Letters From the Earth, Uncensored Writings, Mark Twain
the old joke where a recently deceased citizen arrives at the pearly
gates; Gabriel asks, Name? Sam Clemons. Um...
don't have you on the list. How would I know you? Well, I wrote Life
on the Mississippi and other books. Oh, Mark, come on in.
In Letters from the Earth,
Mark unleashes his impatience with silly belief-without-evidence
theology and convention by craftily taking on that persona himself,
arguing, in the essay The Damned Human Race,
that “the world was made for man and the universe was made for the
world – to stiddy it, you know.” That being settled then, the
astronomical argument, he moves on to the geologic evidence. This
involves a pretty sophisticated use of Darwin's origin theories to
argue that the millions of years of development of life, bacteria,
cells, etc; was all necessary to lay the ground for man. It is as if
just saying it makes it so and therein lies Twain's witty mockery of
dogma and uncritical thought, all too familiar to us lately here over
a hundred years later.
critique of fundamentalist religion and convention may account for
the 50 year delay in publication though Twain's executor, his
daughter, claimed that the material was not up to his standards. True
in some cases, especially the first part where an attempt to portray
the creator, and his entourage, discussing the mortals, is quite
funny in places but cumbersome and ultimately doesn't hold together.
It is certainly unfinished. That god rested after creating the
universe and concluded that it was good, comes in for some Twain-ism,
reminding the maker that mosquitos, rattle snakes, rats, flu, the
black plague etc; can hardly be called good. A sketch of Noah's
famous Arc is hilarious with all the glossed over problems inherent
in a literal reading. Deadly enemies, lethal serpents, lions and
lambs all co-housed in a space too tiny by far for the numbers
necessary. Feeding, cleanup and other weighty housekeeping went
unmentioned in the original tale but not in Mark's. And the maker
gets more scolding for his numerous sadistic and xenophobic commands
to believers, like those that involve slaughtering all males above
age 12 and enslaving the rest of a conquered opponent.
book is a collection of short pieces. One is on ettiquette, how to
behave at certain social functions ie, at a funeral, don't bring your
dog. Most helpful is a section on how to decide the order in which to
rescue people from burning buildings and what a proper comment might
be, depending also on class, both of the rescuer and rescuee. The
Great Dark is an exasperating tale about a
happy family purchasing a microscope and enjoying the astonishingly
enlarged, previously invisible creatures there. Later, waking during
the night the family finds themselves on a microscopically tiny ship
in the drop of water on said instrument. Only the father realizes
where they are. All others see an endless sea, sometimes turbulent,
often placid with occasional appearances by grotesque monsters.
Eventually the father begins to doubt his knowledge of where he is
and eventually accepts the idea that they are on a voyage to the
South Pole, and always have been. The transition to this belief is so
convoluted that the author himself seems not quite sure what the true
situation is. Another short piece, A Cat-Tale,
describes the nightly routine at Mark's place, inventing bedtime
stories for his children who are encouraged to interrupt with
questions which are always wittily addressed.
all of this entertainment reaches quite the level of writing and
subtlety of Huckleberry Finn
but as a look at some of the left-overs of a great writer, it does
the job. And from the man who opined, when the U.S. invaded the
Philippines in 1898, that the stars and bars
should be replaced by the skull and cross-bones,
it is great fun to encounter challenges to convention that, radical
in their day, stand still relevant to our time. One could possibly
conclude that narrow minds not only live on but pretty much dominate
across eras... so far.