Letters from Hell: Mark Twain and “Satan” (part 1 of 3)

3 May

Mark Twain—or Samuel Langhorne Clemens, to use his Christian name—began his career as a humorist gamboling through Europe and the Holy Land, and taking an equally “wild romp through Scripture” (Ensor 19).

Treating the Bible as less-than-divinely inspired storybook of inconsistent literary quality and his fellow Christian travelers as less-than-divinely guided men and women of inconsistent moral quality, Mark Twain turned his travel book The Innocents Abroad into a satirical commentary on the hypocrisies of the supposedly pious American pilgrim.

His earliest published book and the work most popular during his lifetime, Twain’s Innocents contrasted the outward show of religiosity on the steamship Quaker City with the internal uncharitablility—even cruelty—of so many professing Christians.  Yet as sharp as his tone can be in The Innocents, these early jabs at human follies pale beside Twain’s later writings on religion; his correspondence from the Quaker City “was nothing compared to his attacks on the cruelty of God himself” (Enson 84).

From his first travel writings to his last—the fictional Letters from Earth, written by Twain alias Satan on the absurdity of human religion—Mark Twain’s criticism of religion broadened from a human to literally cosmic scale.  Irreverent in his earliest writings, the famous American satirist continued to prove at the end of his life that nothing was sacred—neither subject matter, human nature, nor God himself.

Religion always interested Mark Twain—though interest did not always inspire reverence.  In the port town of Hannibal, Missouri, reverence for the Bible loomed as large in the traditional community as the Mississippi River itself—and Twain, with his active imagination and cheeky disposition, used this scriptural inundation to good effect.

At Sunday school, for example, a young Sam Clemens put into play a rather un-Christian, Tom Sawyer-like scheme: seeking to earn the reward of library book borrowing privileges, Sam dutifully memorized Bible verses, though “according to his autobiography he simply recited the same five verses … every Sunday, and his teacher never seemed to be aware that he had heard them from the same person before” (Enson 3).

But eager as he may have been to reap reward without work, Twain’s indolence did not imply ignorance.  After reading through the Bible in its entirety as an adolescent (Enson 2), Mark Twain “inherited from his biblical training … the will to disbelieve, but also a lifelong fascination with the mythology taught” (Enson 4).  Twain revealed both this Christian heterodoxy and biblical acumen in his treatment of religious topics in The Innocents Abroad.

During the pilgrims’ visit to Egypt, Twain provides a prime example of his irreverent attitude toward the Bible and its hallowed stories.

At his pen, Jacob’s son Joseph—of the famed Technicolor dreamcoat—became less a Church father than a normal young man: lustful, and slightly unfilial.  Twain begins by twisting the orthodox story of Joseph’s imprisonment by Potifar.  While the biblical account holds that the spiteful Mrs. Potiphar cried rape only after she failed to seduce the upright Joseph, Twain remarks: “Joseph got into trouble with Potiphar’s wife at last, and both gave in their versions of the affair, but the lady’s was plausible and Joseph’s was most outrageously shaky” (Innocents 492).  A humorous retelling in itself if only for including sexual innuendo about a dignified patriarch, Twain’s implication is more pointed—it’s the “shaky” story that became canon.

Joseph in Egypt invites more “slangy versions of Bible stories” (Enson 7), with Twain turning the poignant reunion scene between Joseph and Jacob into an encounter more believable of a wealthy young man and his impoverished elderly father: “So Jacob went down into the land of Egypt, and tripped and fell upon Joseph’s neck; but Joseph caught him all right, and said ‘Go slow, Governor’” (Innocents 492).  And just to add contrast, the reunion of Jacob’s eleven other sons and their long lost brother drips with sentimentality, Twain adding the cue for: “(slow music.)”  (Enson 19).  Irreverence was the very bedrock of The Innocents Abroad.

Twain’s subversive character stood out on the Quaker City, whose composition reflected the reputable versus subversive conflict in microcosm:

Little time was required for Twain to discover that his fellow passengers were not his notion of ideal companions.  Many of them were advanced in age, and almost all of them disgustingly pious.  The irreverent westerner soon gathered around him a group of cronies—including his future brother-in-law—and had little connection with the respectable majority group.  (Enson 15)

And nothing on the Quaker City struck Twain and company as disgusting as “The Pilgrim.”  “Such tranquil stupidity, such supernatural gravity, such self-righteousness, and such ineffable self-complacency,” he writes of the “gray-bodied, dark-winged, bald-headed and preposterously uncomely bird” he and his friends spend an afternoon observing in the Marseilles Zoological Gardens (Innocents 101).

This old bird—a likely intentionally poor disguise for his sober, elderly, and overtly pious traveling companions—was for Twain “the most comical looking creature that can be imagined” (Innocents 101).  In a later letter, Twain quipped: “What a hell of a heaven it will be, when they get all these hypocrites assembled there!” (Smith 5).

This is part 1 of 3 excerpts from a paper I wrote for a University of Alabama American Studies course.  My works cited will be included at the end of part 3, so if you use any of these, please cite me–not only because I have a lifelong dream of being cited in a bibliography (because I do), but because there’s a special circle of hell just for plagiarists where you’re forced to edit inaccurate Wikipedia articles for all eternity.  Don’t go there.  Please.

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