In honor of the publication in 1885 of “Huckleberry Finn,” let’s talk about how ahead of the curve America’s Favorite Ginger Mark Twain was on practically every serious issue facing the country.
Samuel Clemens came of age during a period in American history marked by problematic moral questions, from the spiritual devastation of slavery to an explosion of scientific advances that upended the known world. As the literal and metaphorical borders shifted, traditional Judeo-Christian values failed to address these new questions. Reflecting on the meaning of this failure, Twain observed that “the altar cloth of one eon is the doormat of the next.”
He was almost obscenely prolific; the Mark Twain Project at the University of California received approximately one million handwritten pages from his daughter Clara. Additionally, more than 5000 new letters have been discovered since 1960, although some experts believe he wrote at least 50,000. Like Tom Sawyer spying on his own funeral, Twain gleefully anticipated the scandals and fanfare which he hoped would accompany his posthumously released works, many of which were scathingly heretical. Harold Bush and William Phipps, who wrote “Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age” and “Mark Twain’s Religion” respectively, tried to solve the problem of how Mark Twain could be on the one hand this sharp-tongued social critic, while Sam Clemens was deeply in love with his devoutly religious wife Olivia, and close friends with Reverends Joe Twichell, and Thomas and Henry Ward Beecher. In fact, the heresy trial of Henry Ward Beecher greatly alienated Clemens from organized religion. Additionally, the massive (and growing) inequality of the Gilded Age, along with the rise of scientific thinking, contributed to a widespread spiritual malaise which he both helped to create, and was deeply affected by.
More compelling than the national mood, however, was his own personal history. Half of his family, 3 of his 6 siblings and his father, were dead by the time he turned 12. He held himself responsible for the death of a fourth sibling, his younger brother Henry, and later for the illness and death of his infant son Langdon. He lost 2 more daughters in their 20’s, and he outlived his wife Olivia as well. He made and lost several fortunes, including Olivia’s inheritance, and was forced by bankruptcy into exile for almost a decade. There is little consensus on his religious perspective – Bush called him an adherent of the social gospel, Phipps labels him a “tolerant monotheist,” and many scholars believe he was an atheist –Twain was such a skilled satirist that sifting genuine beliefs out of the exaggerations and tall tales can be difficult. However, the string of personal tragedies he experienced must surely have called to mind the much put-upon Job. He wrote in The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, “All say, ‘How hard it is that we have to die’ – a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.”
Clemens’ personal heartbreak coincided with the national upheaval of the Civil War. His slave-owning mother Jane was a proud confederate, while his brother Orion joined the Union Army. Sam himself briefly joined a militia composed of childhood friends, but his wartime experience was limited to camping in the woods for a week. The Clemens family’s split clearly mirrored that of the country at large; the moral compass provided by the church spun wildly as both abolitionists and slave-owners used opposing interpretations of the Bible to support their claims. He recalled how literal biblical interpretations were used by the clergy as evidence of God’s approval of slavery; later, he wrote that in the years leading up to the war, “There was no place in the land where the seeker could not find some small budding sign of pity for the slave. No place in all the land but one – the pulpit.”
Like the country at large, he would wrestle with issues of race and slavery for the rest of his life, returning to them again and again in his writing. The church’s claim to moral authority was catastrophically damaged in the wake of abolition. He wrote that:
“In all the ages the Roman Church has owned slaves, bought and sold slaves, authorized and encouraged her children to trade in them. Long after some Christian peoples had freed their slaves the Church still held on to hers. If any could know, to absolute certainty, that all this was right, and according to God’s will and desire, surely it was she, since she was God’s specially appointed representative in the earth and sole authorized and infallible expounder of his Bible. There were the texts; there was no mistaking their meaning…she had no word to say against human slavery. …. The texts remain: it is the practice that has changed. Why? Because the world has corrected the Bible. The Church never corrects it…”
For Twain, like many Americans, the Church’s place on the wrong side of such a serious and clear issue as slavery irreparably damaged her credibility as an ethical leader.
While the church was failing to correct the world, Twain discovered a group of European social critics and scientists. He had left school at the age of eleven, and instead of attending college he devoured the newly published texts of Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, Arthur Schopenhauer, Sir Charles Lyell, Friedrich Nietzsche, and many others. In a letter to his brother Orion in 1865 he wrote, “I have a religion – but you will call it blasphemy. It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor. You are in trouble, & in debt – so am I. I am utterly miserable – so are you.” Twain had grown disillusioned with the traditional teachings of the Christian church, and began to look towards scientific fields for answers. He found that the principles of secular humanism (belief in science, ethical naturalism, a focus on fulfillment in this life rather than a possibility of an afterlife, rational moral principles not predicated on supernaturalism, rejection of religious dogma, and critical assessment of ideologies) made far more sense in assessing reality. For all practical purposes, he had begun the process of conversion from a good Presbyterian boy to a secular humanist.
Throughout the latter part of the nineteenth century, a tide of scientific advances were challenging religious dogma – and winning. Darwin’s “Origin of the Species” sent shock waves through society when it was published in 1859, inspiring an immediate and vicious denunciation from the religious community. Twain found the evidence more convincing than the rebuttal. In his biography, he remarked that “[t]he Church has opposed every innovation and discovery from the day of Galileo down to our own time, when the use of anesthetic in childbirth was regarded as a sin because it avoided the biblical curse pronounced against Eve. And every step in astronomy and geology ever taken has been opposed by bigotry and superstition.” In 1887, Twain crystallized his shifting spiritual views in a letter to his dear friend William Howells, writing:
“People pretend that the Bible means the same to them at 50 that it did at all former milestones in their journey. I wonder how they can lie so. It comes of practice, no doubt. They would not say that of Dickens’ or Scott’s books. Nothing remains the same. When a man goes back to look at the house of his childhood, it has always shrunk: there is no instance of such a house being as big as the picture in memory and imagination call for. Shrunk how? Why, to its correct dimensions: the house hasn’t altered; this is the first time it has been in focus.
Well, that’s loss. To have house and Bible shrink so, under the disillusioning corrected angle, is loss–for a moment. But there are compensations. You tilt the tube skyward and bring planets and comets and corona flames a hundred and fifty thousand miles high into the field. Which I see you have done, and found Tolstoi. I haven’t got him in focus yet, but I’ve got Browning…”
But the reactionary hysteria of religious institutions towards science was not the only area ripe for criticism; Twain would become increasingly more incensed by the symbiosis of imperialism and missionary zeal.
The turn of the twentieth century marked a very public political awakening for Twain. He underwent a 180 degree change regarding colonialism and interventionism in the one year period between 1898 and 1899. Formerly an ardent supporter of the Spanish American War, he had believed that US involvement would help to free Cuba from Spanish abuse. However, the very next year, when the US expanded operations to the Philippines, Twain sided with the Pilipino nationalists. He explained that he had been a “…red-hot imperialist. I wanted the American eagle to go screaming into the Pacific … But I have thought some more, since then, and I have read carefully the treaty of Paris, and I have seen that we do not intend to free, but to subjugate the people of the Philippines.” Although his ire was primarily directed against the political powers, he would soon come to believe that the Church bore as much, if not more, of the responsibility for military and economic devastation of resource-rich lands.
Twain referred to himself as “The American,” but when he made his definitive stand against religionists, it was in China. The violent Boxer Uprising which kindled and raged throughout China for three years was directly traceable to imperialistic policies of western nations, who forced the importation of both opium and millions of missionaries, seized Chinese land and exempted foreigners from many laws (a scenario that would play out again, with similar results, in 20th century Iran). Because many Christians had been targeted and slain in the rebellion, a prominent missionary named William Scott Ament, along with a number of missionary organizations demanded indemnities. Ament led both Chinese and foreign Christians to retaliate against the Boxers with looting, murder, extortion and arson on a massive scale. Twain, aghast at a Christmas Eve newspaper report of Ament’s actions, was inspired both to join the Anti-Imperialist League and to write a scathing indictment of imperialism, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” which refers to Kiplings pro-colonialism ode “White Man’s Burden.” Twain laid the sarcasm on thick, claiming that
“Mr. Ament’s financial feat of squeezing a thirteen-fold indemnity out of the pauper peasants to square other people’s offenses, thus condemning them and their women and innocent little children to inevitable starvation and lingering death, in order that the blood money so acquired might be ‘used for the propagation of the Gospel,’ does not flutter my serenity…”
The venom dripping from his pen is palpable. Although the sharpest barbs were aimed at Ament’s jugular, Twain used the essay to broadly criticize European and American imperialism in not only China, but the Philippines, Cuba, and South Africa. In another venue, a speech to the Red Cross, Twain said:
“I bring you the stately matron named Christendom, returning bedraggled, besmirched, and dishonored, from pirate raids in Kiaochow, Manchuria, South Africa, and the Philippines, with her soul full of meanness, her pocket full of boodle, and her mouth full of pious hypocrisies. Give her soap and towel, but hide the looking glass.”
Clearly, his political and religious views had radicalized from the weak neutrality of his Civil War days; he had come to believe that detachment in the face of oppression was a luxury no moral person could afford. But Twain’s most stylized and eloquent response to the tide of American military actions was kept under wraps while he was alive. “The War Prayer,” written in 1904, describes an unnamed country that has just declared war. The excitement and righteous fervor of the citizenry is palpable, as young volunteers prepare to leave for the front to fight for God and country. In church, the pastor prays “that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers, and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in the day of battle and the hour of peril, bear them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory…”
An old man claiming to be a messenger from God appears to complete the “unuttered” second part of the prayer, for suffering, chaos and death in the land of the enemy. The flock of the faithful concludes that he must be crazy. When Twain’s publisher refused to print the essay, he sent it to Harper’s Bazaar, who also declined. It was eventually printed in Harper’s Monthly in 1916, six years after his death, only months before the beginning of US involvement in the First World War.
The body of Twain’s nonfiction writing illustrates the deeper problem that the American public had to contend with. Governments have always been corrupt in their pursuit of power. However, a major role of religion has always been as a moral arbiter, resolving conflicts and maintaining social cohesion. Throughout Twain’s life, the church failed to properly serve their clear purpose, instead sowing greater seeds of discord and confusion as her grip on power slipped away. He was not merely disappointed by this spiritual failure; he feels righteous fury at the church for her betrayal of an ancient covenant. This anger is illuminated somewhat by his description of his own place in society. Upon receiving an honorary degree from Yale, Twain explained that his job as a humorist is
“…a worthy calling; that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it – the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that who so is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.”
Twain had made a lifelong good-faith attempt to understand and improve religious piety. Because she either could not or would not do the same, he judged the church to be a bankrupt institution. Today, studies show that religious adherence in the United States has massively declined since Twain’s lifetime. Despite the strength of his denunciations, Twain did maintain hope for religion – derived, ironically enough, from the premise of evolution. In “Europe and Elsewhere,” after he excoriated the church for needing to be dragged behind the moral arc of the universe kicking and screaming, he closed the chapter with a hopeful prognostication: “It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.”