Mark Twain remains the foremost writer in North America's literary scene. Widely imitated but never equaled, his perception and wit gave him mastery over nearly every topic. Although derided for it in his own time, his stature derives from his audience: he wrote for everyone, excluding none. Those who know Twain will find this collection a decorative capstone to works published a century ago. Nearly every work of social commentary [and few of his works miss that definition] touched on the topics presented here. But he harboured deeper feelings on many subjects, particularly the sham of Christianity, noting them down and hiding them away. Two world wars and world depression shattered many illusions and changed attitudes. Finally, this wonderful collection was released to be joyfully received by Twain fans. One can only wonder what he would have thought of the reaction.
The commonalty among the essays is man's place in the universe. The title is invoked in a series of letters from a banished archangel. It's a cold-water bath for the new Twain reader. How many Christians have truly considered what awaits them in their "heaven"? An earlier essay, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven suggested Twain's thinking on the subject, but the Letters From the Earth is a raw inquiry into what environment "paradise" holds for the unthinking. Other aspects of Biblical teachings are covered in the Papers of the Adams Family. What society developed in those centuries between Genesis and The Deluge? Twain surveys the vagaries of his contemporary scene and projects them backward to that early age. It's an hilarious review of human frailty well suited to modern outlook. It's also a cry from heart at the realization of little humans change over time.
It's noteworthy that Twain would notice Alfred Russell Wallace, who produced a nearly identical theory of evolution to Charles Darwin's. Darwin would have secretly admired the essays comprising The Damned Human Race. After a gentle acknowledgment to Wallace's suggestion that the heavens and earth were purposely designed for man, Twain utterly demolishes the idea. That he used evidence only beginning to be understood is a tribute to his genius. The essay should be read by every churchgoer [and not a few science teachers] living today. The clarity of his logic, presented with the wit only Twain could present, makes this subset one of the highlights of the book.
Twain remained interested in everything he encountered in his lifetime. He maintained a fine balance between castigating unsupported revelations and applauding scientific progress. The Great Dark is a venture into the microscopic world through the mechanism of a dream. The dreamer is drawn into a droplet of water, sailing an endless ocean with his family and the crew of an unsuspecting ship. It's a tale that worthy of comparison with any fantasy of Jules Verne.
Why there are so few reviews of this book here is disturbing. More people need to read this collection and understand its importance and value. Twain was North America's greatest Renaissance Man. He traveled the planet, observed and assessed with insight and precision. Nothing he wrote is obscure and little of his work is outdated. Take yourself beyond the boyhood memories of Tom Sawyer and the horrible film productions of his writings. Meet the man at his honest best in this book. Rejoice in the knowledge he was, and is, among us. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
on 11 February 1999
Mark Twain's cynicism toward religion was an eye opening experience to me as a naive 13 year-old. After being raised with a strong Protestant background, to be presented with the notions that 1) God and His angels were uncaring entities who weren't even aware of our existence, and 2) that we humans were laughably stupid to think that we were God's chosen ones in all the Universe were shocking blasphemies! But many of Twain's comments, speaking as Satan, became grist for my teenage brain; the brain that was beginning to look outward toward the world and wonder about my place in it.
I am now 48 years-old. In thinking back to my first reading of LFTE, I have come to realize that this book might well have represented the first step in shaping the beliefs I hold today. I eagerly await my second reading of Twain's "Letters" to see, at mid-life, how they settle in my heart and brain now that I have married and have two children (ages 10 and 14). I believe I'll read them some of the more delicious passages!
Mark Twain unveils in these uncensored writings sarcastically his outspoken views on man, religion, politics and human civilization.
Mark Twain exhorts all men on earth: `each of you must for yourself alone decide what is right or wrong.'
Unfortunately, man's intelligence is limited. His irrationalism is blatantly exposed by the population explosion. Mark Twain sees at the horizon an earth burdened by 50 billion people! Another example: (the Christian) man `thinks he thinks.' But, look at his heaven: he `has entirely left out the one ecstasy that stands foremost in the heart of every individual ... sexual intercourse.'
Spiritually, man's `disastrous Moral Sense is the parent of all the immoralities. It enables him to distinguish good from evil, and, necessarily, to do wrong.' Materially, man is `but a basket of pestilent corruption provided for the entertainment of swarming armies of bacilli - armies to rot and destroy him.' Concerning his character, its main traits are `hypocrisy, envy, malice, cruelty, vengefulness, seduction, rape, robbery, swindling, arson and the oppression and humiliation of the poor and the helpless. Many men who have accumulated more millions of money than they can ever use, have shown a rabid hunger for more.'
Of course, `man is the only religious animal.' But, for Mark Twain, he is, moreover, `the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cut his throat if his theology isn't straight.' `When the Lord God of Heaven and Earth goes to war, he is totally without mercy for both sexes and all ages.'
For Mark Twain, `the Old Testament is interested mainly in blood and sensuality. The New One in Salvation by fire.' In the fall of Adam and Eve, `the serpent said the forbidden fruit would store their vacant minds with knowledge; whereas the priest, God's representative, had made it his business to keep them from knowing any useful thing.'
More cynically, God, `Our Father perceived that death was a mistake; it allowed the dead person to escape all further persecution. (Therefore,) he invented hell.
In Mark Twain's republic, `it is the common voice of the people who is the Country.' But, the elected government was (is) irrevocably in the hands of the prodigiously rich and their hangers-on. There was (is) no patriotism but of the pocket.' Look at war: `we are now entering upon an unjust and trivial war against a helpless people, and for a base object - robbery.'
For Mark Twain, civilization should be `morally, the evil passions repressed and the level of conduct raised; spiritually, idols cast down and God enthroned; materially, bread and fair treatment for the greatest number.'
But, human civilization replaced these visions with money-fever, sordid ideals, vulgar ambition, turning useless luxuries into necessities.' It is organized for keeping `the sheep docile and usable; for electing purchasable legislatures and city governments which rob the town and sell municipal protection to gamblers, thieves, prostitutes and professional seducers for cash.'
These biting, vitriolic texts about the Descent (not the Ascent) of man from the higher (not the lower) Animals have lost nothing of their topicality.
Where are the Mark Twains of today? There are not many: sunt rari nantes in gurgite vasto (= our world).
These texts are a must read for all lovers of world literature.
on 24 November 1998
The first time I read this, I had just finished The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I was in for a surprise! Had I just read the Innocents Abroad, it may have prepared me better, but I think most people will be reading this book from a Tom Sawyer mindset, and it will shatter your belief about Mark Twain. It's a classic, well worth a read, and a good study of human nature.
on 12 February 1996
Twain at his best, taking on morality and organized religion.
Takes the form of a series of letters from Lucifer (the Angel, visiting "God's experiment"), to Gabriel.
Needless to say, Twain's tone is more than a little ironic.
Extremely funny, but difficult for the weak of faith.