Academic journal article American Studies

HERETICAL FICTIONS: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain

Academic journal article American Studies

HERETICAL FICTIONS: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain

Article excerpt

HERETICAL FICTIONS: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain. By Lawrence I. Berkove and Joseph Csicsila. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 2010.

This book argues that Mark Twain remained preoccupied with the notion of predetermination throughout his life, even as he broke from Calvinism, dabbled in deism, and explored scientific philosophies. It suggests that Twain's satires were more ambitious than previously supposed-in addition to critiquing the lack of free will in small towns or corrupt political arenas, Heretical Fictions imagines Twain as a consistent and sophisticated "critic of God" (xv). Contending that Twain satirized the state of human existence as well as the hypocritical preaching thereof, this study posits religious imagery as "a key to [Twain's] main themes . . . that enables us to reliably identify and better understand his work at all stages of his career" (13).

The warrant for this project involves the place of Mark Twain in the literary canon. In that sense, Heretical Fictions resonates with an older tradition in American literary scholarship which has been associated with the cult of authorial celebrity. It argues that, "There is no other author in all of world literature whom we call great even though he or she could not write a book that hung together and continued to gain significance through the end. Why make an exception for Twain? . . . In order to justify the claim that Twain is a great author, a straightforward way has to be found of reading his literature so that thematic consistency and artistic strengths can be seen" (82). While arguing for "thematic consistency," Berkove and Csicsila relish, rather than collapse, the ambiguity and complexity of Twain's writing. The "countertheology" they outline is capacious; they identify it in many different forms, from the "misleading past tense" that pervades Twain's early work through the layered images of dreaming that give his late fiction its otherworldly and tenebrous tone (33). …

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