In 1962, more than fifty years after Mark Twain’s death, his daughter finally allowed the publication of the essays and satirical short stories that were deemed too irreligious and controversial to see the light of day when he wrote them. The pieces were gathered by Twain’s literary executor Bernard DeVoto in a collection titled Letters from the Earth
, and they feature sharp takes on the inconsistencies and illogic of Christianity and biting criticisms of American life.
The idea that America’s pre-eminent humorist was also a genial atheist and Biblical debunker was shocking for some critics, who have argued that these must be the works of a man suffering deep grief over the deaths of his wife and daughter at the end of his life. However, it is clear that Twain actually authored most of these short writings much earlier in his career, and they are of a piece with the harsher truths of works like Huck Finn
. Of course, the irony
is that by the time this work was finally published, Twain’s critical view of Christianity was no longer as eyebrow-raising as it must have been when first written.
The collection is very long and uneven in quality, so this summary will cover the best known and most critically lauded of the pieces.
The eponymous story, “Letters from the Earth,” is a set of eleven letters written by Satan to the archangels Gabriel and Michael about his travels. Satan finds human beliefs about themselves almost insane, pointing out that their conception of heaven leaves out everything humans find most pleasurable in life (particularly sex). He also considers God’s hypocrisies: not forgiving Adam and Eve even though humans are supposed to forgive transgressors; forbidding jealousy but then calling himself a jealous God; killing all the large animals during Noah’s flood even though they weren’t guilty of anything; allowing cruelty and misery to torment the innocent.
The funny “Papers of the Adam Family” is basically a series of outtakes that didn’t make it into the Book of Genesis. Written as diary entries in the first person, the short story discusses what Eve thought about Adam – that he was a kind of scientist – and also goes into detail explaining why civilization couldn’t quite coalesce before the flood wiped out most life.
A series of essays called “The Damned Human Race” take apart human self-regard and self-importance and argue that we are possibly the lowest form of life rather than the highest. In the first essay, Twain points out the arrogance of assuming that the world was created for us – after all, our species is an extremely short-lived one in geological time. Next, Twain imagines an Animals’ Court which puts on trial what is clearly normal animal behavior – rabbits are scared, lions are brave, foxes steal, wolves kill, etc. – and punishes the guilty despite their pleas that they are only acting according to their natures. The inherent stupidity of this court correlates to the idea that there is one ideal morality that fits all people despite their inborn qualities. Later essays tackle our conviction that the created world is “good” despite obvious evidence to the contrary. The final essay turns Darwin’s “ascent of man” into a descent: man is the only animal that is willfully cruel, wasteful, sadistic, enslaving, etc.
There is a charming short bedtime story that explains morality through the behavior of a family of cats, naturally called “A Cat’s Tale.” The story uses a lot of wordplay, mixing up the different homophones of “tale” and playing with the syllable “cat” in a variety of words.
Another funny take on the idea of transgression and absolution is “Letter to the Earth,” a dry and legalistic bill sent by the Recording Angel to a millionaire coal dealer from Buffalo to keep careful bookkeeping of the man’s various pleas and prayers and tallying his moral credit and debit account to date. Part of the joke also is that since only the most sincere prayers are answered, the coal dealer’s most evil desires are the ones that are getting fulfilled. The final kicker comes when the Angel announces that that man is a shoe-in for heaven after sending fifteen dollars to a destitute cousin. This paltry piece of generosity is so at odds with the man’s nature that it has wiped his entire slate of bad deeds clean.
In “The French and the Comanches,” Twain considers the difference between these two civilizations. Although the Native Americans were considered by white Christians to be “savages,” the piece argues that the supposedly sophisticated French exhibit the same desire to kill and enslave. In fact, because the French are Christians who thus believe that they have a responsibility for the souls of their neighbors, their attacks on French Protestants are significantly morally worse. After all, the Comanches do not pretend to care about the spiritual well-being of the tribes they go to war against.
Finally, the narrative “The Great Dark” is an unfinished fantastical novella about Henry Edwards, who uses his dream state to consider the nature of reality and the self after seeing the microscopic world inside a droplet of water. Controlled by a dark alter-ego called the Superintendent of Dreams, Henry finds himself on a ship voyaging into a Great Dark that frightens even the captain. The ship voyage appears to be a dream, but the unreliability of Henry as a narrator, and the Superintendent’s insistence that it is the ship that is Henry’s real life contributes to a feeling of eeriness. As various passengers, including Henry’s wife and daughters, explain their versions of reality and truth, the world of the story folds in on itself further and further.