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A nearly lost legacy
on 31 January 2006
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]