restricted access Mark Twain, Nietzsche, and Terrible Truths That Can Set Us Free
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Mark Twain, Nietzsche, and Terrible Truths That Can Set Us Free

In a May 1899 review of two translations of Nietzsche titled “Giving the Devil His Due,” G. B. Shaw introduced a concept he expanded on the following year in “Diabolonian Ethics,” published as part of his preface to Three Plays for Puritans. In that essay, Dick Dudgeon, the hero of one of those plays, The Devil’s Disciple, is enlisted in a Diabolonian tradition whose lineage stretches from Prometheus through the Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell to “our newest idol,” the Nietzschean Superman. In his original review, Shaw included Mark Twain in the tradition, though what he gave with one hand he abruptly took away with the other: “Mark Twain emitted some Diabolonian sparks, only to succumb to the overwhelming American atmosphere of chivalry, duty, and gentility.” The patronizing charge, which preceded Twain’s various Satanic fictions, was repeated precisely two decades later by an admirer of Twain, H. L. Mencken, a satirist as aware as Mark Twain was of how a heterodoxy-hating American public, its “pruderies outraged,” could bitterly turn on a dissenter, “even the gaudiest hero, and roll him in the mud.”1

Though this brief examination of late Mark Twain will conclude by emphasizing the liberating power that can attend an unflinching confrontation of terrible, even appalling truths, the initial focus is on the decision by the gaudiest and best-loved American literary icon to withhold from publication his most vehement attacks, not only on institutional Christianity and collective hypocrisy, but on the Christian God himself. The charge of Shaw and Mencken that Twain had succumbed to pressure was expanded on and personalized in The Ordeal of Mark Twain (1920) by Van Wyck Brooks, who claimed that a beloved and believing Livy tamed her husband, fueling the myth that Twain’s creativity fell victim to a destructive female dominance. Though that overstates the case, there is no doubt that Twain’s wife hated his irreligious and deterministic [End Page 22] treatise What Is Man? and that his daughters, Jean and Clara, disapproved of his 1906 reflections on religion, and of his literally “Diabolonian” fictions, including “The Chronicle of Young Satan,” the initial manuscript in what later comprised the Mysterious Stranger papers. That familial disapproval may have become dramatized in Twain’s notoriously divided self as psychomachia: an internal and infernal dialogue between Blakean angel and devil. Most of these texts remained unpublished during Twain’s life. What Is Man? was not released while Livy was alive, and Letters from the Earth, Satan’s devastating account of human folly and divine cruelty, written in 1909, the year before Twain’s death, went unpublished until the year of Clara’s death, 1962, when, at the outset of a turbulent decade, it put a suddenly revolutionary and “relevant” Twain on the New York Times best-seller list.

This context of public and familial disapproval illuminates Mark Twain’s most significant self-alliance with, and most guilt-ridden distinction from, the iconoclastic German philosopher who, using his “hammer” not as a brutal sledge but as a philosophic tuning fork, exposed the hollowness of some of our Christian culture’s most cherished “idols.” Dictating to his secretary Isabel Lyon, who saw her employer and Nietzsche as kindred spirits, Twain observed on September 4, 1907:

Nietzsche published his book and was at once pronounced crazy by the world—by a world which included tens of thousands of bright, sane men who believed exactly as Nietzsche believed, but concealed the fact, and scoffed at Nietzsche. What a coward every man is! And how surely he will find it out if he will just let other people alone and sit down and examine himself. The human race is a race of cowards; and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner.2

Though Nietzsche was an enthusiastic reader of the novels of Mark Twain, whose exuberant humor and “fooleries” he embraced as an antidote to Germanic stodginess, Lyon had to push Twain, in August 1906, into listening to and reading passages of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Despite his resistance and gruff dismissals (“Oh...