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


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There is no need here to marshal evidence proving the importance of Artemus Ward and the literary comedians on Mark Twain's career. David E. E. Sloane's Mark Twain as a Literary Comedian (1979), among other studies, has conclusively noted Twain's place in this literary tradition. But it is worth demonstrating here the importance of this school of humor on Twain's view of skepticism, politics, and irreverence for all institutions in his fiction. The literary comedians--satirists, burlesques, exaggerators, tall tale tellers--were almost defined by their continual social commentary, and religion was no rare target. Henry Nash Smith observed that "The humorists, of course, were justly accused of irreverence; and it was generally recognized that the contrast of rhetorical styles embodied a basic conflict of values," that is, the conflict between conservative, traditional Christianity and the "cheerful vagueness of a Protestant liberalism" (Smith, "How True are Dreams?").

In religion, as in other matters, "Mark Twain borrowed freely from the tradition of literary comedy" (Sloane 97). Mark Twain was a product of The American comic tradition. His first published sketch, "The Dandy Frightening the Squatter," appeared in the May 1, 1852, Carpet-Bag, a Boston based magazine for American humorists. The Carpet-Bag's publisher, B. P. Shillaber, was creator of Mrs. Partington, a partial model for the later Aunt Polly in Tom Sawyer (Emerson Authentic 3). And this tradition was one that went beyond merely telling entertaining jokes.

For example, David E. E. Sloane notes that Orpheus C. Kerr, Petroleum V. Nasby, and other pre-Civil War humorists used the pen to harangue on political matters, notably abolition (25). Josh Billings was a precursor of Twain's attacks on "formulaic Christianity." Billings's 1865 sketch on horses, saying no horse was safe in the hands of a Christian, predates Twain's Innocents Abroad where Twain used the same idea (102).

Sloane makes special mention that the sketch, whether in the Northeast or Southwest tradition, was a device for moral and ethical preaching, as in Mrs. Partington and Simon Suggs, especially when "euphemistic aphorisms" are employed (17). Regarding Artemus Ward in particular, Sloane notes, "he wanted his voice to be meaningful" 25). this idea would be echoed in Twain's Autobiography when he erroneously distinguished himself from the earlier writers by claiming "I preached." In fact, he learned no small part of his written and oral rhetoric from Ward and his other frontier predecessors:

Most of Ward's letters have an ethical dimension

. . . Public figures should have enlightened

concern; his showman, a transparent fraud to a

skeptical public, is nonetheless capable of

detecting other fabrications by virtue of his own

skepticism. (25-26)

Many of Twain's early religious jabs were echoes of Ward's work. Twain burlesqued the Mormons in Roughing It: Ward had already traveled this territory in his 1865 Among the Mormons poking fun not only at Bringham Young, but also the Shakers, free lovers and "other enthusiasts" (26). Ward, the showman, drives away potential customers--a group of free lovers--by preaching a sermon. He elsewhere delivers "moral rebukes to spiritualists, women's rights fanatics, and the spoilsmen surrounding Lincoln" (25). "Ward exceeded [P. T.] Barnum in attacking religious sectarianism, political venality, `big' business in the form of railroads, banks, and the government" (37). "Both writers (Ward and Twain) drew comic relationships between religious quackery and the Constitution" (97). Artemus Ward and the literary comedian tradition clearly had a strong impact on Twain's writing and clearly gave him the literary framework to allow his skepticism to flourish.

Another example of this tradition, noted by Sloane, was Albert Smith, creator of "Phineas Cutecraft." a Yankee version of P. T. Barnum and Ward. Before Innocents Abroad, before the "Napoleon Crossing the Rhine" sketch (discussed in detail in the next chapter), literary irreverence was penned by Twain's literary cousins:

[Smith] introduced Phineas in the Cologne church,

and made him say at the end of the sexton's story

about the virgin's bones: "Old fellow, what will

you take for the hull lot of bones? I want them

for my museum in America." When the question had

been interpreted to the old German, he exclaimed

in horror, according to Albert Smith:

"Mein Gott! It is impossible! We will never sell

the virgin's bones!"

"Never mind," said Phineas Cutecraft, "I'll send

another lot of bones to my museum, swear mine are

the real bones of the Virgin of Cologne and burst

up your show!" (Sloane 34)

This story supposedly took place in 1844; Ward was to use it in his repertoire of jokes as did Twain in Innocents Abroad (34). And this borrowing strongly affected Twain's slant on religion:

The circus motif, which Barnum and Ward had

developed as literary tradition, influences

Twain's pose significantly, particularly in the

crucial area of religion. In the opening

sequence of the book [Innocents Abroad], he

masquerades as a minister with claims to `the

missionary business' looking for a `show,' a

sort of Simon Suggs, Artemus Ward compound. (97)

"Priests run little sideshows"; the gilt script inside the dome of St. Sophia is as "glaring as a circus bill"; shows, sideshows and carnival imagery throughout The Innocents Abroad allowed Twain to exaggerate, through ironic diction, to attack the European "corporate church" (97-99). In the tradition of Barnum and Ward, Twain takes on the persona of "the innocent American," in a state of tension with the European milieu, aiming barbed shots at institutions and the "Old Masters."

In fact, the guise of the "innocent" can be seen much earlier in Twain's work, in the "Dandy Frightening the Squatter" (1852) sketch and the Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass letters where the bumpkin goes to the city. The circus imagery can also be seen in Clemens's 1852 Hannibal sketches, as in "Historical Exhibition-No. 1 Ruse." This thread will continue in my explication of that sketch in the next chapter.

It must be re-emphasized that the influence of the literary comedians cannot be overstated. Twain had studied them intimately. As Walter Blair notes, when Twain worked on his Library of Humor between 1870 and 1888, he jotted down the names of humorists he planned to include in the anthology.

These show he recalled all the names of the

pre-Civil War Yankee and Southwestern humorist

well enough to specify specific sketches and that

he could also name the most popular anonymous hits

. . . he recalled in detail some of the humor

which he could have only seen in newspapers and

magazines. (Selected Shorter Writings ix)

Of course, Sam Clemens the journeyman printer would not only have read the sketches, but set them in type and discussed them with fellow printers in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Muscatine and, of course, Hannibal. Blair's note also calls Paul Baender's earlier claims into question; if Twain was not likely to remember one chance acquaintance, why would he be any more likely to remember all the names and authors of short frontier sketches? The answer seems simple enough; Twain's memory was better than Baender would have us believe.

These sketches were Twain's literary education. "Twain was largely schooled by these native humorists, his training was in writing short pieces" (Sloane ix. The sketches by Twain that will be examined in the next chapter, then, are "lessons" in Twain's art and, among other attributes, contain attacks on religion and cultural institutions. Sam Clemens was no pioneer in these attitudes, so if it is easy to note skepticism in the simple sketches of his predecessors, the search should be double rewarding when looking at the first works of a "cradle skeptic."

All the evidence presented in the preceding two chapters point to two matters: (1) that the major ideas in Twain's later writings, particularly his "dark writings," were based on early influences, particularly his reading of Paine and the literary comedians; (2) and that Twain's religious skepticism was reinforced rather than challenged in his frontier experiences so that his skepticism was well imbedded by the time of the "Quaker City' excursion. Further, it is clear that Sam Clemens remembered his sources and recorded them in his Autobiography and other personal writings. Further, the "deterministic" elements in Twain's later writings have been traced to such influences as MacFarlane and Thomas Paine, influences on the thinking of Sam Clemens before he made the westward voyage later recorded in Roughing It, at least seven years before the "Quaker City" excursion. With this in mind, we can turn to the early writings (in Chapter V) after we briefly return to Justin Kaplan's biography for one more pertinent piece of evidence.

It is important to re-emphasize that at the time the "Quaker City" set sail for the Holy Land, the "Reverend Mark Twain" was, by most standards, an atheist. Justin Kaplan points to the two occasions when Sam Clemens had a religious "conversion." The first was on board the "Quaker City," where Twain came under the matronly influence of Mrs. Mary Fairbanks (Kaplan Clemens 44-46).

Mary Fairbanks, seven years older than Clemens, an accomplished woman in her own right, became Twain's mentor in manners, morals, and art. She scolded him for his writing about what a man's view would be if he looked up the hoopskirt of a woman climbing up Mt. Vesuvius (45). Clemens put himself in her hand "with a certain willing suspension of identity" and disbelief (45). This relationship on board the "Quaker city," Kaplan writes, foreshadowed some of the scenes of Clemens's life with Olivia Langdon and their children (46).

Under the tutelage of Mary Fairbanks, Clemens temporarily found himself "civilized." "One afternoon he had a serious conversion with the Reverend Mr. Bullard . . . a week later the prodigal himself, a fresh convert, led the evening devotions" (46). This conversion, while temporary, helped seal Twain's friendship with Mary Fairbanks, a friendship which lasted thirty-two years until her death.

It was not until a year later, when Twain was wooing Olivia Langdon that "he underwent a parallel conversion, more fervid, but no more permanent" (46). It was during this second "reformation" that Twain's former editor of the Territorial Enterprise "was dumbfounded to find his ex-reporter saying grace at Livy's table" (46).

There are two reasons why we are dealing with these two conversions here. First, that Twain had to be converted at all means that he was a nonbeliever to begin with. And the fact that both conversions, his "willing suspensions of disbelief," were temporary, indicating that neither one was deeply felt. On both occasions, Sam Clemens was trying to impress a woman by allowing her to guide him. The guidance could not supplant the earlier, deeper influences.

In the case of Olivia, Twain had to convince not only her of his religious faith, but also her family. He was a man in love, wooing a woman he hoped to marry. His "religious" feelings at that time, expressed in love letters to Olivia, disappeared as soon as the nuptials were over. He had won her approval; his identity no longer had to be held in its "willing suspension of disbelief." And in time, Livy too would become a religious skeptic.

Thus, it is clear that Mark Twain was more than a "cradle skeptic"--he was a nonbeliever in any concept of God recognizable to nineteenth-century America. The evidence cited so far leads to no other conclusion. To nail this point down authoritatively, we must now turn our attention to the primary sources--the early tales and sketches in which Twain himself states his case.


Edgar Branch noted in Early Tales and Sketches that in January, 1878, after Twain had published The Innocents Abroad, Roughing It, The Gilded Age, Tom Sawyer, and many shorter works, a former colleague of his on the Enterprise observed that

the brightest paragraphs "Mark" ever penned

were for the local columns of this journal.

While he was part of the dreamy, reckless

and adventurous throng whose tents were

pitched almost a generation ago along the

Comstock. (Sketches 1: 387)

One of the great pleasures in examining the early writings of Mark Twain is discovering that the above claim is true. It is also clear that most of Twain's style, subject matter, and themes were first manifested in his frontier journalism.

Branch referred to the above-mentioned colleague of Twain, and to Henry Nash Smith, editor of Mark Twain of the Enterprise, when he wrote, "we share the interest implied by both writers in Mark Twain's routine journalism, precisely because this kind of work eventually gave rise to his tales and sketches" (Sketches 387). Everett Emerson underscores this point in his comments about two brief 1852 entries in Hannibal, the first short poem called "Oh, She Has a Red Head!" written under the pseudonym "A Son of Adam."

Here the future public personality acknow-

ledges his love of display, which was to be

lifelong. A satire on the Democratic governor

and legislature, "Blabbing Government Secrets,"

anticipates another of his future interests,

public affairs. (Emerson Authentic 5)

In short, the early work contains much that is often overlooked by some critics, as in Clemens' early letters. For example, in 1859 (when Clemens was twenty-three years old) he wrote to his friend John Moore using Adam as a comic figure; this was twelve years before "The Tomb of Adam" in Innocents Abroad, and forty years before "The Diaries of Adam and Eve." In colorful river talk, Sam introduced his subject: "I have been wondering lately what in the name of Mexican cultivation and flatboat morality is to become of people, anyhow?" (Letters 91). The source of the problem, he concludes, was Adam:

What a fool old Adam was. Had everything his own

way; had succeeded in gaining the love of the best

looking girl in the neighborhood, but yet

unsatisfied with his conquest he had to eat a

miserable little apple. (Letters 91)

This brief irreverence is but one of many uses of the Bible in Clemens's youthful correspondence.

Emerson also notes the early appearance of another aspect of Mark Twain, his oratorical skills. Twain's first appearance as a lecturer was in Keokuk, Iowa, on January 19, 1856, celebrating the 150th birthday of Benjamin Franklin. His speech was "replete with wit and humor," a harbinger of things to come (Emerson Authentic 7). So much of what Twain wrote about, including his attitudes towards religion and other institutions, is clearly seen in his early works. But before we can look closely at these publications, we need to explore the scene and the milieu in which the budding Twain lived and worked.

A major assignment given to Sam Clemens while he worked at the Territorial Enterprise (December, 1862-May, 1864) was as a co-reporter at the Nevada Constitutional Convention. The convention, which took place from November 2 to December 11, 1863, was covered by the team of "A. J. Marsh and Sam Clemens" as well as the satirist "Mark Twain." Sam Clemens reported the factual matter of the convention, in collaboration with Marsh, "in Phonographic Short-Hand" (Enterprise 9). Accompanying these letters were letters considerably less formal, letters of political satire signed by Mark Twain. As he later wrote in a personal letter, the difference between the Twain letters and the Clemens,-Marsh columns was that in the Twain writing "I put no end of seasoning in it" (Selected Letters 831). Another difference was that this seasoning was more than just spice; it had a kick to it, a message in the tradition of the literary comedians.

It was during these years that the persona of Mark Twain began to develop. Even when Clemens signed an item with his birth name, the characteristic voice of Mark Twain began to dominate all of Sam Clemens's writings. For some time, Clemens/Twain could not write reflective, thought-out stories and books, but the attitudes and ideas already in his mind were to become "seasoning" to his observations of frontier life.


On May 3, 1863, the Territorial Enterprise published a column of verse and prose noting Mark Twain's departure from Virginia City for San Francisco. the editors wrote

Mark Twain has abdicated the local column of

the Enterprise, where by the grace of Cheek,

he so long reigned Monarch of Mining items,

Detailer of Events, Prince of Platitudes,

Chief of Biographers, Expounder of Unwritten

Law, Puffer of Wildcat, Profaner of Divinity,

Detractor of Merit, Flatterer of Power,

Recorder of Stage Arrivals, Pack Trains,

Hay Wagons and Things in General . . .

(Letters 253)

Allowing for frontier exaggeration, the above list indicates that the "Profaner of Divinity" contributed much to the Enterprise in his years in Virginia City. Unfortunately, so few of these early writings still exist (Enterprise 6)

During the years that he wrote for the Territorial Enterprise Twain did not keep a scrapbook, and the bulk of what we have today was found in four scrapbooks primarily kept by Orion (Enterprise 6). A letter written in 1862 to Orion had a typical request and shows Twain's reliance on his brother to collect his frontier writings for him, "Put all of Josh's letters in my scrapbook. I may have need of them later" (Letters 221). The Josh letters, unfortunately, did not survive, but Twainians today owe a great debt to Orion for keeping these scrapbooks and for his publishing virtually every scrap, letter or sketch Sam sent to him in Hannibal and Muscatine from 1853 to 1861. In later years the scrapbooks were in the possession of Anita Moffett, Clemens's grandniece, until her death in 1952 when Henry Nash Smith began work on editing and publishing them (Selected Letters 51).

Smith notes that Clemens must have written "hundreds of column inches of copy" while he was a reporter for the Enterprise; however, "we have only a small fraction of this work" (6). One of the principal reasons for this is that young Sam Clemens destroyed a great deal of it. On January 20, 1866, Sam wrote to his mother and sister about the possibility that he and Bret Harte might compile a book of sketches and he was concerned about where he might get old material: "I burned up a small cartload of them lately--so they are forever cut out of my book" (Enterprise 7-8, Selected Letters 51).

Smith also thought that the book The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Other Sketches, published by Charles H. Webb in 1867 was compiled from notebooks that have not survived (Enterprise 8). With one or two exceptions, says Smith, the pieces in the Jumping Frog book were written after Twain's stay in Nevada. Thus we know of a great deal that was written--a chronological guide is available in Contributions to the Galaxy--even though we do not have surviving copies to examine.

Twain's frontier journalism was a daily stream of commentary on a myriad of subjects. His subject matter was usually political, with comments on local life in the saloons, mining camps, coroner's office, town meetings, police stations, and bars. All this was cranked out rapidly. Clemens could incorporate his humorous, satirical point-of-view, but reflective, personal writing was rarely possible. The majority of the early material was written in short bursts, and most of the pieces that we have are extremely short, many containing fewer than one hundred words. Yet important points were made. Indeed, the brevity of some of these short works make the messages quite powerful and glaringly apparent.

Nevertheless, it might seem to some readers examining these early writings that, due to the wide scope of subject matter and the dashed-off observations so popular in frontier journalism, the attempt to define a consistent point-of-view in them might be asking too much. Yet, from the earliest writings in Hannibal to the humorous sketches extant today, it is possible to cite and examine many representative sketches that show Twain's lack of reverence for Christianity and his observations of man's credulity and hypocrisy. Rarely did he attack religion directly, and when he did he used covert techniques to disguise his attitudes, as shall be demonstrated later. Twain's religious sense can be found in what might at first glance appear to be only innocuous frontier tales. Each of the pieces examined here should point to Twain's early ease in attacking "Presbyterianism" as well as other organized religious groups of every stripe.

The best source for early writings of Samuel Clemens is Early Tales and Sketches, Volumes I and II, edited by Edgar Branch and Robert Hirst (1979 and 1981). Many of Twain's early travel letters that appeared in the Hannibal Journal and the Muscatine Journal (both edited by Orion) appear in the first volume of Twain's Letters (1988). Victor Doyno selected a few sketches appropriate for our purposes in his Mark Twain: Selected Writings of an American Skeptic, and some of his commentary is pertinent and helpful here. Other sources, primarily collections of extant journalism, such as Contributions to the Galaxy and Mark Twain of the Enterprise also contain specimens of Twain's religious attitudes, as shown in the following sections.

On February 16, 1855, Sam Clemens wrote an item for the Muscatine Tri-Weekly Journal, published in Muscatine, Iowa, by Orion. The brief squib in the "Eds. Journal" department was the first publication by Sam in almost a year and was, as John Frederick noted in his The Darkened Sky, "distinctly suggestive of views which were to be powerfully expressed fifty years later" (131).

From spring 1853 through February 1854, Clemens had been a journeyman printer in New York, Philadelphia, visiting briefly in Washington D.C., then returning to New York. Sam had contributed several letters for Orion before the quiet months, all brief letters about touring the East, visiting historical sites, reporting local events for the Journal. These letters were straightforward accounts of what he saw and observed with little editorial comment or humor. Then, a year later, he was writing again, and his voice changed, like a young man whose vocal register had deepened.

His "Eds. Department" entry reported the plight of a poor woman "almost naked" with five children in obvious need of Christian charity and getting none. Clemens wrote:

The plight brought to mind the handsome sum

our preacher collected in church las Sunday

to obtain food and raiment for the poor,

ignorant heathen in some far off part of the

world. (Letters 47)

Clemens noted that the poor family on the streets of St. Louis (where he was living) was simply trying to go from a destitute home in Arkansas to live with relatives in Illinois, and no one was interested in that family's plight. Sam wrote, "I thought, too, of the passage in the Bible instructing the disciples to carry their works into all the world"--and the concluding phrase was italicized--"beginning with Jerusalem" (Journal 23, Letters 47).

This short item about charity beginning at home could obviously have been written as easily by a concerned Christian or an atheist. But the idea reappeared in a passage written for Huckleberry Finn Twain deleted from the published text because, likely, the attack on Christian hypocrisy was too overt. In the passage, the King and Duke discuss "gospel work," and the King says:

Thar's more money in missionarying than the others

[gospel works]; folks will plank out cash for the

heathen mighty free, if you locate your heathen

fur enough off. I've took in as much as seventeen

dollars at one grist for the pore benighted

Goojoos--invented'em myself--located 'em away up

jest back of the north pole. (Huckleberry Finn


As Vic Doyno notes in his "Addendum" to the Random House Comprehensive Edition of Huckleberry Finn (1996),

Apparently their remoteness increases their

appeal, and somehow the real people nearby in

need of help and salvation, in an un-Christian,

ironic way, are easier to ignore. (379)

Fearing this passage might offend potential readers, Twain chose instead to dramatize the camp meeting, omitting the concept he had earlier, more subtlety, posed in the "Eds. Journal." And, as we shall see, the "Eds. Journal" item is but one instance where Mark Twain bitterly noted the hypocritical actions of churchgoers decades before crafting Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain, nineteen years old, was demonstrating his growing awareness of the human condition. In the same "Eds. Journal" column, Clemens later wrote of witnessing a nightly wife beating, and "wished with all my heart that Providence would remove him [the beater] from his troubles by putting it in the sheriff's head to hang the scoundrel before morning" (Letters 48). There is clearly more going on here than youthful irreverence; a clear attitude and growing social conscience is apparent. On March 5, Sam reported the following about a recent murder:

[T]o tell the truth, few people expect justice

to be done. I doubt if there are a hundred

people in St. Louis who do not think O'Blennis

ought to be hung, and the number is still less

who expect him to be punished at all. Since

Jackson and Ward escaped hanging, people seem

to have very little confidence in courts of

justice. (Letters 56)

It is clear that the young Sam Clemens was no longer merely making simple, youthful jibes in print. He was "preaching" against institutions both social and religious with heartfelt convictions. His observations are still simple and personal; he had yet to combine literary techniques with his own experiences. It is at this point in his writing life that the two begin to congeal. These items are perhaps the first instances where Clemens penned thoughtful social criticism. The incidents were like many to follow in Twain's frontier experience. Many of his succinct editorial pieces to come were, like the above instances, an observation of a local event followed by a short question or observation that asked "Is this right?" But the sentiment was to be more powerful because it was delivered by means of Clemens's primary talents, language and humor.

One of the earliest examples of Twain's dealing with the credulity of man was written when he was seventeen. Published in the Hannibal Journal on September 15, 1852, the sketch "reveals how early the author was dealing with strains of deception and credulity" (Doyno 15). Using the pseudonym "W. Epaminodas Adrastus Blab," Clemens's "Historical Exhibition--A No. 1 Ruse," as Doyno noted, shows "the author's concern for the contrast between elaborate, stately, deceptive language and short, vivid, realistic language" (Doyno 15). It demonstrates the circus imagery of the literary comedians--the ruse is "a show." This early concern for language was to reappear often in Twain's more mature work, perhaps most notably in "Buck Fanshaw's Funeral" from Roughing It. As Everett Emerson has noted, the sketch is also "an anticipation of the confidence games played by the Duke and the King in Huckleberry Finn" (Authentic 4-5). According to Emerson, the sketch is the first example of Twain's use of the "innocent," the "victim," a voice Twain would use throughout his writing career (5).

The "Historical Exhibition" piece also shows how Clemens fell into the tall tale tradition with the typical frame used by frontier tall tale storytellers: "a young friend give me the following yarn as fact, and if it should turn out to be a double joke (that is, that he imagined the story to fool me with) on his head be the blame" (Early Tales 1:78). This shows how early Twain used the common device to distance himself from a story, a technique he later used effectively in many short stories, notably "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" and "My Grandfather's Old Ram." This technique allowed him a pose, a character and as Doyno notes, a way to be "subversive."

The story involves a "historical exhibition" of "Napoleon Crossing the Rhine" with a lecture by a local authority, offered to the "natives" for a dime per head. The first night of the exhibit, a young boy "sees the elephant," leaves, "but the uninitiated could get nothing out of him on the subject; he was mum" (78).

Everyone who sees the exhibit is stricken with melancholy. Citizen after citizen becomes morbidly silent. Finally, a group of boys come down from the country, led by Jim C--, and asked to see the show. The lecturer collects their money and, with elaborate showmanship, shows the boys the first part of the show, "You now seen the `Bonapart--bony-part,' you understand, the bony-part' of a hog's leg" (79).

Most of the boys anticipate the joke that is coming, but "poor Jim C--" only wants to know "is-that-all?" The lecturer then presents a piece of meat skin the size of a dollar and pronounces, "[T]his is the Rhine--properly speaking, the hog's rind--a piece of hog's rind" (80). The lecturer then passes the "bony-part" back and forth across the "Rhine." While the group of boys howl in bursts of laughter at the sputtering, muttering Jim C--, Jim calls the lecturer a swindler but gets only more laughter for his pains.

The lecturer informs Jim, in flowery and ornate phrases that "if the young gentleman finds fault with this show that he must have missed the finer points, and if he did not like it, would he be so good as to tell all his friends?" (82). Jim, a now perpetually gloomy boy, leaves the exhibition. Anytime anyone asks him a question, his response is always "Bonaparte Crossing--sold!"

This apprentice tale reveals how early the author was dealing with deception and credulity," "showing how such deception is typically couched in the "elaborate, stately, language." This point-of-view remained an effective technique in Twain's writing commonly associated with false or insincere preachers, as in the chicanery of the Duke and Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn. In short, Clemens has shown an early awareness that flowery oratory is not to be trusted, and this oratory would always be associated with orthodox preachers.

In many of Clemens's letters, he used biblical diction to exaggerate his tales and descriptions, using the transitions "behold," "verily," "thus," and "lo" frequently. One of these letters was revised for publication, and after its appearance, Sam wrote Orion, "Ma and Pamela seem to be down on my last to the Gate City. Well, what'r they going do about it?--be Je-s?--(though I would hate to ask them the question, you bet)" (Letters 200). As noted earlier, several months went by before Sam wrote home again (Letters 221).

The sketch in question appeared in the January 30, 1862, letter to Jane Clemens published in the Keokuk Gate City in March of that year. It is an example of Sam's biblical burlesques and helps demonstrate his bent of thinking in his Carson City mining days before he formally began writing as a career.

It was a time, as he told his mother, for campfires on the prairie, "smoking our pipes, singing songs, and spinning yarns, and telling lies, and quoting scripture, and all that sort of thing" (Letters 148). Sam recounted this brief anecdote about prairie living:

But Mr. Tillou's dog, "Curney," we utterly

despised . . . and we made Tom pester him;

and bite his tail; and his ears; and stumble

over him; and we heaped trouble and humiliation

upon the brute to the degree that his life

became a burden to him. And Billy, hating the

dog. . . prophesied that Curney would come to

grief. And Gus and I said Amen. And it came to

pass according to the words of the prophet. Thus

. . . we struck the Big Alkali Flat--and Curney

came to grief; for the poor devil got ALKALIED--

in the seat of honor. [He got] immensely tired

. . . and sat himself in the wayside to rest.

And lo! the iron entered his Soul (poetical

figure, Ma). (Letters 148-49)

This "short tail," if you will, illustrates that Sam knew biblical syntax and was not adverse to using it for comic purposes. The juxtaposition of high diction and syntax with a less honorable subject, more animal imagery, was a common comic device which Sam Clemens would use again. This juxtaposition of language became a major aspect of his style. Again, we can see the origins of style, subject matter, and tone in the earliest writings of Mark Twain.

Another example of Twain's lighthearted treatment of religion, more irreverent than philosophical, occurred in his writing about his forthcoming January 1864 burlesque address to the Nevada Constitutional Convention. Twain said:

Although I am not a very dusty Christian myself,

I take an exorbitant interest in religious affairs

and would willingly inflict my annual message on

the church itself if it might derive benefit thereby.

(Enterprise 101)

The speech, a parody of oral forensics, burlesquing both legislative and religious speakers, was typical of Twain's Nevada flippancy. In the same month, Twain used religion as a source of parody in Enterprise items in December, 1863. Twain, the president of a burlesque convention, wrote the "minutes" of the convention burlesquing political speechmaking and legislative processes. Speaker after speaker arises to make comments on a variety of subjects other than what Chairman Twain is interested in. "I am considering the question of religious liberty . . . Mr. Chapin, you will please stop catching flies while the Chair is considering the subject of religious toleration" (Enterprise 106 7). The question of religion  never specified or defined  is weaved into a spread of subjects including taxes and mills. In one nonsequiturial dialogue, a speaker rises and says:

Mr. Musser "Mr. President, to be or not to be  that

is the question  "

Mr. President  "No sir! The question is, shall we

tolerate religious indifference in this community

. . . The Chair trusts it knows what it is about

without any instructions from the members."

Mr. Musser  "But sir, it was only a quotation from  "

The President  "Well, I don't care, I want you to sit

down. The Chair don't consider that you know much about

religion anyhow, and consequently the subject will

suffer no detriment from your letting it alone."

(Enterprise 108)

Like the religious debate in the 1856 "Cincinnati Boarding House" sketch, or the non conclusions to other frontier sketches such as "My Grandfather's Old Ram," the subject of religion is never resolved but is rather a subject for humor. Members of the Convention propose the still unspecified issue "go into the committee of the Whole," "be referred back to the Standing Committee," and "the rules be suspended and the whole article placed upon its final passage"(Enterprise 109). The Chair moves that all motions be carried; "No one voting in the negative, the chair decided the vote to be unanimous in the affirmative" (109).

Again, religion, along with governmental practices, is seen by Twain as a ubiquitous subject lending itself to easy satire and youthful lampooning. But the subject of religion also found a place in the development of Sam's serious, reflective side. While frontier journalism never gave him full outlet for these musings, there are many pieces showing a more serious eye, probably the shortest and most pointed being "New Year's Day" published in the Enterprise on January 1, 1863. It is only about 130 words long, but it contains strains of his skepticism and social criticism and shows his continuing distaste for hypocrisy. It shows the Twainian attitude toward mankind that would dominate such longer, greater works throughout his life.

Because Twain could not believe in any religion or Deity, his focus was on mankind, what A.B. Paine would later call "The Damned Human Race." his early comments were less vitriolic but no less honest. On the first day of 1863, the following sentiments of Mark Twain appeared beneath another, sillier sketch by him entitled "More Ghosts," a sketch dealing with a local spiritualist. The sentiments in the "New Year's Day" squib were more serious. Because the piece is so short, it is reprinted here in full:

Now is the accepted time to make your regular

annual good resolutions. Next week you can

begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday,

everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last

drink, and swore his last oath. Thirty days

from now, we shall have cast our reformation to

the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short-

comings considerably shorter than ever. We

shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did

the same old thing last year about this time.

However, go in, community. New Year's is a

harmless annual institution, of no particular

use to anybody save as a scapegoat for

promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and

humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it

with a looseness suited to the greatness of the

occasion. (Early Tales 180).

In many ways, this squib sums up Twain's attitude toward man in 1863 as well as 1903. As Victor Doyno put it, with this sketch "we begin to see the tolerant acceptance of humanity balanced by the sharp attention to hypocrisy" (15). As Doyno hints briefly, it was Twain's eye for hypocrisy, combined with his eye for sham, as evidenced in 1862's "Petrified Man" sketch, that gave Twain his dual skeptical gaze at man as well as religion. New Year's Day was a "harmless annual institution, of no particular value to anybody where man's "ancient shortcomings" can be dealt with in "humbug resolutions." Beneath the jokes, a distinct attitude was clear and visible. There is no optimism in "New Year's Day"; his diction and tone are certainly precursors of his later, longer, reflective writings. Man became Mark Twain's great subject and theme, and religion and rituals only a mirror to reflect man in his own image. Man had created and then ignored his own promises and beliefs, just as he did annually on New Year's Day.

This skeptical eye was fostered during the frontier years by events reporter Clemens observed in Nevada. As Ivan Benson notes in his Mark Twain's Western Years, during the winter months of 1865-66, Twain satirized both spiritualism as well as orthodox religion in his journalism. He attended many seances, particularly those at Mrs. Ada Hoyt Foye's in San Francisco. "At Mrs. Foye's seances, Mark was appointed a member of the investigating committee. This made the ghosts a bit nervous, according to the Golden Era's `Feuilleton' column" (157). (Benson's work provides a great service to scholars of Twain's western years because it contains not only an item-by-item bibliography of the publications of the frontier years but also a section of reprinted sketches not in any other readily accessible source. It is from these reprintings that the quotes in this discussion were drawn.)

Both the Era and the Enterprise published these "investigations" into the supernatural as well as the conclusions made by Twain:

Very well, the Bulletin may abuse spiritualism

as much as it pleases, but whenever I can get a

chance to take a dead and damned Smith by the

hand and pass a joke or swap a lie with him, I

am going to do it. I am not afraid of such

pleasant corpses as these running me crazy.

I find them better company than a good many

live people. (Golden Era March 11, 1866.

Rtd. by Benson 137)

Edgar Branch discussed this sketch in his The Literary Apprenticeship of Mark Twain, and made this telling point:

Despite a lifelong interest in psychic phenomena,

he was temperamentally inclined to discredit the

claims of successful mediums . . . Late in life

he believed that men have been wrongly and

uncourteously and contemptuously left in total

ignorance of the other world. In 1901 he wrote

that he never had an experience which led him

to think that the living could communicate with

the dead. (Branch 144)

Again, here is an instance where the barbs of frontier squibs are echoed in the later years. As Branch notes, the interest Twain held in spiritualism, or "wildcat religion" as Twain called it, was lifelong, Twain ultimately reasoning that "men no more than monkeys were able to draw valid conclusions from religious experience" (Branch 145). And Branch notes another comparison of youth with age: Twain admired Mrs. Foye's capabilities in the same way he admired the capabilities of Mary Baker Eddy forty years later. In both cases, though, the beliefs of the women were found wanting. "It is mighty hard to fully believe what you do not know" (Branch 145).

In the same spirit as his attacks on spiritualism, according to Benson,

The last of Mark Twain's contributions to the

Golden Era was a sketch entitled "Reflections

on the Sabbath," published March 18, 1866. It

expresses in a facetious way the religious

skepticism that was to be the subject matter of

much of Twain's writing in his later years.

(Benson 137)

Benson's summation of the item leads to an interesting idea, that Twain liked concrete rather than abstract subjects for satire and that orthodox religion was an easy target while matters of guilt and conscience were not.

Like ghosts, hell was a typical image for frontier jest while concepts of guilt and conscience were less appealing. In the "Sabbath" sketch, says Benson, Twain wrote that he had not attended church for some time because he could not get a pew and had to sit in the gallery "among the sinners" (137). "This he objects to as he considers himself a brevet member of the Presbyterian church, having been sprinkled in infancy" (137). Then Twain claimed he preferred the fire-and-brimstone Presbyterian hell to the "heterodox hell of remorse of conscience of these blamed wildcat religions" (137). As Branch observed, Twain's frontier hell was populated by "Smiths" who then renamed it the "Smithsonian Institution" (145). It seems clear that matters of Protestant doctrine were matters of fun, matters of guilt and conscience were of deeper concern.

His comments in "Reflections," made lightly, should not provoke too serious a commentary here except to note the curious fact that Mark Twain's personal hell, as has often been noted by a host of scholars and biographers, was that of remorse and guilt. The mythological hell of fire and brimstone, like the pseudoscientific seances of Mrs. Foye, would indeed be preferable and palpable comic material for a skeptic because they were so obviously susceptible to attack and burlesque; the pain of guilt would be too serious and probably a bit too close to home for the budding writer who had already demonstrated his sensitive nature in terms of guilt over family deaths in Hannibal and on the river. Benson has a different perspective: "Whereas the heaven and hell of the wildcat religions are vague and ill-defined, there is nothing mixed about the Presbyterian variety" (137). In "Reflections on the Sabbath," Twain wrote,

The Presbyterian hell is all misery; the heaven

is all happiness--nothing to do. But when a man

dies on a wildcat basis, he will never rightly

know hereafter which department he is in--but he

will think he is in hell anyhow, no matter which

place he goes to; because in the good place they

pro-gress, pro-gress, pro-gress--study, study,

study all the time--and if this isn't hell I

don't know what is; and in the bad place he will

be worried by remorse of conscience. (Qted. by

Benson 137-38)

Edgar Branch too found interesting points about the 1866 writings on religion, noting that the old and the new religions--orthodox Calvinism and the "wildcat" varieties--caused "insanity" in both farcical and real ways. "The `old legitimate regular stock religions' like the Disciples of Christ and the Methodists used to stock the asylums with religious lunatics" (146). This is due, said Twain, to the hyper-emotionalism and "ranting" of the pastors in the church services. The insanity of religion is a matter we will return to in the conclusion of this study.

We cannot move on from the above comments without taking this opportunity to compare the ideas about hell expressed in the 1866 "Reflections on the Sabbath" with the 1906 "Reflections on Religion" passages because the second work mirrors the first, albeit less playful in spirit. As Edgar Branch noted regarding the former piece,

In light of subsequent writing, moreover, the

piece is prophetic. Serious undertones suggest

his later concern with ideas on immortality,

determinism, and divine justice. By 1866, it is

true, he had outgrown fundamentalism. A

corroding heterodoxy had eaten away the

theological foundation of intense boyhood fears.


"Boyhood fears" had much to do with Twain's concepts of punishment of guilt; hell became something far too serious for simple, youthful gibes by 1906:

There is one notable thing about our

Christianity; bad, bloody, merciless, money-

grabbing, predatory as it is--in our country

particularly, and in all other Christian

countries in a somewhat modified degree--it

is a hundred times better than the Christianity

of the Bible with its prodigious crime--the

invention of Hell. Measured with the

Christianity of today, bad as it is,

hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as

it is, neither the Deity nor His Son is a

Christian nor qualifies for that moderately

high place. (Neider Outrageous 36)

Here again we can see that the late life notions on religion have their origins in early work. The concept of hell is still "an invention" of a fictional God--"What's-his-name beget Krishna, Krishna beget Buddha, Buddha beget Osiris, Osiris beget the Babylonian deities, they beget God. He beget Jesus, Jesus beget Mrs. Eddy" (Outrageous 356). But the playfulness has largely gone; this is the real difference in the works of the early and later years. The ideas have evolved and deepened, but the skepticism was there all along. The passing years would add dimensions of disappointments, world-wisdom, but the disbelieving eye remained fundamentally unchanged.

Another case in point is an item written in May, 1870, a piece entitled "Disgraceful Persecution of a Boy" printed in the Galaxy which was shortly followed by Twain's next work, "The Story of the Good Little Boy," also published in the Galaxy the same month. The "Persecution" piece is an ironical attack on hypocrisy, a tongue-in-cheek defense of a boy who was put in jail for stoning a Chinaman (Galaxy 42). Twain wrote that this was no justice; the boy was "well-dressed," "a Sunday school scholar," with good parents, "so this boy had opportunities to learn all through the week how to do right, as well as Sunday" (42).

Twain then writes at length how "John the Foreigner" is unfairly taxed, given no rights, and viewed by white society as "nothing" (42). The boy who stoned the Chinaman was taught that foreign religious beliefs, as in the teachings of Confucius, were part of the natural inferiority of a foreigner:

And, therefore, what could have been more

natural than for this sunny-hearted boy,

tripping along to Sunday School, his mind

teeming with freshly-learned incentives to

high and virtuous action to say to himself:

"Ah, there goes a Chinaman! God will not

love me if I do not stone him!" (83)

This piece shows Twain's belief that the Christian religion produced more bigotry than love on both social and religious levels. This theme reoccurred in 1876's "Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," "a thrall grotesque parody of `born again' conversion" with a similar scene to that of the Galaxy sketch. The freshly converted narrator "rushes out to kill his enemies remorselessly and sells the corpses to doctors" (Brodwin "Theology" 225). The born again man is a born again killer and the horror of this truth is that "the natural is the hellish," evoking Twain's earlier line about the persecuted boy's "natural" inclination to follow Sunday School principles that allowed him to act on his bigotry. According to Stanley Brodwin, the "Carnival of Crime" has a truth "but this truth can be revealed only when the artificial constructs of repentance and guilt are destroyed in order to `liberate' the real self" (225). Brodwin observes that, ironically, Mary Mason Fairbanks said of the story "only a person with conscience could write it" but she failed to see the "conceptual threat to her world the tale literally glories in" ("Theology" 225).

Again, these early pieces foreshadowed more developed work later in Twain's life. In 1906 autobiographical dictations, Twain remarked:

For two years now Christianity has been

repeating in Russia the sort of industries

in the way of massacre and mutilation with

which it has been successfully persuading

Christendom in every century for nineteen

hundred years that it is the only right and

true religion--the one and only true religion

of peace and love. (Outrageous 37)

Twain goes on to discuss the Russian Christians' persecution of the Jews. "Here are some of the particulars in the latest efforts of these humble Twentieth Century disciples to persuade the nonbeliever to come into the fold of the meek and gentle Savior" (37). We need not recount the atrocities listed by Twain to emphasize the obvious, that he was bitterly disturbed by high-handed Christian notions of religious superiority, a superiority that bred violence and persecution. It is also obvious that the musings of the Galaxy piece and the parody of "The Carnival of Crime" were harbingers of things to come, part of a continuum of ideas Twain maintained from youth to old age.

Twain's message through these pieces is that it is institutions, such as legislatures and other governing bodies, that enact what its citizens believe, and they believe what they are taught. Hypocrisy is a result of those teachings, but it is only Twain who seems to see it. The boy who stones the Chinaman cannot be blamed--justice was not done by jailing him. The real offenders are clearly the institutions, their doctrines, and cultural acceptance of them that led him to think God would love him if he stoned the foreigner. Or, as Twain said in 1906:

There has never been a Protestant boy or a

Protestant girl whose mind the Bible has

not soiled. No Protestant child ever comes

clean from association with the Bible . . .

the Bible does its baleful work in the

propagation of vice among children.

(Outrageous 40)

But this "unclean" influence on children was not only from the Bible, "the pulpit and optimists," but also from other social institutions, including government and politics. During Twain's stint as a frontier reporter, he had considerable experience with legislatures and local law enforcement officers. We have already mentioned his antipathy towards church and school that began in his earliest years; the frontier years added more institutions to his stable of targets. Twain saw organized institutions as part of the same evil, the combined evil that teaches children to stone Chinaman.

Again, the persecution squib is serious; no comic, light-hearted conclusion ends the piece. It is not funny, and Twain's point is hammered home by a full two columns of evidence to show the bigotry is learned, taught by those who teach what is right, those who teach the concept of God. It seems clear that this column, written about the same time as "The Story of the Good Little Boy," reveals much about Twain's world view regarding organized institutions. God is precisely what we are taught; therefore, a man-made creature.

In Selected Writings of an American Skeptic, Vic Doyno reprinted other sketches he found indicative of Twain's skepticism, including the "Petrified Man" sketch published October 4, 1862, written two weeks after Sam Clemens went to work on the Enterprise. This story, one of Twain's most famous hoaxes, was written in a "straight faced" fashion (Fatout 16) and was accepted by many readers as fact in syndicated reprintings of the tale. This response included publication in a "serious" English medical journal which did not notice the nose-thumbing pose of the supposed petrified man or its wooden leg, clues Twain thought would alert any reader to the intention of the story. Twain had to write a follow-up to the sketch to show that it was all a hoax to attack "the growing evil of the mania for digging up petrification" (for a full discussion of this sketch and its aftermath, see Fatout Virginia City 16-18).

Religion, as well as science, is lampooned in the sketch. The Reverend Sewall "of Sowall of Humbolt County" held the inquest for the petrified figure, and decried efforts to blow up the remains as "little less than sacrilege" (Fatout 16). Doyno notes that this sketch is yet another example of Twain's use of hoaxes to point out man's credulity; Paul Fatout supports this idea by saying, "Preferring the out-of-the-way, he liked to adorn a tale by embellishments upon it or by editorializing" (Fatout 15). In short, Sam Clemens is evolving from a rebellious young boy, an irreverent imitator, a light-hearted burlesquer into a moral philosopher. This philosophy has a constant thread throughout his life, a dislike for hypocrisy, bigotry, institutional constants, and complete antipathy for religion and its teachings, if not its teachers.

Many other pieces like the "Eds. Journal" selection also make it obvious that Mark Twain made his religious attitude quite plain to anyone reading the early frontier journalism with the idea that the later Twain was writing with the same techniques and attitudes he manifested before he became a book writer. These techniques and attitudes evolved with Twain's literary and personal growth, and both were reflected in Twain's early work in the more polished form of the short story.

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