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Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age.

Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age. By Harold K. Bush, Jr. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2007. ISBN-0-8173-1538-1. Pp. 352. $47.50.

Early in his marriage, Mark Twain read W. E. H. Lecky's History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne and wrote the following comment in the margin:
 If I have understood this book aright, it proves two things beyond
 shadow or question: 1: That Christianity is the very invention of
 Hell itself; 2 & that Christianity is the most precious and
 elevating and ennobling boon ever vouchsafed to the world. (1)


Harold K. Bush, Jr.'s thesis in this superbly researched book is that previous scholarship has paid major attention to the first part of Twain's summary and decidedly minor attention to the second. By way of rectifying this oversight, Bush proposes "a cultural biography of Mark Twain's religious ethos" (2) involving "the widespread impact of Darwinian theories of evolution; the popularization in America of the German higher criticism of the Bible; the growing interest in theories of the unconscious and human psychology; rapid advances in astronomy; the lingering grief and trauma of the Civil War," and "the corrupting effects of growing wealth, ease, leisure, and prestige upon Christian America." (3)

Throughout the main bulk of his book, Bush delivers an impressive amplification of these topics, fortified by abundant references that extend outward from Twain's entire (massive) canon and web of relationships to a vast array of critics and scholars, including not only Twain superscholars such as Louis J. Budd (whom Bush rightly deems "the dean of today's Twain scholars" [264]) and historians like C. Vann Woodward, but numerous ancillary sources. To give some hint of the latter, a small fraction of them includes Mikhail Bakhtin, James Baldwin, Robert Bellah, Harold Bloom, Rudolph Bultmann, Ralph Ellison, Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud, Clifford Geertz, Stanley Hauerwas, William James, Martin Marty, Jurgen Moltmann, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Cornel West. Within this wide-ranging discourse, Bush claims to find "abundant evidence of Twain's strong religious proclivities throughout his life" (13), enabling his readers to "see his literary and public career in an entirely new light--as a profoundly moral and religious one" (19).

Supporting this thesis are seven chapters arranged in loosely chronological order. Chapter One, on "Mark Twain's Roots," plays off his conventional upbringing, including reading the Bible through by age fifteen (25) against the debunking influences of his young manhood. Thomas Paine's The Age of Reason, for example, was "a book that Twain swallowed whole and nearly memorized in about 1857" (31). Chapter Two, "Mark Twain's Wife" describes how Twain's entrance to the Langdon family circle changed "the wild bohemian of the west" into a man who "reinvented himself as a Christian husband and parishioner ... in one of liberal Protestantism's most prominent locations" and thereby "engendered a virtual transformation in his outward behaviors and demeanor" (59). Chapter Three, "Mark Twain's Pastor" comprises Bush's most significant contribution to Twain studies. Scholars have long known of the Congregational minister Joseph Twichell's close friendship with Twain, but no previous scholar has presented so persuasive a case for the primacy of their bond in the lives of both men. Twichell's espousal of the Social Gospel, "a vision of a socially incarnated Kingdom of God 'on Earth as it is in Heaven,"' was, Bush says, "a version of Christianity for which Mark Twain had deep affinities" (93). Concerning this version of Christianity, Bush is especially astute in developing the larger context of nineteenth-century evangelical Protestantism from which, while deeply embattled, the Social Gospel emerged.

In this chapter and its subsequent one, "Twain's Liberal Faith" Bush delivers the gist of his argument about Twain's religious outlook. Even before meeting his wife-to-be, Twain "took himself seriously as an overseer of the public conscience" (50) according to Louis J. Budd, who quantified about one quarter of Twain's writing before 1866 as attacking social injustices. By 1869, after meeting Olivia, Twain wrote to her mother, without irony, "I now claim that I am a Christian" (61). Bush beefs up these claims with a variety of generalized religious affirmations: Twain's "yearning for belief" is "easily construed as a religious quest, not unlike St. Augustine's" (62); "Twain's Christian sensibility" is most obvious "in his desire to manifest and to foster sympathy, a term brimming with Christian connotations" (68); "his profound comic sense had theological roots [as] ... a manifestation of man's fallen state"; "Jesus Christ was quite a humorist" using humor (like Twain) "as a tool of teaching and wisdom" (70); conversely, Twain shares a crucial feature of religious leaders: "I have always preached. That is the reason I have lasted thirty years" (79); his preaching, moreover, moves far beyond the common designation of a "moralist in disguise" into the passionate mode of the American jeremiad (82) such that, Bush argues, a "vast amount of Twain's work" displays "a raving Jeremiah speaking out against the social and ethical injustices of an age," thereby making Twain "a profoundly religious and spiritual presence" (82).

Bush's last three chapters attempt to disarm arguments contrary to his position--that is, the arguments posed by the majority consensus of Twain scholars about the writer's descent into bitter cynicism and disillusionment. Chapter Five, "Mark Twain's Civil War," highlights the religious ambiguity of the war whereby "Christian prayers in support of either side, in the context of ... the butchery at Fredericksburg, Antietam, or Gettysburg, seemed to become pagan acts of moral degeneracy in retrospect" (200). Certainly Twain's soulmate Joe Twichell, an eyewitness at Gettysburg, had reason to think so, writing to his sister: "The stench was unendurable and the dead lay everywhere ... and the look of their bloated, blackened corpses was a thing to murder sleep" (164). But though the war exacerbated Twain's theological uncertainty, Bush says, it strengthened his commitment to the Social Gospel, as evidenced in his empathy with black liberation in his later career.

In chapter Six, "Mark Twain's American Adam;' Bush resolves the battle between Darwinian science and Christian belief through assigning Twain "a sense of double-mindedness" (216) encompassing both secular apocalypse ("the damned human race") and the Christian Social Gospel, thereby making "apocalypse and humor ... share the burden of remaking the world into a more just and peaceable kingdom" (232). Bush's concluding chapter, "Mark Twain's Grief" acknowledges the despairingly bitter tone that prevails in Twain's late writing, but he ascribes it, in effect, to mental illness caused by the tragic fact of Twain outliving his wife and three of his four children. Any man so profoundly immersed in family love as Twain was might well become unhinged by so much loss, and in Bush's view, the wonder is that Twain managed to salvage some remnants of faith at all from this black hole of sorrow, remnants such as in several comments Twain made--to his wife and his housekeeper, among others--affirming his belief in an afterlife to be shared with his loved ones (e.g. 245-46). Here again, perhaps, double-mindedness came to his rescue.

In its total effect, it is fair to say that Bush's book frames as strong an argument for a Christian Twain as can be reasonably rendered. Whether that argument outweighs contrary scholarship, however, remains a matter of serious doubt. A revealing instance of Bush's problem is indicated in a citation he quotes about Twain's God. Here is what Bush writes:
 For centuries Christians had referred to the created order [i.e.
 Nature] as "the second book" God's alternative inscription of truth,
 after the Bible. On at least one occasion, Twain made reference to
 his ... endorsement of this position when he wrote, "God's real
 character is written in plain words in His real Bible, which is
 nature and her history." (112)


Here is the larger context of the foregoing citation, drawn from Mark Twain's Notebook for May 27, 1898:
 The Being who to me is the real God is the One who created this
 majestic universe and rules it.... He cares nothing for men's
 flatteries, compliments, praises, prayers; it is impossible that He
 should value them, ... these mouthings of microbes.... His real
 character is written in His real Bible, which is Nature and her
 history; we read it every day, and we could understand and trust in
 it if we would burn the spurious [Christian] one.... The Bible of
 Nature tells us no word about any future life, but only of this
 present. The Book of Nature tells distinctly that God cares not a
 rap for us--nor for any living creature. It tells us that His laws
 inflict pain and suffering and sorrow, but ... we do not know
 what the object is, for the Book is unable to tell us.


Because Bush was quoting Twain at second hand, he may not have known of the larger, anti-Christian context of the one sentence he quoted. Nonetheless, this discrepancy marks a troubling weakness in his larger argument. Simply, the total record gives too much evidence of Twain's disbelief in Christianity. He opined that the Bible has "soiled" the mind of every Protestant boy, and at one point went so far as to condemn Jesus for inventing hell, the most appalling idea ever conceived in the history of cruelty. Twain did indeed, as Bush's subtitle avers, engage with "the Spiritual Crisis of His Age," but he emerged from it with far stronger naturalistic than supernaturalist inclinations.

The question of Twain's religious status thus resolves into a matter of definition--the determination whether a naturalistic view of life can fall within the compass of Christianity. For many people, including some purveyors of the Social Gospel, the answer is yes: Jesus the moral teacher and exemplar does not require supernatural validation. William Faulkner, for one, maintained this stance in telling Jean Stein that "No one is without Christianity, if we agree on what we mean by the word. It is every individual's ... code of behavior by means of which he makes himself a better human being than his nature wants to be ... " (Writers at Work, First Series, 132). And lurking beyond Faulkner's vaguely Christian deism is its logical successor, Robert Penn Warren's Christian atheism: "I think a man just dies. No heaven. No hell.... I'm a naturalist. I don't believe in God.... But ... what I want to try to emulate now, is the example of Jesus.... I want to give myself in sacrifice of some sort. To participate in the common body of human life" (Joseph Blotner's Robert Penn Warren, 450). To the extent that Twain may be called a Christian, he mostly followed these models. As early as 1878, he wrote his brother Orion that "Neither Howells nor I believe in hell or the divinity of the Savior, but no matter, the Savior is none the less a Sacred Personage" (qtd. in Bush 123).

In the final analysis, Bush contributes impressive original scholarship to show how Twain's life and work correlated with the ethos of Jesus, but he can assemble only uncertain and fragmentary evidence to identify Twain as a believer in Jesus as the Way to eternal life. It is arguably enough evidence, however, to keep the thesis weakly alive. Toward this end, Bush's best claim for a Christian Twain pertains to the man's name: Twain the double-minded, divided man. Though the preponderance of evidence favors Twain the unbeliever, Bush shows credibly that some part of Twain's mind remained open to orthodox, supernaturalist Christian belief. Bush's probing exploration of that part of Twain's mind is a significant and welcome addition to Twain studies, keeping the door open to a more complicated, contradictory Twain than has sometimes appeared in the standard scholarship.

Victor Strandberg

Duke University
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Author:Strandberg, Victor
Publication:Christianity and Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2008
Words:1928
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