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The following review appeared 24 January 2007 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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Near the end of his new cultural biography, Harold Bush quotes Shelley Fisher Fishkin's observation that the version of Twain "we claim as our own reveals much about who we think we are--and who we want to be" (p. 276). This insight rings particularly true when it comes to Mark Twain and religion. Where some Victorians demonized him for ridiculing Christian beliefs and practices (one minister went so far as to accuse him of being a "son of the devil"), modernists have typically portrayed him as an irreligious skeptic whose literary "symbols of despair" represent an embittered attempt to detonate God's universe into nothingness.
In recent years a small but growing number of scholars have opposed or questioned the critical view of Mark Twain as an irreligious, even nihilistic critic of religion. These views range from Jason Gary Horn's Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a Free Self (1996) to William Phipps's Mark Twain's Religion (2003). Bush's Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age is a noteworthy contribution to this emerging perspective in Twain studies.
The author's aim is to identify "the positive contributions of American religion in the life and works of arguably our most famous author" (p. 2). In doing so, he offers an analysis of "one of the many faces of Mark Twain" (p. 276) from an academic Christian viewpoint.
As the title suggests, Bush is concerned with exploring the "spiritual crisis" that emerged in America following the Civil War. This crisis was engendered in large part by Darwinism, a complex theory of natural selection that called into question traditional religious accounts of divine creation, and the German "higher criticism" movement which undermined scriptural authority by subjecting biblical texts to intensive critical scrutiny.
In his examination of Twain's life and work, Bush merges two different narratives into a single book--the dominant one, of most interest to Twain scholars, delivers an interesting analysis of how the Christian ethos of Twain's era significantly influenced him as a writer and as a person; the secondary narrative presents Bush's critique of modern spirituality.
Bush effectively organizes his study chronologically around key aspects of Twain's life that intersect with the larger religious and social milieu of his era. Beginning with Twain's childhood in the South and his time out West, the book encompasses Twain's married life and his friendship with Congregational minister Joseph Twichell; the humorist's deep commitment to progressive Christian causes; the Civil War's religious background and its influence on Twain; the theological undercurrents of Twain's humor; and Twain's later years of loss and grief.
Each chapter, in varying degrees, offers insightful analysis on the topic at hand. The chapter on Twain's childhood delves into the tension between Jane Clemens's "conservative Protestant evangelicalism" and John Clemens's form of deistic free thought that cast a lifelong shadow over Twain's own spiritual life. The characterization of John Clemens's views seems unnecessarily harsh, however, as when Bush states, "the deathbed conversion of an aging skeptic, perhaps motivated not by genuine faith but simply the extreme terror regarding his imminent demise, compounds the perception that he turned out to be either a pathetic hypocrite, a man of no real conviction, or at best a man of great religious confusion" (p. 31). Still, he gives an interesting look at the impact of John Clemens's death on his young son's religious sensibilities and its literary and spiritual influence on Twain.
Bush further traces the religious quandary of Twain's formative years to his bohemian lifestyle in Nevada and California and how a possible religious conversion experience there not only saved his life but gave birth to his persona. "We should remember that the final years of life in California featured a very close proximity between suicidal despair and the announcement to the world that Mark Twain considered his authorial gift to be a kind of spiritual 'calling'" (p. 54). While he glosses over the Unitarian beliefs of two influential ministers Twain befriended out West, Horatio Stebbins and Henry Bellows, Bush points out how they and other liberal San Francisco clergymen played a part in transforming "the wild humorist of the West into the more mature and steady New Englander" that Twain later became.
Although many scholars may believe Twain was a much harsher critic of basic Christian faith than is emphasized in this book, Bush's discussion of Twain's involvement in progressive Christian causes helps illustrate the ultimately ambiguous nature of the humorist's faith. Bush gives many examples of how Twain was motivated to give his time, talent, and money toward furthering the Social Gospel's agenda, which one proponent defined as working "in this world to establish a Kingdom of God with social justice for all."
For example, Bush connects Twain's literary realism with an underlying liberal faith that also motivated his participation in a Catholic urban mission in Hartford and Twichell's American Chinese Educational Mission which sponsored Chinese students for study in America. Bush also discusses Twain's support of integrating African Americans into American society through his connections with abolitionists like Twichell, the Langdon family, Booker T. Washington and others who "had strong ties with progressive, reform-minded churches" (p. 150). The chapter on the religious background of the Civil War also makes an intriguing case for understanding the conflict, and especially its aftermath, as a "clash of religious worldviews" between the North and the South. In this regard, Bush does a fine job of placing Twain within the context of the North's emerging civil religion after the war and discusses how Twain took pains to refute the South's "Lost Cause" mythos in his writing.
In pointing out how Sir Walter Scott's writings on Scotland's struggle for independence from England deeply influenced the Confederate worldview, Bush underscores the significance of references to Scott in Twain's writing, which were a "cultural shorthand for corrupt southern ideology" (p. 189). His compelling comparison of Lincoln and Twain's "agnostic theism"--which he defines as a "vague in-betweenness" located somewhere between faith and doubt--is also very convincing in characterizing prevailing religious sensibilities in postbellum America.
In an interesting take on Twain's satire, Bush aligns Twain's literary deconstructions of human pretensions and social injustice with the motives underlying the Old Testament prophetic tradition, which sought to reveal "shalom," or God's vision of "the way things ought to be." After establishing how Twain defined his humor as a form of preaching, Bush compares Twain's jeremiads against "hollow spirituality" in Innocents Abroad with his "sentimental" meditations on Jesus (p. 79, 80). He also shows how Christian views positively shaped Twain's thought well into his supposedly nihilistic phase late in life. The book includes, for example, an excerpt from a speech Twain gave at Carnegie Hall in 1906, in which the alleged antagonist of Christianity invoked Christian morality in his support of the Tuskegee Institute:
"At Tuskegee they thoroughly ground the student in the Christian code of morals; they instill into him the indisputable truth that this is the highest and best of all systems of morals, that the Nation's greatness, its strength, and its repute among other nations is the product of that system. . .They teach him that this is true in every case, whether the man be a professing Christian or an unbeliever; for we have none but the Christian code of morals, and every individual is under its character-building powerful influence and dominion from cradle to grave. . ." (p. 159)
Bush's discussion of Twain's staggering losses late in life is especially poignant in its handling of Twain's response to daughter Suzy's sudden death. His section on the spiritual ramifications of parental grief is an affecting counterbalance to the often condescending scholarly treatment of Twain's loss. Citing Hamlin Hill's "insensitive" analysis of Twain's later years (which characterized Sam and Olivia's attraction to Susy's memory as "ghoulish" and "less than mature"), Bush states it "is time to admit that all of this armchair psychoanalysis based on Freudian models more than fifty years out of date is very troubling--especially in its willingness to approach the tender subject of the death of a child with such ruthlessly cold logic" (p. 238).
Intertwined throughout this larger narrative on Twain is Bush's evangelical critique of contemporary spirituality. He states in his introduction that the "double-barreled attacks" on traditional dogma by Darwinism and higher criticism created a "spiritual crisis from which American Christianity is still trying to recover" (p. 2). In developing this secondary theme, Bush occasionally offers readers sweeping statements such as, "Humor is in keeping with the best of the Christian tradition--and was even exemplified, like all positive human traits, in the life of the Master Himself. Indeed it seems shocking to many today to be told that Jesus Christ was quite the humorist, but that is what Elton Trueblood and others have shown" (p. 70). Providing an example of Christ's humor for those unfamiliar with Quaker theologian Trueblood's work (or with the Gospels themselves) would have helped support Bush's argument.
Bush also writes, ". . . given the extreme affinity that biblical Christianity had with the founding and the nurturing of a peculiarly American ideology, the simultaneous attacks of Darwinism and of the German higher criticism implicitly advanced criticisms against America's civil religion. Due to Christianity's close allegiance with political rhetoric throughout American history, any attack on the faith implicitly questions American political ideology" (p. 207). He appears to overstate this point, considering the significant influence critics of orthodox religion (such as Thomas Paine--an obvious influence on Twain--and Thomas Jefferson) had on forming American political thought.
Additionally, Bush frequently relies on modern evangelical Christian sources to frame his argument that "the spiritual side has been perhaps the most overlooked" aspect of Twain's life and work (p. 276). His discussion of "shalom," for instance, is defined by modern-day evangelical scholars such as Cornelius Plantinga's Not the Way It's Supposed To Be: A Breviary of Sin, (1995) and Nicholas Wolterstorff's Art in Action: Towards a Christian Aesthetic (1980). Using theological sources from Twain's own time, as Bush does with W. E. H. Lecky's and Nietzsche's anti-religious writings when discussing Twain's skepticism, may have been more helpful in defining these important concepts influencing Twain's life and writing.
The book's treatment of Twain's pastor Joseph Twichell, while informative, omits evidence hinting at Twichell's more theologically adventurous side. For example, according to Twichell's journal, he and Twain attended what he refers to as a "very interesting lecture on evolution" at the Radical Club by Harvard zoologist Edward S. Morse in Boston in 1874. As the name suggests, the Radical Club consisted of religiously liberal-minded thinkers and activists who gathered to debate religion, science, and culture.
Other omissions in the book include a discussion of the nineteenth century schism in American religion between liberal and orthodox Congregationalists. Such a discussion could have shed more light on Joseph Twichell's sympathies and may have helped anchor in a historical context Bush's discussion of Arminianism (which rejected Calvinism's emphasis on predestination and human depravity) and Pelagianism (which denies the doctrine of "original sin").
Overall, though, Bush does not attempt to explain nor defend
some of Twain's blatantly deistic or ostensibly anti-religious writings. Instead,
he offers a thought-provoking reexamination of the ignored or underplayed
spiritual dimensions of Twain's life and work. Readers may not always agree
with Bush's theological assumptions or conclusions, but much of what he presents
should help to inspire further debate on whether Twain really deserves his
reputation as a darkly embittered religious skeptic.
Dwayne Eutsey is an independent Mark Twain scholar. His latest
article "'From the Throne': What the Stranger in 'The War Prayer' Says
about Mark Twain's Theology," is in the current issue of Mark Twain
Studies (Japan). He is currently developing a book on Twain's religious
views when his day-job and family responsibilities permit.