Mark Twain (1835)
It was on this date, November 30, 1835, that American writer and humorist Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in Florida, Missouri, but brought up in Hannibal, Missouri. Although first encountering writers by apprenticing to a printer, he became a Mississippi riverboat pilot and adopted his pen-name from the call — “Mark twain!” meaning two fathoms — used when sounding river shallows. He first used the pseudonym on 3 February 1863, in publishing a humorous travel essay.
Early on, his humor took an irreverent turn: “I believe that our Heavenly Father invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey,” he wrote. After brief service in the Civil War, Twain worked as a reporter in San Francisco from 1864, and developed a storytelling sense. Having heard a tale about a frog-jumping contest, he eventually developed it into his signature humor story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (story collection, 1867). A world tour resulted in his 1869 book, The Innocents Abroad.
In publishing and in lectures, domestically and abroad, Twain made a good living. Between 1876 and 1884 he published his most memorable works: Tom Sawyer (1881), The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Life on the Mississippi (1883), and Huckleberry Finn (1884). His wife died in 1904 and his humor, while still sharp, took a darker turn. In such works as Christian Science (1903), Eve’s Diary (1906), and The Mysterious Stranger (1918), Twain shows his disdain of Christianity. But his 1906 work, What is Man? shows the greatest American humorist as solidity skeptical.
He has his character Pudd’nhead Wilson quip, “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”* In his letters, Twain often told his correspondents that he is an Agnostic and despises Christian beliefs. In one, he equates Jesus and Satan; “These two gentlemen,” he says, “have had more influence than all others put together, and 99 percent of it was Satan’s.” The Devil, he goes on, is “worth very nearly a hundred times as much to the business as was the influence of all the rest of the Holy Family put together.”** Twain’s “War Prayer” (1904) is especially critical:
O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it …†
Other irreligious quips from Twain include: “In God We Trust. I don’t believe it would sound any better if it were true” and “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” In his posthumously published (1962) Letters from Earth he writes:
Man is a marvelous curiosity … he thinks he is the Creator’s pet … he even believes the Creator loves him; has a passion for him; sits up nights to admire him; yes and watch over him and keep him out of trouble. He prays to him and thinks He listens. Isn’t it a quaint idea?
Mark Twain died on 21 April 1910. Once asked whether he feared death, he said that he did not, in view of the fact that he had been dead for billions and billions of years before he was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it!
* From “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar,” in Following the Equator, a travel book published in 1897. ** Mark Twain, Letters, letter of August 28, 1908, vol. II, p. 817. † “War Prayer,” dictated 1904 or 1905 and found after Twain’s death among his unpublished manuscripts.
Originally published November 2003.