04 September 2009

Mark Twain's Literary Afterlife

One of the books I mentioned as influencing my life, certainly my literary preoccupations, was a 1962 Mark Twain collection entitled Letters from the Earth. The story behind it is an odd one, and takes us down some bizarre pathways of history.

In his own time Mark Twain was known as a comic writer and lecturer. There were a lot of them around then, most of them forgotten. They were very roughly the equivalent of present-day stand-up comedians, and for the most part were relatively harmless. One of my favorites—and certainly a more typical example than Mark Twain—was an Oregon lecturer named Elisha Applegate. His most famous routine was on the topic of "Mohammed and the Koreish". The lecture was so popular in Oregon that when Applegate was appointed to be a sort of cultural ambassador for the state in 1873, Portland's leading citizens urged him to deliver the lecture one last time before departing for the nation's capital. The content of the lecture is not apparently available, but we do know that he took a somewhat tolerant view of Islam, sometimes comparing it favorably to Christianity. One much quoted bon-mot regarding Islamic polygamy vs. Christian infidelity was to the effect that Islam had the harem system, while Christianity had the harum-scarum system.

Humorous lecturers were, well, not uncommon, and not especially respected, and it was to this class that Mark Twain was seen to belong. The genius of, say, Huckleberry Finn was recognized in Europe long before it was recognized in the United States. And, not to put too fine a point on it, a lot of Mark Twain's success in the United States was as a harmless necessary comedian.

But funnyman Mark Twain was a creation of Samuel Clemens—and Clemens was a much more complicated fellow than the comic lecturer. As a child young Samuel had trembled at each thunderstorm, fearing the wrath of God. And as he grew up he more and more came to lose his childlike faith in the god he had learned about in Sunday school. The mindless workings of nature—the young spiders who preyed on their mother, the parasitic wasp who laid its eggs in a living but paralyzed host—convinced him more and more that God was not merely wrathful, but downright malevolent. Tormented by visions of the worthy being punished while the unrighteous prospered, of the unworthy motives behind even the most seemingly altruistic actions—in short, by the way the world actually worked, he relived these images in a series of works destined to remain unpublished in his lifetime. Some of them—The Chronicle of Young Satan, for example, or "Letter from the Recording Angel," are among his best work.

One of these was something he called "Letters from the Earth." In it a supernatural being visits our planet and writes back to his fellow super-beings about the religion he finds there—specifically about Christianity as it was practiced in nineteenth-century America. Naive views of heaven, prayer, and the nature of God are satirized freely. He wrote to a correspondent (Elizabeth Wallace) on 13 November 1909 about it:

I've been writing "Letters from the Earth," and if you will come here and see us I will— what? Put the MS in your hands, with the places to skip marked? No. I won't trust you quite that far. I'll read messages to you. This book will never be published—in fact it couldn't be, because it would be felony to soil the mails with it, for it has much Holy Scripture in it of the kind that . . . can't properly be read aloud, except from the pulpit and in family worship. Paine enjoys it, but Paine is going to be damned one of these days, I suppose.

Albert B. Paine was Twain's biographer, and he certainly seems to have enjoyed "Letters from the Earth." He made no serious attempt to get the work published, however, though he did include one short passage (with unmentioned excisions) in his biography. Other than that the work remained unknown for decades. Several of Twain's unpublished pieces made their way into print, often with rather dubious editorial emendations (see my piece on The Mysterious Stranger for an example), but not that one.

In 1939 literary critic Bernard Devoto made a determined effort to get it out. He put together a collection of unpublished Twain fragments and provided it with notes and explanations. But Samuel Clemens' daughter Clara objected to it strongly, and the volume didn't appear. She felt it presented a distorted reflection of her father's views. She may well have been right—but Samuel Clemens did write these pieces, and they by no means stand alone.

Now Devoto made some interesting choices in several of the items. "Papers of the Adams Family" for example are somewhat unrelated sketches written many years apart, having in common only that they were attributed to various antediluvian figures. It's not exactly bogus (and Devoto was straightforward about what he was doing)—but it's not exactly Twain either. "The Damned Human Race" is likewise made up of fragments—various vaguely philosophical notes Clemens wrote late in his life—assembled in their present form by Devoto. "Cooper's Prose Style" is made up of two manuscripts—an unfinished lecture and the original ending to "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses."

Which takes us back to "Letters from the Earth." To provide the letters with a prolog, Devoto turned to another earlier MS of Twain's—an unfinished piece called "The Creation of Man." This describes the Creator's invention of the universe and the reactions of Gabriel, Michael, and Satan to it. At the end of it Satan heads off to earth and starts a letter back to Gabriel and Michael about what he finds there. The MS breaks off in mid-sentence.

Paine wrote about the two pieces that "Letters from the Earth" was suggested by "The Creation of Man," but was "not a continuation of it." Devoto overruled Paine, however, commenting "Nevertheless the transition is direct and the continuation unmistakable"; he therefore omitted the final lines of "The Creation of Man" and attached it to "Letters from the Earth." In point of fact it is nowhere stated in "Letters from the Earth" who exactly is writing to whom; the focus is on mankind as seen from a supernatural perspective. The author only becomes Satan as a result of Devoto's combination of the two MSS.

Some of the material slated for the book, also entitled Letters from the Earth, made it into print during the next couple of decades. (Should you be interested, and I feel quite certain that you are not, they were "The Gorky Incident" (1944), "Cooper's Prose Style" (1946), "Letter from the Recording Angel" (1946), and "A Cat-Tale" (1959).) Nothing of "Letters from the Earth" itself seems to have escaped.

Oddly enough it was cold war politics that at last allowed the appearance of "Letters from the Earth." Mark Twain was something of a hero in the old Soviet Union, and charges of censorship stung in America, the land where free speech was a valued right. Not willing to give the Soviets a talking-point, Clara Clemens Gabrilowitsch finally relented, and the book at last appeared.

It made ripples, but it was by no means as shocking in 1962 as it would have been in 1939. I read it with considerable interest as an eleven-year-old; it was a side of Mark Twain I'd never seen before, though people who had read more of Twain than appeared in The Little Golden Library (or whatever the real name of the series was) would not have seen much that was new. In an earlier entry I wrote about the effect the book had on me; especially the violence and injustice recorded in the Bible about the conquest of Canaan. The effect on more sophisticated (or at least more adult) readers was not so striking. One reviewer parodied The Screwtape Letters (1942) to express his disappointment that this book was not really the devilish concoction the demonic realm had been hoping for. And many reviewers observed that the naive views of religion and the afterlife attacked in it were not the views of sophisticated theologians—as if those views were actually shared by the majority of the American people. Certainly the delay helped blunt the effect of the work—though in point of fact, it may never have been as unpublishable as Twain thought it was.

One of the oddities of this publishing history is that this piece, "Letters from the Earth", a hundred years old this year, is still in copyright in the United States. It will be in copyright in the United States until 2057—a fact that would please Mark Twain no end, as he was a great believer in perpetual copyright. Samuel Clemens has been dead for nearly a century now, and most of his works have quite properly entered the land of public domain, but not this tiny handful. Clemens' dead hand will hold these works with an iron grip for more than a century and a half before they become part of the general heritage of the American people. It's interesting—but tough.

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