Letters from Hell: Mark Twain and “Satan” (part 3 of 3)

3 May

Mark Twain’s first, and bestselling, book serves a dual purpose as both humor and travel writing—an example of both subversive satire and the tradition of respectable travel correspondence from the European world of high culture and privilege.

For this reason, “it would be a great mistake to suppose the book is just a big package of Mark Twain’s jokes… It is the panorama of Europe and the Holy Land as they were seen by one who went abroad with no illusions; who carried about with him a shrewd pair of American eyes” (Stowe 147).

Though brash and uncultured to both the reputable pilgrims he travels with and the European aristocrats he travels to, these shrewd American eyes of Twain’s provide him with the perspective to see through the hypocrisies of the superficially pious and the low moral standards of the Old World’s supposedly high culture.  If “until very late in the [nineteenth] century the United States was widely believed to lack … traditions, glamour, polish, and culture” (Stowe 5), then the westerner Twain embodied this assumption writ small—essentially in The Innocents Abroad Mark Twain paints both himself and Americans in general as subversives.

But in his later “travel writings,” Twain expands his scope; his Letters from the Earth, written nearly half a century later, turn the entire human race into a subversive class, and reveal the hypocrisies of a supposedly reputable God.

Unpublished until well after his death, the Letters from the Earth explore the very darkest rooms in the religious edifice.

Casting himself as the archangel Satan, Twain writes as if a shocked observer of the insignificant little planet of Earth, which thinks itself so great.  “The people are all insane, the other animals are all insane, the earth is insane, Nature itself is insane.  Man is a marvelous curiosity” (Letters 7), Satan writes back home to his friends in Heaven, St. Gabriel and St. Michael:

Moreover—if I may put another strain upon you—he thinks he is the Creator’s pet … he even believe the Creator loves him; had a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes, and watch over him and keep him out of trouble.  He prays to Him, and thinks He listens.  Isn’t it a quaint idea? … He prays for help, and favor, and protection every day; and does so with hopefulness and confidence, too, although no prayer has ever been answered.  (Letters 7)

Again, Twain’s answer—or rather, Satan’s—is to look to man and his own achievements, not superstition.

“The poor’s only real friend is their fellow man” (Letters 32), Satan asserts, echoing Twain’s comparison of the Doctor to Christ, supposed friend of the poor.

And yet, “if science exterminates a disease which has been working for God”—God being the omniscient, omnipotent creator of germs and microbes—“it is God that gets the credit, and all the pulpits break into grateful advertising raptures … He has been thinking about it for six thousand years, and making up his mind.  The idea of exterminating the hookworm was his.  He came very near doing it before Dr. Charles Wardell Stiles did.  But he is in time to get the credit of it.  He always is” (Letters 34).

By this point in his writing, Twain does not even give glancing credit to the teachings of Jesus Christ.  “It was as Jesus Christ,” in fact, that God “devised hell and proclaimed it”—torment for mortals even beyond Life’s “fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasures poisoned by pain” (Letters 44).  God has for Twain become nothing less than the “Great Criminal” (Letters 36)—“it is wonderful,” Satan remarks drolly, “the thorough and comprehensive study which the Creator devoted to the great work of making man miserable” (Letters 32).

Perhaps Christ healed the sick, Twain allowed in The Innocents Abroad, but, writing in the last years of his career and life, the satirist considers who created sickness and torment—temporal or eternal—to begin with.  But this seems to make sense as Satan interprets the Bible—“I the Lord thy God am a jealous God” means to him, “I the Lord thy God am a small God, a small God, and fretful about small things” (Letters 27).

In Letters from the Earth, God represents the greatest hypocrite of all: a being who receives praise and reputable status while working the most widespread immorality Twain can imagine.  “If he has a motto,” Satan suggests of God, “it would have read, ‘Let no innocent person escape’” (Letters 49).

Human beings, after all—Satan argues—came into being through no act of their own, have no control over their temperament or circumstances, and attempt to live under religious strictures that are “as I have said: every statute in the Bible and in the lawbooks is an attempt to defeat a law of God—in other words an unalterable and indestructible law of nature” (Letters 39).  In this grim set of letters, Satan’s comment here segues into one of the more humorous examples of religious absurdity: rules regarding sexual conduct.

“During twenty-three days in every month,” Satan explains to his friends back home, “from the time a woman is seven years old till she dies of old age, she is ready for action, and competent … but man is only briefly competent, from the age of sixteen or seventeen thenceforward for thirty-five years” (Letters 40).

By Satan’s logic, these biological facts reflect the Law of Nature, which he and all the archangels had previously agreed, was interchangeable with the Law of God (Letters 4).  Thus, if anything, a woman ought to control a harem of men, as “no woman ever sees the day that she can’t overwork, and defeat, and put out of commission any ten masculine plants that can be put to bed to her” (Letters 41).  Astonishingly, human religion has subverted this law of nature, and restricted woman to one man.  Satan, for his part, is outraged.

Readers can fairly safely impute this outrage to the man behind the persona, Mark Twain—or even deeper down, Samuel Clemens.

Satan reflects a number of attributes characteristic of the irreverent Twain: Satan’s visit to Earth was less a pleasure trip than a forced exile as punishment for the archangel’s impudence—“Satan had been making admiring remarks about certain of the Creator’s sparkling industries—remarks which, being read between the lines, were sarcasms” (Letters 6).  Satan, in effect, is a satirist.  Of course, the exiled angel’s footnote that he plans to publish his correspondence on this little parochial planet Earth only bears out the interpretation.

Thus as dark as his tone may grow and as viciously as he writes—exploring human nature’s cruelty as second only to God’s—the narrator remains the same man as the writer of The Innocents Abroad.  And all of these religious writings reflect an influence dating back to his childhood in Hannibal, Missouri—

Raised in “a community where many people revered the Bible as the Word of God, as virtually a letter direct from the hand of the Almighty” (Enson), Twain countered with his own letters.  Though employing an increasingly dismal tone, the letters from Twain and Satan remain those of an optimist—attacking the superstition and hypocrisy he saw as a major cause of human suffering.  And while Twain never separated himself from the “rest of the damned human race … no doubt he honestly believed, as he said countless times in public and private, that he was a moral coward” (Smith xvii), his own works make Twain himself a hypocrite.

Rather than cowardice, Mark Twain’s fearless irreverence merits the virtues he imputes to his alter ego Satan: “There was some aimless and halting conversation about matters of no consequence,” Twain writes of the archangels, “until at last the archangel Satan gathered his courage together—of which he had a very good supply—and broke ground” (Letters 3).

Works Cited

Ensor, Allison. Mark Twain & The Bible. Lexington, KY: University Of Kentucky Press, 1969. Print.

Morgan, H. Wayne. American Writers in Rebellion, from Mark Twain to Dreiser. Berlin: Hill & Wang Pub, 1965. Print.

Smith, Janet (ED). Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race. New York: Hill And Wang, 1962. Print.

Stowe, William W.. Going Abroad: European Travel in Nineteenth-Century American Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.

Twain, Mark. Letters from the Earth. Bernard DeVoto ed. New York, Evanston, and London : Harper & Row, 1962. Print.

Twain, Mark. The Innocents Abroad. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2003. Print.

One Response to “Letters from Hell: Mark Twain and “Satan” (part 3 of 3)”

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