The Heart in Twain
Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age
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 in disguise.’”
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:
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,
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.
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