Mark Twain: "Cradle Skeptic" Revised version (Sept. 1997)

Download 395.74 Kb.
Size395.74 Kb.
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8


In Mark Twain: Rebel Pilgrim (1973), J. Harold Smith points to the early influences on Samuel Clemens and lists them as follows:

(1) a budding evolutionary determinism initiated

by MacFarlane

(2) a sense of guilt-despair induced by the death

of brother Henry

(3) a daring independence generated by success in


(4) a habit of brooding speculations fostered by

the pilot's way of life

(5) a variant concept of Deity drawn from the

Deism of Paine

(6) a spirit of reckless bravado--never

unprincipled, always controlled--grown out

of the speculative adventures of the mining

frontier. (25)

Smith's comments that precede this list are not enough to establish fully the basis for these conclusions, yet the conclusion makes for an interesting formula, many facets of which are major tenets in this volume. Smith's stressing of the guilt over Henry's death is not supported in his argument, but other critics have indeed shown that guilt was obviously a major aspect of Clemens's feelings and was a decidedly influential part of his conscience.

The other points Smith lists, excepting the much-noted Thomas Paine and MacFarlane, clearly are interpretations of Twain's character based on his life on the river and his westward travels that Smith uses to establish Twain's mental stage before the pilgrimage of the "Quaker City." Smith is one of the few writers who indicate that the years on the river had anything to do with Clemens's religious sense beyond the fact that it was as a cub pilot that Twain first read Thomas Paine.

It must be admitted that Smith, or any other writer dealing with the river years, must be interpretive because these years are so poorly documented; the only extant documents we have of the piloting period are the notebooks that Horace Bixby commanded the young cub to keep of the Mississippi River's many landmarks and changes, the letters Sam Clemens wrote home, and the three brief sketches attributed to him. Some of those letters and sketches are central to this study and will be discussed in detail in the following chapters. Smith concludes his discussion by finding Twain "tortured by religious skepticism which culminated in a Deistic determinism" (157).

James D. Wilson's 1986 "Religious and Esthetics Vision in Mark Twain's Early Career" is an in-depth article looking at religious matters in Twain's thinking before the publication of Innocents Abroad. Wilson believes that the period of the Clemens/Langdon courtship was the period when "his religious and artistic concerns fused to form at the outset of his professional career an esthetics credo that Mark Twain neither fully satisfied nor completely abandoned" (156). Twain was:

a man already alienated from the comfortable

religious homilies of his childhood. His early

training in the Hannibal Presbyterian church

and the support and example of his parents

had left him a conscience keen to humanitarian

concerns and personal moral responsibility,

and a knowledge of, if not a belief in, the

basic tenets of Protestant faith., He had by

this time become disenchanted with religious

orthodoxy, distrustful of the emotionalism

and sentimentality characteristic of superficial

or false piety, and impatient with any hint of

religious chicanery . . . [but] he nevertheless

exhibited little disposition to blasphemy. (156)

For Wilson, during the courtship period, Twain was capable of sensitive expression of pious sentiments" (156). Yet this piety was expressed only in love letters at a specific time in his life, and these expressions were, as Wilson admits, made in frustration. Clemens may have cried "I will be a Christian" in his 1868 correspondence to Livy, but a consummation of this short-lived ideal never occurred. Wilson's examples of this desire are found only in the letters to Livy and Mary Fairbanks during an admittedly passionate phase of his life. Wilson shows how Twain's interest in conversion was undoubtedly profound: as Twain himself wrote in 1868:

Piety is the right performance of a common duty

as well as the experience of a special moral

emotion. I now perform all my duties as well as

I can but see what i lack!--I lack the chief

ingredient of piety for I lack (almost always)

the "special moral emotion"--that inner sense that

tells me what I do I am doing for love of the

Savior. (Wilson 168; 27 December 1868)

This letter not only invites comparison to Clemens "My Dear Bro" statement that "I lack the necessary prerequisite, i. e. religion," but it also seems an echo of the tale young Sam told his mother about rejecting God on the grounds that he could not do good except for selfish reasons. In several letters quoted by Wilson, Clemens could not accept Christianity for any reason beyond gaining the love of Livy and the hope of easing the pain of his mother's last years (169). In short, when Samuel Clemens most yearned to become a Christian, he was honest enough to realize that, intellectually if not spiritually, he could not be converted.

Unquestionably, this was an intense and powerful battle, but the outcome was that Mark Twain remained the "cradle skeptic" of his youth. It is often recounted that by 1876, Twain had destroyed Livy's Presbyterian faith. This claim is based on a quotation from Paine's Biography where, upon an occasion of heavy bereavement, Clemens asked his wife if she could not find any comfort in Christian faith. She responded, "I can't, Youth. I haven't any" (Paine 650). Twain told Paine that he felt a great sense of guilt at having been the instrument of creating Livy's skepticism, and would have changed that if he had had the chance (Paine Biography 653). It is worth noting, however, that Livy's religious doubts were manifested much earlier. Two years after their wedding in February 1870, Livy told minister Joseph Twitchell that she had fallen away from Christian faith too many times to go back again (Emerson "Quarrel" 38). (Note: Many members of Thomas K. Beecher's Park Church in Elmira were, as in the case of the Langdon family, Calvinist and fundamentalists in their beliefs but were not necessarily "Presbyterians" in their theology. Livy's faith may have been "Presbyterian" in Twain's generalized definition, but it is probably not a precise description of her personal theology (see Leah A. Strong's Joseph Hopkins Twichell: Mark Twain's Friend and Pastor [U of Georgia Press, 1966]). In short, Sam Clemens's pull against orthodoxy was stronger than Livy's pull toward it.

Wilson also sees what many other critics have observed, that Clemens was indeed quite interested in the ministry and in liberal ministers who expressed humanitarian concerns (156-57), an idea Stanley Brodwin augments by believing Twain saw his better self in ministers who took up the profession he couldn't and Orion wouldn't take up ("Theology" 224-6). Further, Wilson stresses the impact of ministers on Twain's esthetics sense, that there was "a call" of a higher order that Twain looked for in his own work, particularly to the beauty in the expression of ministers like Beecher, Twitchell, Burton, Bushnell and Parker (156-57).

Justin Kaplan also notes that Twain "could get along well enough with the professional clergy . . . He had in common with them an interest in oratory" (41). Maxwell Geismar also noted this point, saying Twain attended Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in New York "less for religious reasons than to observe the platform style of the famous minister" (9).

Kaplan notes the long friendship with Reverend Joseph Twitchell in Hartford as indicative of Twain's compatibility

with professional speakers; much of Twain's anger, says Kaplan, was directed at the mob-arousing amateurs such as the antics of the Duke at the camp meeting in Huckleberry Finn. Twain got along well with liberal preachers like Twichell and the Beecher brothers (Henry Ward and Thomas K., discussed below), but dogmatic believers became subjects for his ridicule.

This was one instance where Twain, influenced by the popular humor of the day, separated the sheep from the goats using the skeptical microscope of frontier humor. As Mark Sexton has shown, "folk" preachers, particularly those of the "funda-mentalist" stripe, were stock comic figures in American fiction.

Character stereotyping, exaggeration, use of

a trickster figure who is often the preacher

himself, and a predominantly [sic] ironic

narrative perspective [were part of the Old

Southwest humorists' tools to remove] social

and religious respectability. (1)

Sexton claims that Twain's attack on religious characters in Huckleberry Finn was in the Old Southwest tradition of Johnson Jones Hooper and George Washington Harris (i), a subject of considerable interest later in this study.

"Darkness at Morning: the Bitterness in Mark Twain's Early Novel Tom Sawyer," published by Joseph S. Feeney in 1978, must be discussed in tandem with Forrest G. Robinson's 1986 In Bad Faith: the Dynamics of Deception in Mark Twain's America. Feeney's study attempts to show that the bitterness and cynicism readers found in The Mysterious Stranger (1917), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), The Tragedy of Puddn'head Wilson (1894), and "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1900) can be seen in earlier books. He claims that readers see cynicism in the later books, "yet Twain's early, funny books--Innocents Abroad (1869) or The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876)--seemed unaffected by this shadow of cynicism" (Feeney 4). Robinson's discussion develops this point, focuses on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn showing "bad faith," a faith which includes self-deception which "functions as a bridge between codes and actual day-to-day behavior" (2). "Bad faith . . . may act to conceal problems of grave consequences," and we can see how this deception works, says Robinson, in Twain's most famous boy-books (2).

Feeney claims that in Tom Sawyer, "under its bright surface runs a current of dark bitterness, a bitterness often present in its most humorous moments" (4). This bitterness, Feeney says, is seen in Twain's portraying people as stupid; "stupidity prevails" (4). This unkind opinion is supported by citing passages from the novel, and Feeney focuses his discussion on one type of stupidity, religion. Religion is seen as another of man's mistakes, for religion is found ineffective in the scenes where everyone goes to the mandatory Sunday services but "people don't change" (5).

Robinson supports Feeney's ideas. "St. Petersburg society is a complex fabric of lies: of half-truths, of simulation, dissimulation, broken promises, exaggerations, and outright falsehoods" (26). The women "are easy marks" for quackery and "exotic religions" (26). Villagers are blind to their own hypocrisy (27), and Tom knows "his neighbors are perpetually deceived" (29). And "the villagers will swallow almost anything" including allowing Tom, whom they all know did not learn his Bible verses, to be ceremoniously decorated for his non-achievement (29). Social codes are linked to "shows," showing mastery in spelling or memorizing verses or sermons (20). This strain is too much for a public enthusiast who "vaingloriously spread himself before the congregation by reciting from memory 3,000 verses without stopping . . . Unfortunately the strain upon his metal faculties was too great. He was little better than an idiot from that date forth" (20). The search for public acclaim is inevitable in the church, "where rituals of devotion and edification readily give way to an orgy of showing off" (20-1).

Feeney goes further:

religion . . . is found ineffective, destroys

happiness and boyish joy, brings fear and

repression, and is the butt of jokes and

situation comedy. (5)

While this point may seem beyond the scope of this study--Tom Sawyer not appearing until 1876--there are points here that reflect on the biography of Sam Clemens's early years. The St. Petersburg setting, as well as Tom's actions, are certainly reflections of Twain's own memories and impressions of Hannibal. Tom learns to deceive the public: Mark Twain repeatedly creates characters who are capable of deceits in many ways on many levels. Tom's pranks would, in a sense, become Mark Twain's profession; both learned the meaning of gullibility as young children. (Chapter V examines how this view of man was demonstrated in the early writings.)

If Tom Sawyer is patterned on Hannibal, the following passage may be telling as it points to both gullibility and the power of oratory:

Our assessment of his style notwithstanding,

the Reverend Mr. Sprague was regarded as a

wonderful reader. At church "sociables" he

was always called upon to read poetry; and

when he was through, the ladies would lift up

their hands and let them fall helplessly in

their laps, and "wall" their eyes, and shake

their heads, as much as to say, "words cannot

express it; it is too beautiful. Too

beautiful for this mortal earth.

(Tom Sawyer 67)

Feeney would conclude that people fall for such sermons because he believes Twain portrays people as stupid, particularly churchgoers. Feeney demonstrates this delusion in a brief paragraph from Tom Sawyer about the funeral of Injun Joe which he believes shows Twain's attitude that religion is only delusion and hypocrisy.

After reading Feeney's roll call of bitter aspects in Tom Sawyer, a reader wonders why Twain's religious skepticism in this "book for boys" was not recognized earlier. Again, I refer to Fiedler's claim that Twain was subversive in presenting his religious skepticism. Perhaps Victor Doyno is right; the reader must be of a similar mind to see it. At any rate, Feeney's work helps establish the chain of critics who find skepticism in the early novels before the dark years.

Worthy of mention, finally, are Kenneth Anderson's "Mark Twain, W. D. Howells, and Henry James: Three Agnostics in Search of Salvation," and Pascal Covici's "Mark Twain and the Puritan Legacy." Covici believes we can see Twain's humor with "special clarity" if we examine "Puritan determinism, rather than God's chosen community and personal guilt" and, in particular, if we look at three of Twain's predecessors, Benjamin Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Nathanial Wade to see this pattern (3). His main point is:

Mark Twain, in the 1916 "Mysterious Stranger,"

presents a naturalistic analog to Calvinism.

Satan explicates a deterministic theory of human

behavior . . . The Puritan's theological strait-

jacket has been replaced by a naturalistic one

very like it. (12)

Simply stated, by looking to the past, Covici decides that Twain's later determinism--a debated point--grew naturally from Puritan seeds. William Anderson sees another angle, and shows in his article parallels in the main characters of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, A Hazard of New Fortunes, and the Ambassadors to demonstrate that the three authors--Twain, Howells, and James--could, as agnostics, try to find salvation only on earth rather than in an unlikely heaven.

Anderson defines an agnostic simply as someone who believes that one cannot verify the existence of God by genetic or sensory means (Anderson 13). After he asserts that the three novelists were agnostics, he writes that attainment of heaven was "at best dubious" but they believed "that the attainment of an earthly salvation was, however, within grasp and was, as it were, `the real thing'" (Anderson 13).

In his discussion of Hank Morgan, Anderson says that the character is not allowed to grow as an individual because of his stubborn belief in nineteenth-century ways of progress (14). Morgan does not strive for heaven: defies the medieval church which supported heredity and tries to make a heaven on earth. Morgan dies, but he is not worthy of salvation. "For Mark Twain, Morgan could have only attained earthly salvation through, with, and for society" (14).

What Anderson is implying, but does not explicitly state, is that agnostics not convinced of an afterlife with the creator must strive for perfection as simple, carnal men. This benevolent attitude, being part and parcel of Anderson's concept of an agnostic, is interesting. Whether Twain was an agnostic or not, he certainly is generally considered a humanitarian: the inscription on the monument of Twain that overlooks the Mississippi River near Hannibal, Missouri, reads "His Religion was Humanity." While some critics find Twain an atheist, an agnostic, or a deist, we all share the common belief that the man was very interested in the human race and did what he could to benefit it even his barbed attacks on human frailties. He supported Helen Keller, black law students, the Congo Reform Movement, and other philanthropic enterprises throughout his life, all interest begun in his formative years. It is one thing to point to his bitter last years and another to demonstrate his lifelong religious skepticism, but we must remember that his religious sense was only one aspect of the total man. None of us would stand on safe ground showing that one shadow--in this case religion--was so long and so great as completely dominate the life works and ideas of a man as complex and varied as Mark Twain.

There were occasions when to accept orthodoxy might have been socially, emotionally, and perhaps spiritually helpful to Samuel Clemens, but the integrity of his spirit precluded any such easy resolutions to his problems. Instead, he could not and did not accept dogmatic blinders on his world view but rather allowed himself to experience and write about a wide concentric circle of the world, a range possible only when a religion free of strictures is present. For Sam Clemens, these strictures were both created and assaulted in his formative years in Hannibal, Missouri.



One late February morning in 1867, according to Justin Kaplan in Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens and his friend Edward House paid a call on Captain Charles C. Duncan. Duncan had conceived the idea of a private party to tour Europe with the congregational backing of Henry Ward Beecher, a journey later to be the "Quaker City" excursion recounted in Innocents Abroad. Sam Clemens wanted to go on this cruise, and he had a plan.

Being somewhat drunk that morning, House and Clemens were in a "gay mood" (Kaplan 28). House approached Captain Duncan and announced, "Let me introduce the Reverend Mark Twain, a clergyman of some note, lately arrived from San Francisco" (28). Clemens then told Duncan of his missionary work in the Sandwich Islands, and he told Duncan his church wanted to send him on the upcoming excursion for his health. He had a question for Duncan: since Mr. Beecher was to be on board, would he allow Reverend Twain, a Baptist, to conduct services once in a while? Duncan assured Reverend Twain that this was certainly possible.

This anecdote clearly points to Twain's jocular irreverence on the eve of the "Quaker City"s sailing on June 8, 1867, the expedition that became the subject of The Innocents Abroad, the first major work by Twain universally accepted as irreverent, sacrilegious, and manifesting all of the moral indignation typical of Mark Twain. This chapter explores the family and community influences that helped shape the "Reverend Mark Twain," emphasizing the values taught by Sam's parents, John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens, and the institutions of school and church in Hannibal, Missouri. Further insights are revealed in the letters between Sam and his older brother, Orion, as well as correspondence between Sam and the women of his family.

Perhaps the best look at the relationship between John Marshall Clemens and his son is Keith Coplin's "John and Sam Clemens: A Father's Influence" (1970) which emphasizes the father as a central role model in Sam's formative years, particularly as a model of personal independence and unorthodox religious views that John Clemens passed on to his sons, Orion and Sam, influencing their lifelong thinking on a variety of levels. One often-noted example was John Clemens's well-known lack of business acumen, an attribute clearly passed on to both Orion and Sam. John Clemens's hope for a rich life was left to the family in the legacy of the Tennessee land, a major disappointment Sam used as material for his first novel, The Gilded Age, and this speculative bent was repeated by Mark Twain in a series of get-rich-schemes equally disappointing.

Sam's feelings about his father were probably more mixed and ambivalent, but it is equally clear their relationship was never warm but more a matter of respect for John Clemens's intellectual independence, especially in religion, for in later life Sam Clemens was to maintain a personal religious doctrine quite similar to that held by his father. According to Coplin:

He respected his father's impeccable integrity and

his authority, but at the same time he hated his

father's unyielding austerity. (2)

As John Q. Hays notes, Sam Clemens identified his father as a Calvinist-deity figure, "the image of this parochial Jehovah, the upright judge, the austere law-giver, the father who dealt strongly with his son but softly with his daughters" (Wecter 66, Rebellion 44). Further, John Hays believes Sam "never quite forgave his father for committing the cardinal sin of the Gilded Age by failing in business" (Rebellion 31).

Equally profound, Coplin says that one of the greatest influences on Sam's life was his father's death, for it was on that occasion that Sam had to go to work. "His father's death ended Sam's childhood, and I believe he never forgave his father for dying" (3). John Clemens's death on March 24, 1847 was certainly significant for the entire Clemens family, as he left them with financial troubles until Mark Twain's success decades later (Rasmussen 79). In an 1861 letter to Orion recounting the hits and misses of a New Orleans fortune teller, Sam admitted "And Pa's death in 47-8, as the turning point in my life, was very good" (Letters 111). It is interesting to note that later, Mark Twain would call his becoming a cub pilot "The Turning Point of My Life," not his father's passing, and the uncertainty in his letter about the year of his father's death may indicate some-thing of his distanced feelings for his father.

On a literary level, according to Coplin, John Clemens was a partial model for all of the fathers in Twain's fiction, seen either as ineffective failures or tyrannical, overpowering figures (3-5). This point is echoed in Leslie Fiedler's What Was Literature? As Fiedler puts it, "Fathers do not fare well in Twain" (240). As in the case of the Grangerfords in Huckleberry Finn, the "stark macho code" is not "nurture but death . . . kill or be killed" (240). Coplin agrees and says that in his fiction Twain struck back at his unemotional, unloving father by casting him either as Tom Canty or Pap Finn (3-4). Kent Rasmussen has a different view; he believes Mark Twain had an exaggerated notion of his father's legal power and cast him as Judge Thatcher in Tom Sawyer, "Judge Carpenter" in Villagers of 1840-3 and "Hellfire Hotchkiss," and Judge Driscoll in Pudd'nhead Wilson "who, like [John] Clemens, is fiercely proud of his Virginia ancestry" (79). Beyond the literary roles possibly based on Judge Clemens, his stamp is clearly reflected in the religious attitudes of Twain's lifelong philosophy. As John Frederick puts it, "this unloved but deeply respected parent was a free-thinker, a representative of a restricted but important minority in the religious pattern of frontier towns" which clearly helped shape Mark Twain's religious sense (128). This free-thinking of John Clemens, according to John Hays, was based on a Kentuckian-pioneer spirit "under the shadow of the Enlightenment . . . of the Jefferson type" (Rebellion 32). While "free thinkers," properly speaking, were members of the "Free Thought Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century, the tradition of Jefferson and the Enlightenment included men with the independent ben of John Marshall Clemens. According to Sidney Warren, free thinkers were "usually characterized by the application of reason and scientific principles to natural law and human existence," rejecting the idea of divine intervention (32). Coplin's description of Judge Clemens includes precisely these notions, including his probable doubting of the divinity of Christ, "a frontier echo of Unitarianism" (128). Not that these principles diluted the senior Clemens's moral base: Hays adds that John Marshall Clemens's Puritan sense of morality led him to strip himself of all possessions to repay his creditors when bankruptcy struck--an act clearly foreshadowing his son's later response to his own loss of solvency (Rebellion 32). It is also possible, as Everett Emerson believes, that the father's "influence on his son was to suggest that religion is a woman's concern," a subject analyzed further in this chapter ("Quarrel" 32).

Sam's own recollections regarding his father's religious sense are recorded in Following the Equator:

[My father] attended no church, and never spoke

of religious matters, and had no part or lot in

the pious joys of his Presbyterian family, nor

ever seemed to suffer from this deprivation.

(Equator 18)

Sam Clemens would differ from his father in three important ways. (1) He certainly did, at times, suffer from the loss of faith. (2) But Twain never ceased speaking about religion, however, unlike his grim father, which, in a sense, defused some of the cold Puritanical grip that silent Calvinism had put on John Clemens. Mark Twain, by constantly examining religion, was at least able to distance himself from the fire-and-brimstone by treating it with irreverence and jocular ire. And (3) it is clear that Twain and Livy's views if not practice of family life were much warmer than in Sam's Hannibal home. Mark Twain clearly participated in his family's "pious joys": John Clemens's influence was strong, but Sam freed himself of some of his father's weakness.

Yet, as Allison Ensor notes, John Clemens's irreligious feelings helped contribute to "the intensity of his son's religious doubts," (13), an intensity beyond indifference.

But Sam also learned that a man could be moral and upright without the dictates of formal religion (Coplin 6). Moreover, John Clemens showed that a man could be seen as moral while keeping his religious heresy to himself. John Clemens's "subversive" skepticism, as Fiedler would put it, demonstrated that overt anti-religious sentiment may result in a uncomfortable distancing from the family, a situation Twain would have dreaded. Quoting Twain, Vic Doyno notes, "Judge Driscoll could be a free-thinker and still hold his place in society," unlike Mark Twain dependent on his writing income (290).

Share with your friends:
1   2   3   4   5   6   7   8

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page