Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Mark Twain's American Adam: Humor as Hope and Apocalypse

Academic journal article Christianity and Literature

Mark Twain's American Adam: Humor as Hope and Apocalypse

Article excerpt

In the fall of 1879, Mark Twain enlisted many of the most prominent members of Elmira society into his rather preposterous scheme to erect a memorial to Adam as "the Father of the Human Race." A committee, called the "Adam Monument Association of Elmira," was appointed to select a sculptor. This association, which included local minister Thomas K. Beecher as president, went so far as to have letterhead produced. In their zeal they proclaimed, "The monument will rise. It only awaits approval of the model" (qtd. in Jerome and Wisbey 83). In his essay titled "A Monument to Adam" that he published many years afterward, Twain recalled some of the reasons for his idea:

   Darwin's Descent of Man had been in print five or six years, and the
   storm of indignation raised by it was still raging in pulpits and
   periodicals. In tracing the genesis of the human race back to its
   sources, Mr. Darwin had left Adam out altogether [...]. Jesting with
   Mr. Beecher and other friends of Elmira, I said there seemed to be a
   likelihood that the world would discard Adam and accept the monkey,
   and that in the course of time Adam's very name would be forgotten
   in the earth; therefore this calamity ought to he averted; a
   monument would accomplish this [...]. People would come from every
   corner of the globe and stop off to look at it[;] no tour of the
   world would be complete that left out Adam's monument. Elmira would
   be a Mecca; there would be pilgrim ships at pilgrim rates, pilgrim
   specials on the continent's railways; libraries would be written
   about the monument[;] every tourist would kodak it. (qtd. in Jerome
   and Wisbey 84-85)

Why this puzzling and rather irreverent focus on Adam? We should begin to unpack Twain's selective use of Adam by situating it within the rich religious climate of the Gilded Age in America. As Twain was writing these comments, a sustained attack against all religious claims was mounting, so much so that it can be said to be one of the most obvious features of that era. As the Gilded Age got fully under way after the Civil War, the fervid evangelical Christianity of the antebellum period began to take new directions. It had to evolve, given the emergence of scientific and intellectual movements that scrutinized the Christian notions of humankind as made in the image of God and of the Bible as the holy, infallible, and authentic Word of God. Simultaneously, educated Americans were being told that there was nothing particularly sacred or supernatural about either their Bible or their own species. These rapid changes resulted in what historian Paul Carter has called "the spiritual crisis of the Gilded Age."

Interestingly, as various critics have argued, Twain's movement from a rather primitivistic form of Protestant Christianity, through deism, and later into more scientific and psychological forms of belief roughly squares with the general movement of the culture at large. Moreover, given the affinity of Christianity with the nurturing of a peculiarly American ideology, the simultaneous attacks of Darwinism and of the German Higher Criticism of the Bible implicitly advanced criticisms against America's civil religion. In an essay focused on the realm of the "religious," we must continually recall the close intertwining throughout American social and cultural history of religion with political and other forms of thought. Indeed, the close connection of these two realms provides the term "civil religion" itself, pointing as it does simultaneously to the kingdoms of this world and to the Kingdom of God, as defined by Robert Bellah. Twain's ideological versions of the regnant American myth, many of which invoked the Adamic qualities of America's pioneering and highly individualistic spirit, are myriad in his fiction and essays. Key aspects of this ideology were famously captured by R. W. B. Lewis, who described the "American Adam" as "an individual emancipated from history, happily bereft of ancestry, untouched and undefiled by the usual inheritances of family and race; an individual standing alone, self-reliant and self-propelling, ready to confront whatever awaited him with the aid of his own unique and inherent resources. …

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