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

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Two of Mark Twain's earliest short stories, "The Story of the Good Little Boy" and "The Story of the Bad Little Boy," are obvious slaps at the misleading Sunday School morality of the nineteenth century. As John Q. Hays noted in Mark Twain and Religion, the stories first germinated in The Golden Era on May 15, 1864, when "Twain had begun his campaign against unrealistic Sunday School literature in a Nevada piece entitled `Stories for Good Little Boys and Girls' which ridiculed the success at any price formula" (22-29).

As Edgar Branch noted, "as early as 1863 Mark Twain was anticipating a theme in Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by burlesquing their pious Sunday School concepts of morality that were found in the flaccid literature written for young people" (Apprenticeship 150). While these stories are deliberately light and humorous, "their humor depends on a frank acceptance of the selfish and the conventional in man's nature" (150). It is interesting to note that the early draft of Tom Sawyer contained many more attacks on Sunday School morality which Howells advised Twain to delete (Wecter Literary History 929). "The Bad Little Boy" story appeared in 1864, the second short story by Mark Twain to appear in print. So these stories are worth some exploration here, both as foreshadowings of later major works and as examples of Sam Clemens's already well-established antipathy for religion.

Critic Minoru Okayashi in "Mark Twain and His Pessimism" notes that the stories were precursors of Twain's concept of the Moral Sense as described in The Mysterious Stranger (85-86). Okayashi very briefly traces the idea of the Moral Sense--that man can choose between right and wrong but invariably chooses the wrong--through The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Roughing It (85-86). He then observes that Twain's view is that man determines what is moral, that there is no supernatural basis:

suggestions of this Moral Sense can be seen

in the sketch "My Watch" (1870), "The Story

of the Good Little Boy," and "The Story of

the Bad Little Boy" but Twain only represents

various sorts of moral senses and does not

suggest any active role for Satan behind them

. . . this vision is very close to that of his

later period. (86)

This point, briefly noted by Okayashi, deserves further development.

Simply summarized, these stories show how, according to all the "Sunday School books" of the era, if a young man followed a prescribed path, all manner of good things would come his way, even a young martyr's death. Bad boys who did not follow the right path would have calamities of shame, poverty, and other evils as rewards for their ill-advised deeds, including election to the legislature. Twain's stories put the lie to such romantic nonsense and turn such precepts on their heads. The young paragon of virtue does not become the example to others he thought he would; instead, he is the subject of derision and ridicule. The bad boy prospers, and becomes a famous politician. Twain reverses the Romanticized sentiments into his characteristic realist irony, poking fun at the culture that produced the emblematic boys. What he had been writing in the dashed-off frontier essays was now the subject of his fiction, and his first published fiction at that.

As Edgar Branch observed, these stories reflect Twain as the realist, the debunker of romanticism that would be equally apparent in the ending to Huckleberry Finn, and the later novels A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court and No.44: The Mysterious Stranger. "These fables were the work of the realist who hated moral shame and soft minded constrictions put upon life," says Branch. "In them he coupled his knowledge of gullible, perverse man to his ironic sense of circumstances not acceptable to moral law--a conception used for comedy" (Apprenticeship 150). In other words, Twain was combining the elements we have been discussing in this chapter in his early fiction, elements born and nurtured in his apprenticeship years. The romanticism and idealism of fiction was to be turned inside-out with Twain's inclinations for a more realistic point of view.

Other early fictional works are also a skeptic's poke at romantic ideals: "A Day at Niagara" (1869), "Legend of the Capitoline Venus" (1869), and "A Medieval Romance" (1870), to cite but a few. There is nothing new in calling Mark Twain a realist; indeed he is one of the major figures of American realism. It would be nothing new to call him a naturalist; a survey of critics who examine Twain's naturalism is part of Nelson R. Burr's "New Eden and New Babylon" (129-32). But the critics who label him thus are usually discussing his later works, those written just before and after the turn of the century. But, as the examples in this chapter have shown, the themes and subject matter of the "realist" are clearly evident in the earliest works of Mark Twain. Indeed, his apprentice works are all schoolboy exercises in the matters he would address in his mature years.

Twain did, of course, romanticize the Mississippi River and his childhood, yet we have noted critics who find bitterness and skepticism in his "boys' books." His attacks on romanticism included the romanticized Protestant religion that pervaded the Sunday School books, the emotionally frenzied camp meetings, and the Protestant dogma that irritated the free-spirited Sam Clemens. The themes of religion, hypocrisy, credulity and bigotry, however, are evident in the early writing, and religion was only one institution blasted, both lightly and caustically, by Twain, and it was one of his first targets.

Mark Twain's rebellion against God and Christianity was, in part, due to his comic genius. He wrote in 1887, "I cannot see how a man of any large degree of humorous perception can ever be religious--except he purposely shut the eyes of his mind and keep them shut by force" (Notebooks and Journals 3: 389). This quotation should remind us, as Stanley Brodwin notes (371-89), of Twain's comment to Orion in 1860. "What a man wants with religion in these breadless times surpasses my comprehension" (Selected Letters 1: 45). Brodwin, like Justin Kaplan, points to Twain's affinity with preachers, but notes, "a preacher-artist is a contradiction in terms" ("Pulpit" 372). Mark Twain, having the desire to preach, could not preach sermons of Christian pastors or sermons espousing religion on any level; indeed, he was far more likely to be on the offensive. He never had the belief necessary to support religion as he found it. but his comic eye and verbal talent did make him an artist, an artist with considerable command of his subject matter. This command was born in some certainty of purpose that negated belief in a God or gods of any kind.



John Tuckey makes an interesting point in his discussion of "The Great Dark" (xiii), a point worth reviewing here. He quotes the closing paragraph from the story, a speech by the captain of the besieged sea vessel after calming his angry mutineers:

Are we rational men, manly men, men who can

stand up and face hard luck and big

difficulty and say live or die, survive or

perish, we are in for it, for good or bad, and

we'll stand by the ship if she goes to hell!

. . . If it is God's will that we'll pull

through--otherwise not. We haven't had an

observation for four months, but we are going

ahead, and do our best to fetch up somewhere.


This "moving speech" of "high courage" is reminiscent of Huck's "I'll go to hell" speech. tuckey then writes that "the last part of `The Great Dark' expresses strength and resoluteness rather than futility and despair" (xiii). Further, "Mark Twain had perhaps failed to reckon with his own capacity for rebound and affirmation (xiv). Tuckey sees the ending of "Which Was It?", another incomplete fragment, as another example of strength over weakness. He concludes that, in the last years, Twain had to examine both his sides, the positive and the negative, abandoning one manuscript when the mood changed, returning to it when the mood returned.

Mark Twain was unable to stay very long in

the company of one-sided views and half-

truths, especially when they were his own.

It is his insistent seeking of the twofold,

the duplicitous view that keeps him so

interesting. (xiv)

It is interesting that Tuckey sees the duality in short sketches set on "phantom ships." Henry Nash Smith observed in The Innocents Abroad: "phantom ships are on the sea, the dead of twenty centuries come forth from the tombs, and in the dirges of the night wind the songs of old forgotten ages find utterance again" (qtd. by Smith 10). Smith sees this description as an example of Twain's early duality. Twain could not merely be a clown but is also a sometimes awed spectator of beauty and romance. There are "vague and unreal' reveries" that were part of his dreams, the other side to his jaded realism ("How True Are Dreams?" 10). Beneath the realism, says tuckey, there is something more.

Yes, Mark Twain is interesting because he is difficult to nail down, to label, to cast in any one light. Tuckey

noted in his discussion of "Three Thousand Years among the Microbes" (composed, perhaps, during 1905-1906) that Isabel Lyon, Twain's secretary, wrote in her diary about the story, "I asked Mr. Clemens how long he'd been turning these marvelous imaginings over in his mind, and he said that the idea had been there for many years" (Race Track xv).

Tuckey notes, "It is most interesting to find in this bizarre narrative that he was still attempting to use his early recollections of Hannibal and the Mississippi that had served as the matrix of his best creative work . . . however curiously disguised or transformed" (xv). Tuckey notes that the "Bishop" of the microbe story is based on Tom Blankenship, model for Huckleberry Finn, a Hannibal friend. The veins and arteries in which the microbes travel are rivers that make "the Mississippi . . . trifling . . . by comparison"--Twain's words (xvii). In other words, Twain's last concerns were also his first.

Tuckey was not referring to skepticism or determinism in his notes; however, the point underlines my main thrust in this study--to ascribe Mark Twain's philosophical thoughts to late life bitterness and disappointment is a misleading notion. Tuckey found affirmation in the last writings, a revision of attitudes such as V. S. Pritchitt's 1941 "The Cruelty in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn":

When Mark Twain turned on the religion of

his childhood because it was intolerable,

he was unaware that it would destroy him

by turning him into a money grubber of the

most Puritan kind . . . amid the mess he

made of his life, amid the awful pile of

tripe that he wrote . . . one book arises

. . . one lucky break. (113)

This sort of thinking implies that the lack of religion led to a failure of epic proportions. There are, however, other ways, less coldhearted ways, to see the impact of religion on Mark Twain's life and work. Such attitudes have been a subject of revision for many years; this study is hopefully another challenge to such ideas.

In his biography of Mark Twain, Albert Bigelow Paine records a few youthful incidents that Twain recalled from the remembrances of his family. Twain told Paine that his brothers and sisters remembered that, in his earliest years, young Sam disrupted the evening bedside prayers of the siblings. Instead of doing his devotions, he would tell "amazing stories" that entertained and diverted the young members of his family (Biography 36).

This story notes, once again, that irreverence was born early in Sam Clemens; it also points to the future in that these feelings became part of his creative bank. He could create his own "amazing stories" equal to the religion that inspired his deepest thinking and his best work. Certainly he had need to wrestle with spiritual issues; otherwise mere "tripe" would have been the result. And religion was not alone in this matrix; other cultural institutions went under the scrutiny of young Sam Clemens and all were found equally wanting, equally human--not divine--in their makeup.

It is also clear that for nearly every piece of major writing by Mark Twain, we can point back to his first thirty years and find where the idea came from, and in some cases see why he was intrigued with the subject matter. It is equally clear that the style, storytelling techniques, the narrative point-of-view and other distinct elements of the fiction of Mark Twain can be seen in his earliest writings, as early as his journalism in his boyhood town of Hannibal, Missouri. This point may not be original, but it is herein stated anew in a new light, that of seeing both the techniques and the material together. Humorous techniques require comic material; Twain saw religion as comic material. He believed in no god; God was one of the concepts routinely tossed about in Twain's artistic incubator.

It is now critically acceptable for scholars to cease looking askance at the early writings and rather explore them carefully as more than a source for biographical information . A close examination of these pieces shows, without a doubt, Samuel Clemens's personal religious beliefs, and the sources for them. If we can point to one reason for Mark Twain's atheism, it would seem most likely that this view grew from his independent nature, his rebellion towards all things that smothered his unfettered spirit. Perhaps the incident in Huckleberry Finn where the oversized Bible, spread on the chest of the dying Boggs, crushing the life out of him, is as symbolic of Twain's religious attitude as anything he ever wrote. Religion by its construction puts blinders and limits on thinking and actions, and Mark Twain could not happily participate without "bucking the system."

One last point bears re-emphasis here. As noted in Chapter IV herein, Twain was influenced by the deism of Thomas Paine and the scientific determinism of MacFarlane. Twain also found affinity with the "eloquent atheist" Robert Ingersoll (Burr 174). Twain was affected by Ingersoll's `anti-clerical rationalism' derived from Voltaire, Paine, and the French Encyclopedists" (146). Burr notes that the two men were friends and correspondents, but unlike Ingersoll, Twain rarely attacked Christianity openly. Burr says Twain did not do so because, as I have stressed, he was writing to a popular audience to entertain, not to be didactic. Some critics have noted these influences--Ingersoll, Paine, Voltaire--and have said that Twain's religious sense was that of a deist, the most common critical assertion to date. But the evidence points to the fact that Twain was not a deist but a disbeliever.

As stated in Chapter I, this study expands, strengthens, and extends the chain of studies that show Mark Twain's religious skepticism. Once critics found religious doubt in his last works, they found evidence of this attitude in all his major writing beginning with The Innocents Abroad. The years before this first travel work are now no longer ignored. By exploring these early works, we can now flesh out critical explications of Mark Twain's philosophy from beginning to end.

It is also time to dismiss the notion that atheism destroyed Twain's mental and spiritual being. As Twain wrote to a devout Roman Catholic, Charles Warren Stoddard, he had "perfect peace in unbelief" (Gross 160). His private beliefs were known to his friends and family, but the reading public would not know them until after his death. The attitudes he had as a young man were revealed in his early writings covertly, as we have seen. Over the years as his reputation and popularity grew, he became freer to write what he wanted, saving his most savage attacks for posthumous publication. He had to use caution.

Even then, his first literary guardians, Albert Paine and daughter Clara, sought to keep the more unpopular attitudes buried. This is why Letters from the Earth was not published until 1964 and many other pieces published even later. Clearly, Clara still thought his anti-religious works were too dangerous for his public image. Another example, "What is Man?" was published anonymously in his lifetime. It was not until 1917, after his death, that it was published under his own name. Perhaps modern readers are better equipped to deal with Twain's ideas than Sam Clemens was himself. Perhaps he was more prophet than he knew, but a prophet with a clear profit motive. He knew his responsibilities; seventy years after his responsibilities ended, our responsibility is to record, as faithfully as possible, the "truth" as Mark Twain saw it.

It is also important to stress the idea that antipathy for religion need not be viewed as negative, an attitude based on disappointment or anger. Disbelief is an alternative philosophy with as many positive aspects as iconoclastic. Much of Mark Twain's flavor, humor, clear sightedness, and sympathy for the human condition derived from his unorthodox world view. His originality was certainly strengthened by his ability to dispense with what he considered "wishful thinking" in favor of a more realistic philosophy.

Labels such as "heretic," "skeptic," or "secular humanist" are perhaps only useful to those wishing to cast a disparaging eye on those not sharing their particular bias, using such terms to limit less narrow ways of thinking. Mark Twain, uneasy about simple categorization, learned early that doctrine was no substitute for substance, that the human heart changed more from within than without. Works were more revealing than words. The ideas he "preached" and the values he practiced were, in the long run, far more affirmative than negative. Twain's world view, based on his personal education, was more creative than destructive. The search for truth is a quest that necessitates discarding the unbelievable, and Mark Twain found many religions suspect and reworked their mythos into works clearly honest, refreshing, and subversively instructive. Much of the "meat" in Mark Twain's fiction depends on his wary explorations of human behavior, and so by understanding Mark Twain's religious sensibilities, we understand more of what Mark Twain was saying throughout his literary career.

It is rewarding to know that old age angst was not the source for Twain's "dark writings" but that Mark Twain developed his views from a variety of sources, influences, and experiences. By looking to the early years, it is clear that Twain's seedbed was not only early in formation but was also broad in scope. Only in a very narrow context can he be branded a "heretic," but in a wider view the term "skeptic" seems appropriate. For skepticism allows for a wider field of vision, and this vision was a gift Twain shared in his literary efforts. In short, skepticism gave Twain the philosophical base suitable for his temperament and literary gifts, and further, that this base helped give his fiction a depth and breadth missing in the work of many of his contemporaries. It is one thing to assert specific dogma, quite another to examine the varieties and complexities of the human condition. Skepticism seems

clearly to be not only the impetus to much of his writing but also allowed for the richness of the canvas he created.

It is for these reasons that this study contributes more than a scholarly overview of the development of Mark Twain's antipathy for religion; it contributes to the idea that this skepticism gave Twain his freedom of thought to fully explore both the best and the worst of the human heart. Skepticism, then, is of more than passing interest to readers of Mark Twain; it is germane to an understanding of his work, early, middle, and late. Skepticism was not only clearly apparent throughout Twain's life, but that this world view benefitted and strengthened the work of Mark Twain. We no longer need cast religion as Twain's "ordeal" or "burden" but can see that disbelief was one of Twain's literary if not personal strengths.

With this insight, criticism can look anew at the works of Mark Twain and see not only the obvious attacks on religion but also his alternative philosophy--the human heart is independent and can make its own choices. This idea is the most important message Twain conveyed regarding religion, that responsibility for the "damned human race" lies within the abilities of that race. For that reason, the fiction of Mark Twain still reaches and teaches, and will likely do so as long as readers share the same human impulse Sam Clemens observed in antebellum Hannibal. This is one reason why the fiction of Mark Twain is so universally appealing; he preaches "about" humanity, not "to" it. And, as long as there are readers, we cannot fail to benefit from the views of Mark Twain.


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