Creator and Fallen Angel: The Christian Atheism of Mark Twain

By Plotkin, Diane M. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Creator and Fallen Angel: The Christian Atheism of Mark Twain


Plotkin, Diane M., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


I have been on the verge of being an angel all my life, but it's never happened yet.

--Mark Twain (Wit and Wisdom)

The writings of Mark Twain range from humor to heresy. They are witty, wise, sardonic and satirical. Influenced by Darwin and Freud, he questions the role of man-and God-in the greater universe. Analyzing the structural problem of the writings of his later years, Fussell notes that these in these works, particularly in The Mysterious Stranger, Twain's

   ... philosophic position ... can be described as a grotesque medley
   of fatalism, misanthropy and cynicism ...' which reflect the post
   Darwinian pessimism of the late nineteenth century ...' They
   include 'the use of an inverted "Great Chain of Being" concept ...
   attacks on the "Moral Sense" ... and contempt for human reason and
   dignity.... (1)

The darker tone of his later works is also influenced by his religious beliefs-or lack thereof, as well as by several adversities in his life. First was the loss of his fortune. Samuel Clemens had invested in the Paine Compositor Manufacturing Company, a typesetting company, which was dissolved on December 22, 1894. As a result it is estimated that his financial losses were between $170,000 and $300,000, a great deal of money at the time. (2) In an effort to recoup some of his losses, he went on a lecture tour of Europe. While he was away, his favorite daughter Susy, aged twenty-four, succumbed to spinal meningitis (ibid, 579). Regarding her death, "He recalled the parting on the on the [train] platform of July [1895], with Susy waving in the glare of the electric lights." As he wrote to a friend:

'One year, one month & (sic) one week later [my wife] Livy and [younger daughter] Clara had completed the circuit of the globe, arriving at Elmira at the same at the same hour in the evening, by the same train & in the same car (sic)--& Susy was there to meet them-lying white and fair in her coffin in the house she was born in ... Will healing ever come, or life have value again? And shall we see Susy? Without doubt! Without shadow of doubt, if it can furnish opportunity to break our hearts again.' (3)

Powers continues, "These corrosive lamentations in letters and notebooks began a literature of grief for Susy that would spill from Samuel Clemens for the rest of his life."(ibid). The third tragedy of these later years was the death of his beloved wife. Olivia died shortly after 9 P.M. on Sunday, June 5, 1904 after a final illness that had lasted twenty-two months. She was fifty-seven. Regarding her death, Clemens wrote to a friend, ..." I am tired and old; I wish I were with Livy" (ibid). Fourth was the death of his daughter Jean, aged twenty-nine. On December 24, 1909, at 11:00 o'clock in the morning, she drowned in the bathtub during an epileptic seizure. Following her death Twain wrote, 'Would I bring her back to life if I could do it? I would not.. .In her loss I am almost bankrupt, and my life is bitterness, but I am content; for she has been enriched with the most precious of all gifts.... death (ibid).

The combination of these events with Clemens's inner conflicts regarding religion and man' s relationship to God are evident in many his works. A few of the topics include the following:

The Meaning of Suffering

Twain's feelings of despondency, which are evident in these later works, are expressed through the words of his characters. For this reason, although his writings still tended to be humorous, the tone of many of them, especially those he wrote later in his life, was often rather dark. Several, despite the humor, were downright heretical. For this reason several were published posthumously, and others were never completed. In "Little Bessie" written in 1909 but unpublished until after his death, Twain portrays Bessie as a thoughtful three-year-old child who attempts to make sense of the reasons for man's miseries. …

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Creator and Fallen Angel: The Christian Atheism of Mark Twain
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