There’s the old joke where a recently deceased citizen arrives at the pearly gates and Gabriel asks:
Name? Sam Clemons. Um… don’t have you on the list. How would I know you? Well, I wrote Life on the Mississippi and other books. Oh, Mark, come on in.
In Letters from the Earth, Mark unleashes his impatience with silly belief-without-evidence theology and convention by craftily taking on that persona himself, arguing, in the essay “The Damned Human Race,” that “the world was made for man and the universe was made for the world – to stiddy it, you know.” That being settled then, the astronomical argument, he moves on to the geologic evidence. This involves a pretty sophisticated use of Darwin’s origin theories to argue that the millions of years of development of life, bacteria, cells, etc; was all necessary to lay the ground for man. It is as if just saying it makes it so and therein lies Twain’s witty mockery of dogma and uncritical thought, all too familiar to us lately here over a hundred years later.
The critique of fundamentalist religion and convention may account for the 50 year delay in publication though Twain’s executor, his daughter, claimed that the material was not up to his standards. True in some cases, especially the first part where an attempt to portray the creator, and his entourage, discussing the mortals, is quite funny in places but cumbersome and ultimately doesn’t hold together. It is certainly unfinished. That god rested after creating the universe and concluded that it was good, comes in for some Twain-ism, reminding the maker that mosquitos, rattle snakes, rats, flu, the black plague etc; can hardly be called good. A sketch of Noah’s famous Arc is hilarious with all the glossed over problems inherent in a literal reading. Deadly enemies, lethal serpents, lions and lambs all co-housed in a space too tiny by far for the numbers necessary. Feeding, cleanup and other weighty housekeeping went unmentioned in the original tale but not in Mark’s. And the maker gets more scolding for his numerous sadistic and xenophobic commands to believers, like those that involve slaughtering all males above age 12 and enslaving the rest of a conquered opponent.
The book is a collection of short pieces. One is on etiquette, how to behave at certain social functions i.e., at a funeral, don’t bring your dog. Most helpful is a section on how to decide the order in which to rescue people from burning buildings and what a proper comment might be, depending also on class, both of the rescuer and rescuee. “The Great Dark” is an exasperating tale about a happy family purchasing a microscope and enjoying the astonishingly enlarged, previously invisible creatures there. Later, waking during the night the family finds themselves on a microscopically tiny ship in the drop of water on said instrument. Only the father realizes where they are. All others see an endless sea, sometimes turbulent, often placid with occasional appearances by grotesque monsters. Eventually the father begins to doubt his knowledge of where he is and eventually accepts the idea that they are on a voyage to the South Pole, and always have been. The transition to this belief is so convoluted that the author himself seems not quite sure what the true situation is. Another short piece, A Cat-Tale, describes the nightly routine at Mark’s place, inventing bedtime stories for his children who are encouraged to interrupt with questions which are always wittily addressed.
Not all of this entertainment reaches quite the level of writing and subtlety of Huckleberry Finn but as a look at some of the left-overs of a great writer, it does the job. And from the man who opined, when the U.S. invaded the Philippines in 1898, that the stars and bars should be replaced by the skull and cross-bones, it is great fun to encounter challenges to convention that, radical in their day, stand still relevant to our time. One could possibly conclude that narrow minds not only live on but pretty much dominate across eras… so far.