Letters from the Earth is one of Mark Twain's posthumously published works. The essays were written during a difficult time in Twain's life; he was deep in debt and had lost his wife and one of his daughters. The book consists of a series of short stories, many of which deal with God and Christianity. The title story consists of letters written by the archangel Satan to archangels, Gabriel and Michael,about his observations on the curious proceedings of earthly life and the nature of man's religions. Other short stories in the book include a bedtime story about a family of cats Twain wrote for his daughters, and an essay explaining why an anaconda is morally superior to Man.
Original publication date
The letters are cuttingly funny, but the similarly themed essays which accompany them make this work a little one note. You could always just listen to Lucifer's letters and leave it at that.
Carl Reiner does a terrific job capturing Twain's cadence. He lit Twain's prose on fire.
Letters from the Earth is a series of fictional letters that Satan wrote back home to the other angels, upon visiting the freshly minted Earth. It is a tirade against biblical literacy, religious dogma and God. Twain pointed out numerous contradiction within the Bible and how Christian dogma was illogical. Using Satan's words he painted God as an evil, jealous, hypocrite ruler. The book is full of great lines and ideas, whether you agree with them or not. It was born in an age, when the literal meaning of the Bible was questioned and various non-divine-origin hypothesis were born about its origins. As it is evident from this book Twain was aware of them.
The book was thought-provoking, although some of it is clearly dated by now. Biblical scholarship advanced enough in the last 100 years that we do not have to use angry polemics against its most obvious fallacies. I am aware that I cannot give justice to the numerous ideas the book presented in the few minutes I have to write this little reflection, so let me quickly recap the ones that stayed with me longer:
- If most people don't like to sing and cannot play a musical instrument, why is heaven imagined as a place where everyone sings all the time and plays the harp?
- If most people love to make love, why is that act not included in the Christian concept of heaven? (Twain doesn't mention the Muslim heaven, where the situation might be different.)
- Twain, as a trained ship captain, had a lot to say about Noah's ark. He found numerous logistical problems with its construction, size, cargo handling and operation.
- Twain was fascinated with why diseases in general exist and how the "hookworm" in particular works.
- Twain's sense of social justice popped up when he considered God extra-evil because "nine-tenths of his disease-inventions were intended for the poor."
- Twain's sensitivity of gender issues were evident when he covered the difference on how Biblical laws about adultery affect women and men.
- Twain's use of the genocide of Native Americans as a proof of God's evil nature showed him in tune with and care for America's history.
Twain wrote this book in the last years of his life, but it wasn't published for a long time, because his daughter objected the idea. Decades later, and 25 years after an editor created and collected segments into a book, she changed her mind and it first seen the daylight in 1960's. It is a short book that I think I will re-read in a few years to see how the change in my own religious beliefs make me think about it then.
Although she gave as her motive the concern that the book's contents would misrepresent Twain's actual ideas as she understood them, a reader will readily infer that Clara's fear was chiefly about offending against conventional piety. Nearly half of the book consists of satires grounded in biblical mythology: the title piece (largely in the voice of the angel Satan), the "Papers of the Adams Family" thus organized and titled by editor Bernard DeVoto, and the brief "Letter to the Earth." The first of these, and apparently the most finished in Twain's own manuscript, is clearly modeled on Montesquieu's Persian Letters, in which a traveler from a distant land reports back to his own people on the bewildering and exotic features of the culture shared by the reader and the actual author of the text.
"Letters from the Earth" at one point refers to sex as "the Supreme Art. They practiced it diligently and were filled with contentment. The Deity ordered them to practice it. They obeyed, this time. But it was just as well it was not forbidden, for they would have practiced it anyhow, if a thousand Deities had forbidden it" (25). Satan supplies a sober and accurate appraisal of the Christian revelation: "... as the meek and gentle Savior he was a thousand billion times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament--oh, incomparably more atrocious than ever he was at the very worst in those old days!" (46)
The "Papers of the Adam Family" treat antediluvian society with attention to the premise that the long lifespans of characters in Genesis--even assuming that they waited a few extra decades before parenthood--made for a society many generations deep, and thus strangely dense and hierarchical. Several of these "translations from the Adamic" are in the voice of Eve, "the Most Illustrious, Most Powerful, Most Gracious, Most Reverend, her Grandeur, the Acting Head of the Human Race" (91-2). There is also a focus on the early tenth century as clocked from Eden, consisting mostly of thinly-veiled satire on Twain's own time, which certainly had catastrophe imminent.
A number of short pieces include a whimsical cat-focused story (where Twain in passing vaunts his own "conscience torpid through virtuous inaction," 113), a merciless criticism of the prose style of James Fenimore Cooper, a reasonably funny parody of etiquette instructions, some travelogue from England, and a few other essays.
The book concludes with its longest and strangest item. "The Great Dark" (title furnished by the editor) is a horror story that hinges on its protagonist's efforts and failures to assign reality to his actual circumstances after being subjected to a dream-world of simulation. Latter-day readers might see this piece as a precocious Matrix sort of story. (Who needs wetware and full-body VR when you have a Victorian microscope?) But of course the central conundrum goes back to Chuang Tzu and probably to the dawn of reflective thought.
The rest of the book, however, is very good. The best section is the
I believe, like many, Twain was trying to understand a God who would allow evil to exist and to reconcile the divinity as portrayed in the Old Testament with that in the New Testament. Regarding the day of worship, Twain states:
To forty-nine in fifty, the Sabbath Day is a dreary, dreary bore...The gladdened moment for all of them is when the preacher uplifts his hands for the benediction. You can hear the soft rustle of relief that sweeps the house, and you recognize that is its eloquent with gratitude.
Later, Twain quips regarding the inconsistency between one of the Ten Commandments and God's campaign against the Moabites through Moses:
...it was God himself who said: "Thou shalt not kill." Then it is plain that he cannot keep his own commandments.
Both C.S. Lewis and Mark Twain were atheists at one time or another. C.S. Lewis became an apologist (defender) of the Christian faith while evidently Mark Twain, even those he was buried in a Presbyterian cemetery, never renounced his atheism.
Whether you are an atheist or a Christian, there is something for all in this short novel. For example, Mark Twain's retelling of Noah and the great flood had me chuckling. If you are easily offended with someone outlining some of the inconsistencies in Holy Scripture, you might want to skip this book.
Twain razzes everything in this book. The first section makes fun of religion, later ones make fun of politics, Darwin's theory of natural selection, and society as a whole. There's very little he doesn't poke fun at at one time or another.
Still, I had a hard time finishing the book. I don't know if it's because it just wasn't cohesive like most of Twain's stories are, or what. But by the end, I was glad to be finished. I think I'll read more Twain later, but give him a rest for a while.
I skimmed the last half.