Mark Twain's Heaven
REPORT FROM PARADISE. By Mark Twain. With drawings by Charles Locke. 94 pp. New York: Harper & Bros. $2.50
By DELANCEY FERGUSON
For forty years Mark Twain played with the idea of writing an account of heaven which would debunk the oriental imagery of revelations. Because in his youth the devout had still taken that imagery literally, he clung, in a notable lapse from humor, to the conviction that his commentary was shocking. Even in 1909, when he finally printed, as "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," a fragment of his fragmentary manuscript, he expected it to shock people. The ensuing calm must have disappointed him.
In the present volume the late Dixon Wecter has added to that earlier fragment the only other chapters surviving in anything like final form, with, as a coda, a letter from the Recording Angel to Olivia Clemens' uncle, Andrew Langdon of Buffalo. As Wecter notes, the humorist was "constitutionally unable to burn anything he wrote," and the vast midden heap of the Mark Twain Papers will doubtless continue to yield printable items such as this.
The original of Captain Stormfield was Edgar Wakeman of the S. S. America, whom Mark first met in 1866 on his way from San Francisco to Nicaragua. The captain, who under various aliases appears repeatedly in Mark's earlier writings, had related a dream about heaven in which his own literal minded exegesis of Scripture had figured. From that point Mark undertook the task which the orthodox have tacitly shunned --the effort to replace the geocentric imagery of the Bible with some more Copernican concept.
The main charm of what heaven, as Sandy McWilliams explains to Stormfield, is that "there's all kinds here - which wouldn't be the case if you let the preachers tell it." This is no Zion of a chosen few; it is a democratic heaven in which the captain, when he finally reaches the right gate is welcomed in by a Piute Indian whom he once knew in Tulare County. But though there are no distinctions of race or religion, "there are limits to the privileges of the elect, even in heaven."
A popular Brooklyn preacher, for instance, had announced that his first act on reaching heaven would be "to fling his arms around Abraham, Isaac and Jacob kiss them and weep on them." But if everybody was allowed to do that the patriarchs "would be tired out and as wet as muskrats all the time. *** They ain't any fonder of kissing the emotional highlights of Brooklyn than you be." Such "endearments are going to be declined, with thanks."
The "Letter From the Recording Angel" is connected with Captain Stormfield only in its heavenly imagery, used in this case for blistering invective. As a shining instance of Mark's working off emotions by putting them on paper, it, by itself is worth the price of admission. It is first-rate Mark Twain, and even second-rate Mark Twain is better than most people's first.
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