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

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


Clara Clemens noted in her book My Father, Mark Twain, that her father and aunt, Susan Langdon Crane (or "Saint Sue," as Twain called her), loved to argue during morning walks when the Clemens family visited the Cranes in Elmira, New York. Clara wrote:

Father often joined my aunt in her morning

walk by the flowers, and I am certain now that

the subject of their talks was frequently the

undying topic of religion. My aunt lived by her

strong faith in God and all His acts. Father

loved to fight her on this subject, and she was

big enough to be greatly amused by his original

way of putting his questions and objections,

instead of resenting his attitude. (Elmira 47)

Mark Twain was fortunate to have such an understanding sister-in-law; Susan Crane built him his favorite octagonal study for writing in spite of his poking "attacks with more and more vehemence" (Elmira 47). Such a relationship mirrored that of young Sam Clemens with his mother and sister in the early years. Some critics have claimed that Twain was a "good bad boy"--Leslie Fiedler's term--meaning that Twain's nature led him to flee the repressive Calvinism of his youth. As Fiedler and Trygve Thoreson have noted, the theme of escape from female-dominated society is apparent in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the theme of expressing a strong desire to avoid being reformed (Fiedler Love and Death 270, Thoreson 17). One view on this issue is:

The image of woman as civilizer and man the

untamed rough remains undeniably a part of

our natural mythos . . . Mark Twain's Aunt

Polly has long been associated with this

civilizing role. (Thoreson 17)

But there is more to the "myth" than this cultural generalization.

While Aunt Polly has always been associated with her real-life model, Jane Lampton Clemens, Jane Clemens was not as "repressed or repressive" (Frederick 129) as sometimes portrayed or perceived by earlier critics who look too closely at Twain's fiction for biographical revelations. There are as many contrasts as comparisons between the real and fictional woman. As Thoreson says, women served as social enforcers in Twain's fiction. Aunt Polly is an archetype. "She is a representative of the community and all that it involves: communal hypocrisies, vanities, prejudices, customs, values, and dreams" (17). Her job is to tame "her bad boy" into an acceptable initiation into society. "Aunt Polly relies on her Christian teachings and her sense of duty for guidance' (Thoreson 18-19). This "sense of guidance" was to curtail Tom's youthful high jinks, and punishment was the tool to solve moral problems (18-19).

As Thompson implies, Tom's role sound suspiciously autobio-graphical, as in the aftermath to the funeral scene. "Tom can recall with pride the duping of Polly, Mary, and Sid as `a good joke' and `very ingenious'" (21-22). Tom has a regret about the pain he puts Aunt Polly through, "but his regret quickly passes" (22). This love of duping, no doubt, translated into Twain's own love of duping his readers, a desire based on his inclination to have "a good joke" at society's expense. Institutions are never sacrosanct, including the reforming role of women. Indeed it seems likely that, like Tom, his first pranks would have involved rebelling against his mother.

Even so, Jane Clemens was more a strict Calvinist in the mind of a young rebel than in fact. Twain's view, of course, is not one-sided. For example, the mother figure is split into two characters in Huckleberry Finn,

the kind and loving Widow Douglas and the

single-mindedly punitive Miss Watson [who

are] the two roles of maternal guidance

[with] communally and Biblically inspired

rod wielding. (Thompson 23)

And Jane Clemens is as much the Widow Douglas as either Aunt Polly or Miss Watson. For example, John Frederick corrects Van Wyck Brooks's idea that Jane Clemens was a cold, Calvinistic disciplinarian (Frederick 125-27). There was more depth to the real woman than granted by Brooks or Fiedler; still, their seminal ideas do merit our consideration because Twain did indeed have a dual vision of women, and there can be little doubt that Twain's mother had a strong influence on his religious, moral, and philosophical thinking. It is true that Jane Clemens later confided, "Religion is a jugful; I hold a dipper," and that she lost any convictions she had held about Presbyterianism in her later years. As a mother and authority figure, it is equally clear that she was a strong influence on her son's religious, social, and moral senses. (See Alexander E. Jones, "Heterodox Thought in Mark Twain' Hannibal," for a fuller discussion of Jane Clemens's later views.)

Jane Lampton Clemens, as has often been noted, was her husband's opposite in virtually every way. Where he was stern, she was vivacious; where he was aloof, she like to dance and be involved with people. Her granddaughter, who lived with Jane for twenty-five years in St. Louis, noted:

She loved every kind of excitement . . .

I have known her to dance when she was seventy-

five . . . Grandma's room was always a riot of

red; carpets, chairs, ornaments were always

red . . . she was modern in her ideas and

insisted on wearing her skirts shorter than

what was conventional. (Webster 40)

Jane Clemens changed her "religion" by switching from the Presbyterian to Methodist denominations after moving to Hannibal, and this was for purely social reasons. She simply chose the congregation she felt most at home in. However, both these churches were steeped in the Calvinist doctrines of the Elect and predestination, and her son would come to see all Christianity as Calvinist, a doctrine he would attack all his life (see "Calvinism" entry in the Mark Twain Encyclopedia).

All her children and most of the Hannibal community had a high regard for Mrs. Clemens, and it is clear that her children would confide in her rather than in her husband. One of these first confidences was on Sam's lack of faith. As Twain remembered the incident in his Autobiography, he was in his earliest school years. One of his school teachers had taught him about prayer, and the youngster put this process to work in an attempt to acquire some coveted gingerbread. He wrote in 1906:

. . . but this dream was like almost all the other

dreams we indulge in this life, there was nothing

in it [prayer]. I did as much praying in the next

two or three days as anyone in that town, I

suppose, and I was very sincere and earnest about

it too, but nothing came of it. (Autobiography


This scene was a harbinger of things to come. The failure of prayer was echoed both in Sam's letter regarding his brother Henry's death and in his love letters to Livy. In this first instance, Sam concluded that "if a person remains faithful to his gingerbread and keeps his eye on it he need not trouble himself about your prayers" (35). He then told his mother that he had "ceased to be a Christian," and when she asked why, he told her he had been a Christian "for revenue only and I could not bear the thought of that, it was so ignoble" (35).

It would be easy to dismiss this remembrance of an atheistic epiphany if it were not for the fact that Twain himself noted elsewhere the seriousness of the occasion:

Why should one laugh at my praying for ginger-

bread when I was a Child? What would a child

naturally pray for?--and a child who had been

lied to by preachers and teachers and a lying

Bible-text? My prayer failed. It was 65

years ago. I remember the shock yet. I was

astonished as if I had caught my own mother

breaking a promise to me. Was the doubt planted

then, which in fifty years grew to a certainty"

that the X and all other religions are lies and

swindles. (Cummings 19)

Twain clearly felt that events of very young children have profound effects on the later mature persons. The gingerbread event must have been profound to be recorded twice in his later dictations and was clearly a precursor to Tom Sawyer's similar conclusions in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Thus we cannot take his confessions lightly, even if we cannot answer his question about when the doubt was planted.

Another incident involving Jane Clemens, remembered by her son in his Autobiography, may shed some light on Sam's preoccupation with a more humane view of Satan, and certainly helps illustrate Jane Clemens's humanitarian bent. Letters from the Earth (1962) was Twain's attempt to rehabilitate Satan, an idea he had long held in his imagination. (Joan of Arc too "defends the devil" at her Inquisition in Twain's novel. See Spengemann 116).

Perhaps this idea was born when friends and neighbors of the Clemenses, knowing Mrs. Clemens's sympathy for the underdog, set her up to see if she would defend the ultimate underdog, Satan. The conspirators gathered together, and one by one, damned Satan more and more ferociously. "Sure enough," Twain recalled, "the unsuspecting victim of the trick walked into the trap (Autobiography 28). Mrs. Clemens built a case that Satan was a sinner, yes, but had he been treated fairly? All men are sinners, she said, and all deserving of forgiveness. No one, she asserted in her son's words, is saved by his own efforts, and we all depend on each other's prayers. "Who prays for Satan?" she asked. "Who in eighteen centuries has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner who needed it most?" (28).

This pitying and gentle "friend of Satan" was clearly a strong influence on her son and certainly on her daughter

Pamela and daughter-in-law Mollie, Orion's wife. It was to her and the younger Clemens women that most of Sam's lifelong correspondence was directed. Yet, as the years passed, Sam would not write to the women of his family about his religious feelings because he did not share their fundamental beliefs and did not want their approbation. Or he would do so only briefly and teasingly.

In a letter to Jane Clemens dated October 1861, Sam answered her questions about his behavior in Nevada. "`Do I go to church?' Answer: `Scasly' [sic]" (Letters 138). While it is true that Jane Clemens was not the fire-and brimstone ironclad character of Aunt Polly, it is also true that she did have clear notions about how far to go with religious heresy. As Minnie Brashear notes in her Mark Twain: Son of Missouri, Jane strongly objected to the views of her brother-in-law, John Quarles, who was a Universalist (54). A Universalist denied the Calvinistic doctrine of the Elect and believed that all men were automatically saved. Even the open-minded "friend of Satan" could not go that far, at least in the years her children were growing up. Brashear surmises that Jane warned her children about Quarles's views but that he, unlike the stern John Clemens, was much loved by his nieces and nephews (54).

Sam would certainly expect similar approbation regarding his own unorthodox beliefs and opinions. Four letters written home during Sam's riverboat and western years chronicle this relationship and shed light on his religious bent during this period.

The first letter, written to Mollie Clemens on June 18, 1858, must be dealt with carefully. It is one of the most painful letters Sam ever wrote, telling his family the tragic circumstances of Henry Clemens's death as a result of a boiler explosion on the steam packet, the Pennsylvania. Sam was present when his younger brother died of the burns received when the Pennsylvania burst into flames, and he long believed that the aid he gave Henry hastened the boy's death. One important line from the letter bears our perusal here. Sam wrote:

O God! this is hard to bear. Hardened, hopeless,--

aye, lost--lost--lost and ruined sinner as I am--

even I, have humbled myself to the ground and

prayed as never a man prayed before that the

great God might let this cup pass from me.

(Letters 80-81)

The question raised here is what did Clemens mean when he wrote "even I humbled myself" referring either to pride or to his lack of faith, or perhaps a combination of both. John Q. Hays believes the letter was:

quite literary and the emotion a little strained

. . . the emotion rings somewhat hollow because

Clemens's faith has been damaged by a reading of

Paine . . . Clemens is striving for a consolation

he needs from a source in which he does not

believe. (Religion 21-2)

As noted earlier, Clemens' feeling of guilt after this incident were more serious than Hays alludes. Clemens's family certainly knew of his attitudes towards religion and "I even I" indicates that fact. It is the only letter to his family that deals with prayer in a serious way, and no one need doubt his heartfelt reactions to this tragedy. This letter suggests that in 1858, Sam Clemens was a religious skeptic and that only under unusual circumstances was this matter brought before the women of his family. (One study also concludes that the event of Henry's death and its psychological aftermath led to Twain's use of dreams and death in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court See Allmendinger 13-24).

It is also useful to suggest that the feelings expressed in this letter may have led to Sam's declaration in 1869 that his favorite hymn was "Even Me," a three-verse plea to the trinity asking for forgiveness for a sinner. As Allison Ensor notes, Twain claimed "Even Me" was his favorite hymn when he was courting Livy, and "If ever there was a period of piety in Clemens's life, this was it, as is manifested by any number of letters he wrote to her and others during this time" (21-22). It is interesting to see that the correlation between the words of the letter and those of the hymn were close to Sam's heart at times of his closest affinity with Christian comfort.

Sam rarely wrote of religion in letters home in such a conciliatory way. The Clemens women's tendency to "nettle" Sam if he wrote offensive material led to uncomfortable circum-stances. "Ma and Pamela seem to be down on my last to the Gate City," was one rueful comment Sam wrote in 1862 to Orion after one of his irreligious letters was printed in Keokuk (Letters 201). (This letter is discussed in detail in Chapter V). Two months later, Sam had still not written home after the outcry. "I half intended writing east to-night, but I hardly think I will. Tell Mollie I shall not offend again" (221). Sam finally wrote east in August, five months after the offence, but once again had to get a dig in.

We didn't luxuriate then . . . we said wise

and severe things about the vanity and

wickedness of high living. We preached our

doctrine and practiced it. Which of course

I respectfully recommend to the clergyman of

St. Louis. (237)

As time went by, relationships became easier as the Clemens's women too began to lose their unflinching conservatism. His sister Pamela--to whom Sam wrote in 1859 about Catholic gluttony in pre-feasting for Mardi Gras--would also have her religious problems in later years (87). Samuel Webster noted:

As I remember my grandmother . . . it seems to

me that she was always searching for absolute

truth . . . in religion Pamela never did seem

to reach a satisfactory goal. (226)

And this dissatisfaction was mirrored in the lives of her siblings, and if one brother, like her, would never reach a satisfactory goal, it would be Sam's older if not wiser brother, Orion Clemens.
Sam Clemens wrote several letters to his brother Orion regarding his antipathy towards religion, including the often quoted "My Dear Bro" letter in which he stated that he could not be a minister because he "lacked the necessary stock in trade: i.e. religion." In an earlier letter to Orion in March 1861, Sam wrote, "What a man wants with religion in these breadless times surpasses my comprehension" (Paine, Letters 1: 45); Branch, Letters 117). And, on March 23, 1878, Twain wrote the following advice to his brother:

And mind you, in my opinion you will find that

you can't write on hell so it will stand printing.

Neither Howells nor I believe in hell or divinity

of the Savior, but no matter, the Savior is none

the less a sacred Personage, and a man should have

no desire or disposition to refer to him lightly,

profanely or other wise than with the profoundest

reverence. (Selected Letters 103)

This passage is important because it states Mark Twain's lack of faith simply and then shows his awareness of what his reading audience expects. This "frank admission" seems contradictory to "religious convention" but "it was one thing to disbelieve, but another to attack the character of Jesus," and Twain had a clear purpose in making this point (Brodwin "Theology" 228). This letter was in response to one of Orion's abortive attempts at fiction, and the letter was intended to give Orion useful editorial advice. Twain is clearly advising his brother against mocking hell, not for religious reasons, but for commercial realities. Again, Twain was a man who knew his audience and would be subversive rather than overt in his published work. These three letters together are a plain statement of atheism, statements he could write to no one else in his family but Orion.

It was only to Orion that Sam could write about religion without expecting a female outcry because Orion himself had no strong religious feelings. He changed denominations frequently enough to amuse his brother, resulting in the 1877 "Autobiography of a Damned Fool" fragment and the other denomination-hopping satirical fragments Twain wrote based on Orion over several decades. (See Mark Twain's Satires and Burlesques where these fragments are collected.)

As companions in Nevada during Orion's career as state secretary, the Clemens brothers attended the same church, the newly established First Presbyterian Church of Carson City. Orion joined the church in 1862; Sam did not. Explaining this decision in a March, 1862 letter to William Claggert, Sam described a sermon by Rev. A. F. White--the preacher who inspired the comic controversy in Chapter 25 of Roughing It (Letters 174):

SUNDAY.--I intended to finish this letter to-day

but I went to church--busted! For a man who

can listen to an hour to Mr. White, the whining,

nasal, Whangdoodle preacher, and then sit down and

write, without shedding melancholy from his pen as

water slides from a duck's back, is more than

mortal. Or less. I fear I shall not feel

cheerful until the beans I had for dinner begin

to operate. (Letters 171)

But Orion, probably for political reasons--along with the fact that his wife and daughter Jennie were with him--continued regular church service of one kind or another for a decade. But he was Sam's accomplice in keeping some of the Enterprise sketches out of the disparaging eyes of the Clemens women. After the fracas over the Gate City letter, Sam wrote to Orion in May 1862 regarding his letters to the Enterprise, "I hope Barstow will leave the `S.L.C.' off the Gate City letters in case he publishes them. Put my Enterprise letters in the scrapbook-but send no extracts for them EAST" (Letters 214). As Edgar Branch notes, avoiding "nettling" from Jane and Pamela was the probable reason for this request (Letters 215).

But Orion too had trouble with denominational orthodoxy, and in 1876 he decided to go public with his views and gave speeches on "Man: the Architect of Our religion" that resulted in his excommunication from the Presbyterian church (Lorch 372-80). By going public, he upset Jane and Pamela and wrote to Pamela on August 10, 1876:

It grieves me to see you and Mollie so distressed

over a matter of opinion . . . But if I profess to

believe certain facts to have taken place when I

do not believe it--this is religious hypocrisy.

(Lorch 173)

This letter, written from Keokuk, shows that, unlike his younger brother, Orion took steps to make his religious skepticism public, even at the expense of a family outcry. Sam would not do this openly--hence the religious subversion we have already noted. Orion could, in a sense, be more open than his brother because Twain depended on a wide audience for his income. Orion, although the older of the two, did not have the political "savvy" or sense of diplomacy Twain used so well throughout his adult life, and was invariably scolded by Sam for his actions. Still, the two brothers were more alike than Sam would like to have admitted. Both clearly reflected their parents: while they shared their father's denials of Protestant Christianity, they also practiced his Calvinist morality. Orion followed his mother's path from simple Presbyterianism to ultimate disbelief; Sam, the more rebellious, followed this path much sooner.

The Clemens family, of course, were each affected by the others and, logically enough, the family unit was shaped by the institutions of the community. To put these matters in a larger perspective, it is appropriate at this point to see How Hannibal's institutions helped push Sam and Orion from more traditional heterodoxy into full-blown disbelief.


The Clemens family was fully integrated into the stream of Hannibal society, and young Sam was as influenced by his home town as he was by his family and its role in the river town. As Twain put it, "all that goes to make the me in me was in a Missouri village" (Equator 18). Bernard DeVoto wrote that "Hannibal is the most important single fact in the life of Samuel Clemens the man or Mark Twain the writer" (Portable 6). These claims are irrefutable; it is our purpose here to examine why this is so as it applies to Twain's religious sense.

According to John Lauber in The Making of Mark Twain (and many other critics and biographers), one of the most important influences on Sam Clemens was the institution of the Presbyterian church, the same Christian denomination that later excommunicated his brother (21-3). "In Hannibal, revivalism was strong, and there was a good deal of spiritualism as well" (Emerson Authentic 3). One notable example was the Campbellite revival about which Twain recalled "All converted but me . . . All sinners again in a week" ( qtd. in Emerson "Quarrel" 33). As Henry Nash Smith put it, Clemens "never entirely rid himself of his deference for fundamentalist Protestant culture of Hannibal, Missouri" ("How True the Dream?" 8).

Other critics see a less profound impact of the church on young Sam. John T. Frederick says in The Darkened Sky that the burlesques of sermons in Twain's autobiographical writings, most notably Tom Sawyer, were only of a light vein. "So far as the published writings show," says Frederick, "Twain's only clear recollections of church services in his boyhood were farcically humorous" (125). One example of such good-natured humor, as noted by Emerson, was when young Sam collected blue tickets every Sunday in order to own a religious book. To earn the tickets, Sam recited the same five Bible verses about "five foolish virgins" repeatedly over several months without the teacher's notice, a trick inspiring a similar incident in Tom Sawyer ("Quarrel" 32).

But Frederick's view ignores much evidence showing how deeply the "limitless fire and brimstone" sermons of Tom Sawyer and Hannibal influenced young Sam Clemens. John Hays, for example, recalled that "Howells once wrote that young Clemens, like Tom Sawyer, was `bred to fear God and dread the Sunday school'--language which Mark Twain admitted `exactly describes that old feeling I used to have but I couldn't have formulated it" (Hays 30, My Mark Twain 125).

The church, along with the school, was seen by the young boys of Hannibal, including the rebellious Sam Clemens, to be cultural institutions that fostered fear and guilt (Lauber 24). In April 1869, Twain praised the new and unorthodox Thomas K. Beecher "Park Church" in Elmira because "The idea is to make a child look upon the church as only another home, and a sunny one, rather than as a dismal exile or prison" (Elmira 125). Twain approved of Park Church because this "sunny" environment had not been his youthful experience in Hannibal, where Clemens learned to forever associate Christians as unyielding fundamentalists (Emerson "Quarrel" 33). What the Beechers offered was an emphasis on the "fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man" (Emerson 36). For young Sam Clemens, religious services were a literal punishment:

Besides the weekly ritual of family worship,

Sunday School, and sermon, with an evening

service occasionally added as punishment for

any extraordinary crime that Sam might have

committed, there was the frenzy of the camp

meetings . . . and of the periodic revivals

in town. (Lauber 23)

This was no "sunny home" for children. An 1853 letter from Clemens in Philadelphia to Orion records his "squint at" the "`House of Refuge' . . . which we used to read about in Sunday School" (Letters 22). The House of Refuge was a reform school for white juveniles, undoubtably used in "Sunday School literature" as a threat to wayward Hannibal youths (Branch, Letters 27). The Sunday School books were later mocked by Twain not only for their superficial morality, but because they were part of the Presbyterian conscience, a faith that ruled by fear and guilt, at least in Twain's opinion.

This point on religion as punishment bears special emphasis. As the late, eminent John Tuckey noted in his introduction to The Devil's Race Track: Mark Twain's Great Dark Writings (1966), the hellish Devil's Race Track was "an immense circular region" (xii). He also wrote:

Once caught in its maelstrom forces there is

no escape, only the possibility of further

entrapment into the `Everlasting Sunday,' an

area of eternal and deathly stillness that lies

at the center of the region in the storm belt.

It is a Sargosso of the Antarctic, a graveyard

for derelicts. (xii)

The errant sea captain in "The Passenger's Story," "The Enchanted Sea-Wilderness," and "Which was the Dream?" (composed in 1895-96) is punished for his treacherous burning of a dog, a dog that had saved human lives, by being becalmed in the "Everlasting Sunday" (xi-xii).

It is interesting to note this image because, as Tuckey points out, the sea captain was psychologically Twain's alter ego. Tuckey believes the fragments represent Twain punishing himself for leaving his daughter Suzy alone to die in the Hartford house. Tuckey cites the captain saying the dog was as cumbersome as children, eating as much as children; the dog is burned alive as Suzy was, in fevered deliriums of meningitis (xi-xii). If we combine the biographical awareness of Lauber's "literal punishment" idea with Tuckey's psychological "literary punishment" in these fragments, the "Everlasting Sunday" is another instance in which youthful fears became old age fiction in the life of Mark Twain. Sundays composed of Sunday school and church were hell for Sam Clemens on several levels.

Further, it is possible that this image was reinforced during Clemens's Philadelphia printshop months in 1853 where he worked long and late hours every Sunday, the shops biggest day. "Sunday is a long day . . . I only set 10,000 [ems] yesterday. However, I will shake this laziness off soon" (Letters 29). While this is only a passing conjecture, it may contain insights into the enigmatic late life fragments and further demonstrate that the core of Twain's literature, even in the hallucinogenic later fragments, can be traced to the early years.

School, in Hannibal, was as moralistic as church, and young Sam hated it as much as anything else. These two main cultural institutions, writes Lauber, were remembered by Mark Twain in his boys' books Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, as twin vessels of fear and guilt, teaching Sam Clemens the Calvinistic doctrine of the natural depravity of man, a doctrine he would restate later in another guise (23). But, as the Puritan influences on Clemens is addressed elsewhere, here we simply need to state that family, church and school were three major cultural influences on any American in the nineteenth century. All three parts of this triangle worked cooperatively, one reinforcing the other.

This point needs some emphasis because the power of words Sam Clemens knew so well was the same medium by which he learned Christian morality and dogma, one reason, perhaps, he had little reverence for the printed word in the early carefree frontier journalism before his mature, more polished works were crafted. Writing can be seen as part of his rebellion against his early reading, especially writing direct and "subversive" attacks on Sunday School literature and didactic school texts. And one of the reasons Sam quickly became aware of the thin substance of religious teachings was the difference in what was printed and what he actually observed in Hannibal.

Hannibal, Lauber notes, had its share of violence and death, even if it was a relatively peaceful town. Most people died at home, without benefit of drugs, and were usually conscious to the end (27). Besides the deaths of John and Henry Clemens, Sam witnessed the deaths of the nine-year-old Margaret Clemens, who died of fever just before the move to Hannibal, and the death of ten-year-old Benjamin Clemens, who died in 1847, five years before his father. Death was a fact that Sam grew up with; critics who point to the deaths of Clemens's daughters and wife as being influences on his distaste for religion need to remember the events of the early years. These years taught Sam that death made no distinction between "Good" and "Bad Little Boys."

Sam witnessed the violence of death, notes Lauber, who recounts the incident of the corpse that frightened Sam in the backroom of his father's law office and Sam's witnessing his father's autopsy. Sam witnessed the murder of Sam Smarr by townsman William Owsley, which became the basis for the murder of Boggs in Huckleberry Finn. Lauber notes:

Sam Clemens saw "the grotesque final scenes--the

great family Bible spread open on the profane old

man's chest." In his nightmares he himself

"gasped and struggled" for breath under the crush

of that vast book for many a year. (Lauber 27)

The symbolism of this event is apparent, and it seems clear that Twain saw it also. The weight of that Bible was more than a physical choker; it became a symbol of religious oppression to a mind rebellious by nature. This has been noted by many critics before--including Holland and Cross--and I need not belabor the point here.

The fear of poverty--a constant threat to the Clemenses--never left Sam Clemens, and it was another strong influence on his thinking from his youth. He learned not to hope for wealth that was not earned by hard work, as in the example of the Tennessee land. He sometimes forgot this lesson, as in the late life failures of the Library of Humor and the Paige typesetting machine. Again, these notions are not new but bear repeating to underline the point that most late-life nightmares in the "dark years" can be traced to the formative era.

After the death of his father, Sam was apprenticed to Joseph Ament, publisher of the weekly Hannibal Courier . Sam had hated school, and after his father's death he had told his mother he could promise her anything except to go back to the punishment of school (Lauber 32). While the printshop was an escape from one type of tedium, the printshop would offer him both a new freedom and new burden.

But the printshop also offered Sam a new voice to express his beliefs. One early mentor was Sam's friend and colleague, the bulky Wales R. McCormick who, according to Lauber, became the character of Daogivadam in one of Twain's last fragments. ("I don't give a damn," was apparently McCormick's favorite exclamation, Lauber 35). Sam admired McCormick's "limitless and adorable irreverence," a quality, Lauber believes, was a harbinger of the spirit of The Innocents Abroad (35). Twain recounted one incident about McCormick in an autobiographical dictation on March 29, 1906 first published in A. B. Paine's edition of the Autobiography (Volume 2: 275 291). According to Twain, McCormick, trying to save space in a Courier issue, took a visiting preacher's notice and condensed the "Jesus Christ" to the initials "J. C." The preacher, in Twain's memory the Reverend Alexander Campbell, objected to this, and informed McCormick he expected the savior's name to be printed in full. McCormick took heed; the next notice was published with the savior's name in full in every instance--"Jesus H. Christ" (Neider, Autobiography 96-99). This oft-mentioned incident was the sort of irreverence young Sam enjoyed and quickly emulated as in the prank he pulled with childhood friend, Will Bowen. About the same time Clemens' composed "Villagers," he recounted Bowen and his placing of a deck of cards in Baptist minister Barton Warren Stone's ministerial robes. When Stone performed baptism in the river, the cards floated to the surface, causing him considerable embarrassment (Indians 280). As with the McCormick adventure, young Sam saw preachers as targets of youthful irreverence as might be expected of a boy with his iconoclastic temperament.

It must be noted that recent scholarship claims Clemens's accounts of the McCormick incident were in error because of the references to Alexander Campbell, the founder of the "Campbellite" sect. Campbell's only recorded visits to Hannibal occurred in 1845 and 1852, neither year coinciding with Clemens's memory of when the incident occurred. Yet, the story about McCormick was repeated in Twain's notebooks and autobiographical dictations, and with great consistency attributed the irreverent substitutions in Ament's job office to McCormick, even as he uniformly assigned the role of horrified minister to Campbell. Clemens's versions of the incident vary, but the frequency of his telling the story lends considerable credence to it being based on fact.

One such version occurs in the notebooks written sometime in August 1887:

Rev. Alex Campbell, founder of the Campbellites, gently

reproved our apprentice, Wales McCormick, on separate

occasions, for saying Great God! when Great Scott would

have done as well, & for committing the Unforgiven Sin

when any other form of expression would have been a

million times better. Weeks afterward, that

inveterate light head had his turn, & corrected the

Reverend. In correcting the pamphlet proof of one of

Campbell's great sermons, Wales changed `Great God!'

to `Great Scott,' & changed Father, Son & Holy Ghost

to Father, Son & Caesar's Ghost. In overrunning,

he reduced it to Father, Son & Co., to keep from

overrunning. And Jesus H. Christ. (Notebooks & Journals

3: 305)

Among the evidence supporting Clemens's memory includes a listing in "Villagers, 1840 3" where Clemens listed Wales McCormick among those he remembered from Hannibal, identifying him solely by writing "J  s H. C." after his name (Indians 98). In late October 1878, while in Italy, Clemens observed to himself in his notebook: "It is like old times to look in the local Italian guide books & find the Savior naively referred to as `J. C.'" (Notebooks & Journals 2:233). Clearly, the initials reminded him of some real event in the "old times." Another example was recounted in 1898 when Twain wrote:

Wales inserted five names between the Savior's first &

last names  said he reckoned Rev. Campbell will be

satisfied now. Took trouble `run over' to get this joke

in. (SLC 1898. Autobiographical notes. MS of seven

pages beginning "Talk about going...," CU MARK. pg.


Whether Twain's naming of the minister in question is correct or not, his memory clearly points to his enjoying irreverence in his Hannibal youth, finding the divinity of Christian icons more suitable for the humor he would develop throughout his career. It was also at this time that he first picked up a short biography of Joan of Arc. Twain told Paine that this was the occasion that set in motion his fascination with that character which resulted in his writing The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc fifty years later. This is yet another well-known indication that shows Twain's later writings were based on experiences from his earliest years, and that his memories expressed in his autobiographical dictations are more reliable than some would like. It was a heady, active time in a young man's life when his first inclinations towards writing took form. The initials "S. L. C." began to appear on the printed page for the first time, and these early writings belong in Chapter V's analysis of the first expressions of skepticism and disbelief.



As discussed in Chapter II, critics have proposed various formulas of influence on Sam Clemens, all of which take into account, more or less, the experiences of Hannibal and the attitudes of Clemens family members. The ideas of "MacFarlane" and Thomas Paine are other influences often repeated in these formulas, and a full discussion of the impact of these men on Mark Twain is worthy of some space here. Attention is especially appropriate to "MacFarlane" as recent critics have completely disavowed the importance of Clemens's Cincinnati friend and claim Twain's account of their meeting was fiction and not auto-biography. And, while the works of Thomas Paine have long been acknowledged as seminal influences on Twain's religious and political views, no one to date has fully explored the life-long literary relationship between Twain and Paine. The first two sections of this chapter are re-examinations of how the ideas of these men were reflected in the philosophical and political attitudes and writings of Mark Twain, demonstrating that their notions helped shape a young mind eager to accept their iconoclastic and irreverent concepts.

Twain's iconoclasm and irreverence is also tied to the influence of Artemus Ward and the literary comedians. The

comic tradition of Josh Billings, Orpheus C. Kerr and other American humorists also certainly contributed to Twain's religious and social ideas. This chapter demonstrates how Twain's Literary apprenticeship in the genre of the literary comedians not only helped develop his literary toolbox, but how this school augmented, supported, and fostered his frontier irreverence and skepticism.

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

The database is protected by copyright © 2020
send message

    Main page