logical positivist, Dave is cursed to wander time and space to converse with humanist philosophers until he learns his lesson. A Cartoon History of Humanism Volume 1: Antiquity to Enlightenment will be published in August by Humanist Press.