The Heart in Twain by Franklin Freeman
FSJ & Touchstone Fundraising
Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis
of His Age by Harold K. Bush, Jr.
University of Alabama Press, 2007
(352 pages, $47.50, hardcover)
reviewed by Franklin Freeman
God “gives you a wife and children whom you adore, only that through
the spectacle of the wanton shames and miseries which He will inflict upon
them He may tear the palpitating heart out of your breast and slap you in the
face with it.”
So wrote Mark Twain, but nevertheless, writes Harold Bush, “there is
abundant evidence of Twain’s strong religious proclivities throughout
his life. . . . It even makes sense to summarize America’s most famous
author in the same way that he once summarized himself—as ‘a moralist
Twain did shake his fist at God, but there is a lot more to the story. Besides
giving evidence for the obvious point that a man who shakes his fist at God
must still believe in God, Bush shows, in this “cultural biography of
Mark Twain’s religious ethos,” how very much involved Twain was
with the religious thought of his time.
The Religious Twain
In his correspondence with his pastor and best friend, Joe Twichell, Twichell’s
notes, and Twain’s notebooks and published works, we see a man both reverent
and irreverent by turn, who seeks understanding and truth, and who, though
never becoming an orthodox Christian, attended an orthodox church (Twichell’s)
for most of his later life, chose to live in a social milieu that stood for
a liberal (in a social, not doctrinal, sense), intellectual, and manly Christianity,
and was generous with time and money to such causes as the Chinese Educational
Mission. His church’s records show “not only that Twain often donated
money for many causes, including foreign missions, but also that he frequently
gave more than anyone else.”
He also frequently discussed theology with Twichell, pastor of Asylum Hill
Congregational Church in Hartford, and with the Monday Evening Club, to which
both belonged. In 1902, after carefully reading Jonathan Edwards’s Freedom
of the Will, he wrote an “elaborate critique,” which, Bush says,
shows his “powerful theological sensibilities . . . capable of making
careful and complicated distinctions.”
Because of what Bush calls Twain’s “extreme deism,” he
was “unable to embrace the paradoxical nature of this controversy” over
the nature of the will.
Twain was left to maintain a [in Twichell’s words] “flat necessitarianism” and
accept the moral implications of that position: that ultimately mankind is
not responsible for his sins, so God must be. Still he often suffered utter
despair in the face of what he perceived to be his own guilt.
Bush, an associate professor of English at Saint Louis University (and contributor
to Touchstone), explains this and more abundant evidence throughout seven chapters,
each focusing on one aspect of Twain’s life: his roots in Missouri; his
wife’s “Victorian Home”; his friendship with Joe Twichell;
his liberal faith in what was called the Social Gospel; his views on the Civil
War; his preoccupation in later years with the figure of Adam; and his profound
grief at the loss of his daughter Susy, and his wife Livy.
Each is well-documented and convincing, but the last is the most compelling
and representative, compelling because of the subject matter, representative
because it concludes all the elements of the argument that have come before.
In August 1896, when Twain was in England, his eldest daughter Susy died of
spinal meningitis as her mother was on the way to nurse her.
This event, Bush asserts, was the most crucial event of Twain’s last
fourteen years (he died in 1910). He was devastated by his loss, but also hoped
for some sort of reunion in an afterlife.
Bush’s evidence for this comes from letters and published and unpublished
works. In his grief, he felt cut off from God, but “all of this evidence
suggests that even if Twain did not embrace wholeheartedly a Christian version
of the afterlife, his hope in one lingered on, possibly even to the very end.”
He wrote of feeling cut off from God in many stories that involved ships
getting lost or trapped and unable to move. Bush explains:
These nightmarish enactments dramatized the gist of a phrase that Twain
began using occasionally in his writing of this period: . . . “And
so on, and so on.” It was a feature picked up later by one of Twain’s
truest literary protégés of the twentieth century, Kurt Vonnegut,
to signify the apparent futility of human existence.
But Twain also “maintained a bond with the transcendent.” He
wrote two elegies about Susy, “In Memoriam” and “Broken Idols,” suffused
with religious imagery and hope for an afterlife.
This hopefulness, Bush writes, was reflected not only in the elegies, his
other published work, and correspondence with Twichell, but also in Twain’s
visit to terminally ill patients in a London hospital, during which he cheered
them up despite his own grief, and in his correspondence with Rose Hawthorne,
a daughter of Nathaniel who became a Catholic nun, wherein he offered to support
her work with destitute incurable cancer patients.
The best evidence of Twain’s desire for the transcendent, however,
is his book Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, published in 1896. This
historical novel, while expressing Twain’s “great idolization of
innocent young women” and his engagement with “gender and social
reform,” also “celebrates home and hearth, and the composition
process reflects that element.” Twain wrote a friend that the book “is
private & not for print, it’s written for love and not for lucre, & to
entertain the family with, around the lamp by the fire.”
Most critics are agreed that the novel is not of great quality, and some
have disparaged it because of its idolization of young women. Bush suggests
that the book is “a particularly clear confession of Twain’s continued
spiritual sensibility—a frank affirmation of the better angels of humanity’s
nature, or at least of his desire to continue striving after them.”
Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age is a substantial corrective
to the stereotyped view of Twain as “the alienated, grief-ridden curmudgeon
shaking his fist at God.” It is free of the jargon of much contemporary
literary criticism and unusually attentive to Twain’s theology. My only
quibbles are that Bush sometimes overstates his case and that two of the chapters
have a section about Malcolm Muggeridge’s view of gargoyles, fascinating
in themselves, that repeat one another in substance.
“Despite all the pain,” writes Bush, summing up his argument,
Mark Twain still managed to leave a legacy of human hopefulness . . . a
hope that somehow broke through the doctrinal particularities of any denomination
or sect and reached for a living ethics that “preaches all the time.” And
it was a living hope that has survived long after Twain was dead and buried.
This is a book well worth reading, not only for scholars, but for anyone
interested in Twain and the effects of grief on the human heart.
Franklin Freeman is a freelance writer living in Saco, Maine, with his wife and four children.
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