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The New York Times, September 23, 1962


The Other Face of the Humorist

LETTERS FROM THE EARTH. By Mark Twain. Edited by Bernard DeVoto. With a preface by Henry Nash Smith. 303 pp. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row. $5.95.


A poet, playwright and critic, Mr. Jones is professor of English at Harvard. Among his many books are "American Humanism," "Reflections on Learning" and "The Theory of American Literature."

This collection of largely unpublished material is the most impressive contribution to books by Mark Twain since "The Mysterious Stranger" of 1916, the imaginative grandeur of which it shares. Mark Twain thought, while he was alive, he was going to terrify the world with a metaphysical masterpiece, "What Is Man?" (1917), which, he directed, should not be published until he was dead. But "What Is Man?" is the most unreadable volume he ever produced, an amateur presentation of a simplistic metaphysical theory.

The same theory, however, underlies "The Mysterious Stranger" and "Letters From the Earth," and serves them well, the reason being that the imagination can kindle when logic does not. The cosmic irony of "The Mysterious Stranger," in which Satan, a nephew of the "great" Satan, visits a group of boys in the Austrian village of Eseldorf (really Hannibal, Mo., in disguise) results from the incongruity between Satan's enormous powers and celestial foresight, and his contempt of the values of the human race. This irony, almost savagely pressed into the consciousness of the reader, gives range, strength and splendor to the present volume.

The story of the publication of "Letters From the Earth" needs to be told. It was put together as a book by the late Bernard DeVoto, then editor of the Mark Twain papers, as long ago as 1939. Parts of it were even published in the magazines, but the book has been delayed for almost a quarter of a century by the objection of Clara Clemens that the papers present a "distorted" view of her father's ideas. In this interval Bernard DeVoto has died, but Clara Clemens' scruples have been overcome, and Henry Nash Smith, who is the present editor of the Mark Twain papers, has got the book out.

Like William Dean Howells, Clara Clemens may have honestly thought that the "real" Mark Twain was a genial humorist who was led to omit certain American colloquialisms from the printed page -- for example, from "Huckleberry Finn." The savagery of certain elements in that great novel -- Colonel Sherburn's assassination of Boggs and his contemptuous quelling of the mob that wants to lynch him come to mind -- cannot be made to vanish by a conjuring trick; and the space age is far more moved by the sardonic and disillusioned Mark Twain than it is by Twain the comic lecturer and writer of genial buffoonery.

"Letters From the Earth" is, inevitably, uneven. It contains another version of Twain's wearisome attack on James Fenimore Cooper, which we all know too well, a burlesque of an etiquette book, and other oddments. The brilliant parts of the collection are the "Letters From the Earth"; the "Papers of the Adam Family"; a section on "The Damned Human Race"; a sardonic letter from the Recording Angel to Abner Scofield, a coal dealer in Buffalo, advising Abner of the disposition of his various petitions and bringing him up to date on his debits an credits in the matter of morality; "The French and the Comanches," a biter comparative study in human cruelties; and a long narrative, "The Great Dark," which oddly combines elements of Fitzjames O'Brien's powerful, if forgotten, yarn, "The Diamond Lens" with elements of "The Mysterious Stranger" and "Captain Stormfield's visit to Heaven."

The brilliant parts are compressed and savage -- and we are beginning to understand at long last that Mark Twain was, or could be, a savage man. The brilliance arises from the fact that they were written when he had become master of clear, flexible prose and was no longer the journalist or the platform lecturer. The bitterness is a function of his indignation against man and God for the cruelties and injustices they practice. The attitude is that of Swift, the intellectual contempt is that of Voltaire, and the imagination is that of one of the great masters of American writing.

Mark Twain's feud with God was possible only to one brought up on Protestant Bible Christianity. Assuming with the fundamentalists that the Scriptures are not only divinely inspired but must also for that reason be logically consistent, he delights to show up the cruel contradiction between the endowments God has given His creatures (including man), and the injunctions laid on man for treating the creatures of God, including himself.

The great blunder, Twain thinks (here as in other books), was the invention of the Moral Sense. His logic becomes that of the skeptical materialists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but his language is contemporary American English; and his illustrations are, so to speak, drawn form Hannibal, Mo., and Hartford, Conn. Were he to carry out the Biblical injunctions laid upon him, man would act contrary to his own nature, which he really cannot do. Hence the hypocrisy of moral judgments. Why blame the tiger for killing? God planned the tiger that way.

In this collection, as in earlier writings, Twain is fascinated by cosmic grandeur, the long lapse of time, and the littleness of the human race. He revels in gigantic concepts. Letters from the Earth are from Satan to two archangelic correspondents, and Satan's cosmic assumptions emphasize the pettiness of man and the inconsistencies of God. The "translations" of "Papers of the Adam Family" assume, like the early chapters of Genesis, that early man lived for centuries, an find their satiric conclusions in the incongruity resulting from a majestic life-span and petty conduct. Twain's satiric account of evolution argues from a similar premise. Twain writes:

"The first preparation was made for the oyster. Very well, you cannot make an oyster out of whole cloth, you must make the oyster's ancestor first. This is not done in a day." And after a humorous account of the ancestors of the oyster, he concludes: "An oyster has hardly any more reasoning power than a scientist has; and so it is reasonably certain that this one jumped to the conclusion that the nineteen million years was a preparation for him; but that would be just like an oyster, which is the most conceited animal there is, except man."

In one sense "Letters From the Earth" is for two reasons a dated book. In the first place Biblical scholarship has so radically altered the literalness Twain read into the Scripture, his satire is likely to seem naive. In the second place our attitude to space has altered. Though we can find no proof that the universe has any interest in, or care for, us, we set about exploring it with business-like efficiency. But just as the fanciful geography of "Gulliver's Travels," once a mode of gaining credibility, does not now alter the wisdom of Swift, nor the truth that Job is not factual but a poem alter its majesty, so "Letters From the Earth" is not essentially damaged by the decline of belief in a Protestant heaven.

Bible Christians will necessarily find the book utterly blasphemous and wish Clara Clemens had not changed her mind. Better informed readers will wonder at the imaginative power of the greater passages in this volume, and ponder a view of man's capacity to be cruel that, after the horrors of Buchenwald and Hiroshima, has more relevance to the modern ethical problem than ever Twain anticipated. Students of Twain will be led to inquire even more closely into the complexities of a personality as enigmatic as any in American letters.

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