Mark Twain’s Letters from Earth: A Pre-/Post-Screwtapian Discovery

220px-lettersfromtheearthOne of the readers of A Pilgrim in Narnia tipped me off to a lost-but-found work by Mark Twain. Letters from Earth was written in 1909 but not published until long after his death in 1962. This little book, incomplete I think, contains a series of notes from Satan to his best friends Michael and Gabriel back in heaven. Satan has taken a kind of backpacker’s tour of Earth’s history, curious about this beast called human who has been granted—really, cursed with—the faculty of moral judgment and relational responsibility.

When I heard about this book I hunted for it immediately. If anyone could write an atheist Screwtape or become a new Voltaire for a generation trying to seek liberty from religion, Mark Twain would be the man. His incisive intelligence and wit are just the tools needed to frame up a demonic view that could cut to the heart of the skeptical critique of faith in an entertaining way.

We see moments of this well-applied wit at play. Here is part of the set up to the letters, a discussion between Gabriel, Michael, and Satan after a heavenly committee meeting:

“Yes,” said Michael, “and He said He would establish Natural Law — the Law of God — throughout His dominions, and its authority should be supreme and inviolable.”

“Also,” said Gabriel, “He said He would by and by create animals, and place them, likewise, under the authority of that Law.”

“Yes,” said Satan, “I heard Him, but did not understand. What is animals, Gabriel?”

“Ah, how should I know? How should any of us know? It is a new word.”

[Interval of three centuries, celestial time — the equivalent of a hundred million years, earthly time. Enter a Messenger-Angel.]

letters-from-the-earth-by-mark-twain-profileUsing the pretext of animals as a created in order to teach a moral lesson, Twain establishes a “nature” to each species, so the tiger is morally blameless for ferociousness, and the rabbit blameless for lacking courage. Then Twain cuts to the heart of the problem of a created universe that develops by evolution, that of pain and suffering:

Satan said, “The spider kills the fly, and eats it; the bird kills the spider and eats it; the wildcat kills the goose; the — well, they all kill each other. It is murder all along the line. Here are countless multitudes of creatures, and they all kill, kill, kill, they are all murderers….”

It is this experiment and the crowning achievement of “Man” that piques Satan’s curiosity. He asks what this earth is that will be the home for animals and humans. The moment is a nice bit of poetics:

“A small globe I made, a time, two times and a half ago. You saw it, but did not notice it in the explosion of worlds and suns that sprayed from my hand….”

mark-twain-letters-from-the-earth-284661When Satan gets banished for a celestial day for his loose tongue (about 350,000 earth years, maybe), he decides to go to earth and look around. He is astonished by what he finds, writing back to Gabriel and Michael about the peculiar race called Man, and especially of their religion. What begins as curiosity—“For there is nothing about man that is not strange to an immortal”—soon turns into a bitter judgment of the Creator’s experiment. This turn produces some of the more incisive moments in the piece. You may have heard this quoted before:

[The Bible] is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.

Satan goes on to write a critique of the Bible:

This Bible is built mainly out of the fragments of older Bibles that had their day and crumbled to ruin. So it noticeably lacks in originality, necessarily. Its three or four most imposing and impressive events all happened in earlier Bibles; all its best precepts and rules of conduct came also from those Bibles; there are only two new things in it: hell, for one, and that singular heaven I have told you about.

letters-from-earth-mark-twainThe rest of the book is mostly mockery along this line. Satan rails against the idea of young earth creationism, hell, heaven, priesthood and hierarchy, and human moral habits around race and sex.

Some of this is funny: “You have never seen a person with clothes on. Oh, well, you haven’t lost anything.” But, honestly, I was quite disappointed in the book. I found it a drudgery to read after the first 10 pages or so, and only finished out of a sense of responsibility. The speculative foundation of the work shifts. Satan never accounts for his own characterization by humanity—he does play a wee role at the beginning, doesn’t he?—and we are left unsure whether Satan’s critique is that humans have made religion up, or that the Creator in whose court he sits really is a cosmic asshole.

Part of the problem is no doubt the unfinished nature of the work. Mark Twain is the Editor, and adds a handful of footnotes, mostly scientific or historical, and all weird. But we are lacking the structure of why Twain is the editor, and how these letters fell into his hands. These letters are written quickly or sporadically and have an uneven tone. The reader has no sense of where they are going, simply because Twain didn’t either.

My biggest problem is the preaching. There are places here and there where he presses the moment home. After describing a God who makes a creation based on suffering, banishes and assassinates its king and queen because they desire knowledge, and killed the vast majority of humanity but kept deadly germ cultures alive to plaque humans for centuries to come, Satan writes:

You would not suppose that this kind of Being gets many compliments. Undeceive yourself: the world calls him the All-Just, the All-Righteous, the All-Good, the All-Merciful, the All-Forgiving, the All-Truthful, the All-Loving, the Source of All Morality. These sarcasms are uttered daily, all over the world. But not as conscious sarcasms. No, they are meant seriously: they are uttered without a smile.

But the long passages about the lower intestine, Noah’s ark, and a peculiar conversation about sex—including something about male impotence I didn’t understand, and the story of a princess who has 36 “splendidly built young native men” in her harem and at her beck and call—I just found the preaching too much. The best part about this book was that it never got finished. This work probably has potential, but as it stands it reduces one of America’s greatest literary minds to the guy at the bar who leans in with that sickly sweet rum breath, certain that this thing he is talking about links to all the other things, and we really need to hear it.

captain-stormfield-mark-twainFrom an atheistic standpoint, it is a missed opportunity. There is a space for someone to do what Twain did, particularly in pointing out the problems of suffering, the absurdity of Christian hypocrisy, and problematic passages like Deuteronomy 20 (which he quotes at length, making it almost 2% of the book). There are now plenty of excellent atheistic philosophers, and the credibility structures of culture has shifted so that committed belief is as peculiar today as passionate disbelief was a century ago. But I don’t know that we’ve had a Voltaire in modern times. Christopher Hitchens may have been close.

Perhaps that’s part of what I’m missing: the shock of these letters in their post-Victorian, pre-WWI setting. Had they been edited and completed, they would have been a scandal. Maybe they were hot even when they emerged in the 60s. But as a reader in 2016, I’ve heard all the arguments before.

I think it is interesting, though, that both Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis tried to work along the same lines from opposite sides independently of each other. Perhaps Mark Twain was more successful with Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1907-8)—he published it, after all—but Lewis’ own visit to heaven in The Great Divorce (1944-45) doesn’t seem to have any connection to it.

As readers can probably tell, I’m disappointed with the book. I do look forward, though, to your own reading of Letters from Earth. You can find it free here, and it won’t take you long to read.

This picture captures a review I found, which has a slightly different opinion of the piece:

web-lfereviewplusillustration2

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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23 Responses to Mark Twain’s Letters from Earth: A Pre-/Post-Screwtapian Discovery

  1. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    I suppose it is the same book – a sort of posthumous miscellany which includes “Letters from the Earth” (my copy is in storage elsewhere). I think I bought it and browsed around in it before I had ever heard of Lewis. One thing that sticks (vaguely) in my mind – I think from one or more of its other contents – was the idea that Jesus uniquely added a doctrine of Hell that was more horrific than anything in the Old Testament.

    I was consequently quite surprised when I later read how much Twain liked and admired George MacDonald and his work – how well they ‘hit it off’ together when MacDonald was touring America lecturing – how they were planning on a collaborative work (I think I got all this from the bio by MacDonald’s son, Greville, George MacDonald and His Wife). It’s something I’d love to know more about!

    These Twain letters apparently date from after MacDonald’s death. Did they keep up? Do they ‘go around’ on such subjects? Did Twain try things like MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons (1867, 1885, 1889), The Miracles of Our Lord (1870), and The Hope of the Gospel (1892)? Insofar as Twain’s ‘heart is in the right place’ in a lot of this (it seems to me, ill-informed and/or pigheaded) stuff, could MacDonald have brought him round and further? It would be delightful to find out someone has worked on the MacDonald-Twain connection in detail – I am sadly out of touch with MacDonald scholarship… (Something else I have never yet properly attended to is, MacDonald’s “Preface” (1884) to Letters from Hell (1866) by Valdemar Adolph Thisted.)

    Finally, thanks – I don’t remember ever having heard of Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven before! (But its Wikipedia article points me to a choice of three LibriVox audiobook versions, each of about an hour-and-a-half duration.)

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    • A friend on facebook also mentioned the MacDonald connection, and I have looked at (but didn’t really read) Thisted’s experiment.
      Yes, Jesus’ invention of hell is a key idea. It’s historically false, though “hell” and “heaven” were later Jewish doctrines. And I heard it all from Bertrand Russell and before him some other scattered references. Twain does that well here, I think.
      I’m tempted on Stormfield, despite my bad experience here.

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  2. Don Johnson says:

    I read this tome in college (c. 1967) and agree completely with your assessment: it was drudgery to finish after the first few pages. I kept on reading because I was hoping for glimpses of “Innocents Abroad” or “Roughing It”. There are some sparks of brilliance, but Clemens was a bitter man after the death of his wife and did not improve with age.

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  3. robstroud says:

    I’ve long been fascinated by Twain’s Letters from the Earth… especially in terms of how they contrast with the Screwtape Letters. The vastly different ways that those with faith–and those with a bitterness toward that same faith–can apply a rare literary “genre” to similar concerns amazes me. That these two minds were simultaneously intelligent and witty makes the contrast even sharper.

    I have also felt that a collection of essays on these works is quite overdue. Why don’t you edit one? I’d love to offer a contribution to the effort.

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  4. wanderwolf says:

    I haven’t read it, but now want to.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. L.A. Smith says:

    Sounds interesting, but I fear I would have the same reaction as you. I get a little tired of hearing arguments against faith and religion that aren’t even based on fact (like your comment about Jesus and hell). It all becomes tiresome after awhile. Too bad this wasn’t better, but as you say, there was probably a reason why he didn’t publish it. However, the whole concept of what Satan thinks about humanity is an interesting one. I read Tosca Lee’s Demon, which basically speculated that the demons were angry that mankind could sin numerous times and yet still God gave them a Saviour, but demons sinned once (in the rebellion with Satan) and got no “second chance”. It was an interesting idea, I thought.

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    • I don’t know Tosca Lee, but what’s the logic of that? Angels fall –> demons. Humans come later, fall –> get redemption. I can see how demons are angry now, but pre-human rebellion is still there. Oh, well, another thing to read!

      Liked by 1 person

      • L.A. Smith says:

        Yes. I guess the point was why was the lesser creation of m offered salvation and Angels/demons weren’t? Which begs the question of, if a demon repented, could they be saved? Anyhow the book isnot meant to be deep theology but a fiction book, but it’s an interesting question to ponder I suppose. 🙂

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        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I should probably reread Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost and see if and how he addresses this. My sense is that the ‘classic’ answer (arrived at when, by what steps, involving whom?) is, (1) (a) that Adam and Eve were tempted, while (b) (e.g.) Lucifer decided for himself out of himself (somehow) to rebel (though, for example, in narrative bits of Paradise Lost some ‘lower-ranking’ angels are clearly tempted and resist, or something more complex: I need to reread about Abdiel!), and (2) that it is according to the different nature(s) of angels, as to how they know and will, that once they choose, that is actualized and finalized. But I have an all too vague notion that that is by no means the whole picture of the history of orthodox Christian angelology, and that some have thought (some) fallen angels can/will repent/be saved.

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          • L.A. Smith says:

            It is an interesting question. The difference between Satan and Adam and Eve in terms of being tempted and deciding outside of temptation to rebel is a good point. It’s a subject for wiser minds than mine to tackle, that’s for sure! I haven’t read Paradise Lost (yet!) so I should start there, perhaps.

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        • I think an interesting question is this: who wants to be the evangelist to hell, given that demons could repent?

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  6. joviator says:

    “Letters from the Earth” has been on my nearest-to-hand bookshelf since 1990, and I don’t know how many times I’ve read it. Twain’s smackdown of the Protestant idea of Heaven in Letter 2 had me laughing out loud, because I sat through so many dreary services in my youth that every detail rang true.
    That said, it’s obviously a draft. For those of us who wondered if the humor in Twain’s creative process comes before the bite, or the bite comes first, it’s solid evidence for the latter.
    My copy looks like an older printing of your second illustration (and you chose your illustrations brilliantly!). de Voto did a good job of choosing other works to go with it in the volume. I especially recommend “Letter to the Earth”, which deftly skewers a type of person who richly deserves it.

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    • Thanks for this great response. Can I ask what you mean by the Protestant idea of heaven (I think you mean the sing-song hymns, pie in the sky angels and golden roads, but want to clarify). It was really the last 2/3 that I didn’t engage with. I liked the initial construct and the early “observations”.
      I was saved from dreary services, growing up non-churched. It’s not hard to find a dreary service, though, for people really looking for one. I have spent the last month in the UK with high Anglican liturgies. The elements are the same as protestant dreary services, yet the substance is different. I’m not even all that attracted by liturgy, and still….
      Yes, I’m glad others think it is a draft–and not finished. I will look for a critical edition and see how it sits in the volume.
      Thanks

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      • joviator says:

        This is as close to verbatim as I can get 45 years later…
        Young Joe: What do people do in Heaven?
        Minister: We’ll be with Jesus, and we’ll sing the Lord’s praises every day.

        By that point, I’d learned not to tell him that people have a word for a place where I’m singing all the time, and “heaven” ain’t it. But even apart from that, his heaven is empty. There’s nothing human in it. That line is probably the thing that convinced me that the minister was just making things up.

        Twain’s comments about the congregation getting shifty during long sermons is spot-on, too. I remember the first time a friend invited me to a Catholic service: the priest talked for seven minutes and sat down; I looked around incredulously and whispered, “What has Martin Luther done to us?!”

        The later letters, when Twain is pointing out how far we’ve improved our conceptions of right and wrong since the Old Testament days, strike me as true but brutal – I shall always regret that we don’t get to hear the humorous polish that they ought to have.

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          I can’t remember just what-all I read in the De Voto selection, and I haven’t caught up with “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” since Brenton brought it to my attention, here, and I don’t think I’ve ever read other analogous things of this period, that he did publish, but it would be interesting to see your reaction (in brief) to Stormfield and “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” and “Eve’s Diary”, if you have read them (not least with an eye to the draft and humorous polish distinction).

          Liked by 1 person

  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Just ran into someone noting a (presumably recent) imitation Screwtape quotation apparently doing the rounds, which was quoted in this form: “My Dear Wormwood, Be sure that the patient remains completely fixated on politics. Arguments, political gossip, and obsessing on the faults of people they have never met serves as an excellent distraction from advancing in personal virtue”. Anyone run into anything about its authorship (and/or, Ransomly speaking, who intercepted and translated a possible original)?

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  8. Pingback: 2016: A Year of Reading | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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