Early in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson, the narrator mentions that Judge Driscoll:
was president of the Freethinkers’ Society, and Pudd’nhead Wilson was the other member. The society’s weekly discussions were now the old lawyer’s main interest in life. Pudd’nhead was still toiling in obscurity at the bottom of the ladder, under the blight of that unlucky remark which he had let fall twenty-three years before about the dog. . . . Judge Driscoll could be a freethinker and still hold his place in society because he was the person of most consequence to the community, and therefore could venture to go his own way and follow out his own notions. The other member of his pet organization was allowed the like liberty because he was a cipher in the estimation of the public, and nobody attached any importance to what he thought or did. He was liked, he was welcome enough all around, but he simply didn’t count for anything(942–43).
Judge Driscoll and Pudd’nhead Wilson were very lonely freethinkers in Dawson’s Landing, but freethinking, a reliance on empirical proof as evidence for belief, as opposed to faith or supernatural evidence, was an important intellectual movement in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. In her recent book Freethinkers, Susan Jacoby asserts, “The period from, roughly, 1875 to 1914 represents the high-water mark of freethought as an influential movement in American society” (151). Given those dates, we might think of this time as the age of Mark Twain, but in terms of the freethought movement, it was the age of Robert Ingersoll. Widely known in his time, celebrated as a skilled orator, wildly popular as a lecture speaker and writer, vilified by the [End Page 42] religiously orthodox as “The Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll has now been nearly forgotten. But from 1876, when he burst on the national political scene with his “Plumed Knight” speech nominating James G. Blaine for president, to his death in 1899, Robert Ingersoll was undoubtedly the most influential American public figure in the battle between religious thought and rational, scientific doubt.1 He was also one of the most influential writers on Mark Twain’s thought, especially on Twain’s late writings about religion. That influence has been recognized, but not as fully as it deserves. Especially in his late works, after he had read Ingersoll’s complete works, Mark Twain was influenced greatly by “The Great Agnostic.” In fact, a fuller examination shows that Twain was not only influenced by Ingersoll, but that he borrowed ideas, phrasing, and even exact words so heavily that he is most certainly guilty of extensive plagiarism. Much has been written about Twain’s turn to pessimism and darkness in his last decade, often decried as bitterness and despair, but increasingly recognized as evidence of philosophical honesty and depth. His extensive borrowing reveals that what many have seen as philosophical honesty is actually intellectual dishonesty of a high order. That evidence calls for a new reading of many of Twain’s late, mostly unpublished works, most notably “Letters from the Earth.”
My title gives recognition to Thomas Schwartz’s 1976 article in American Literature, “Mark Twain and Robert Ingersoll: The Freethought Connection.” Schwartz very ably and fully recounts Mark Twain’s knowledge of and admiration for Robert Ingersoll, beginning with the November night in 1879 when both were speaking at the Grand Banquet of the Re-Union of the Army of the Tennessee, at Chicago’s Palmer House, with Grant and other notables in attendance. Mark Twain’s speech, the last of a long night of speeches, was “The Babies,” which brought the house down. But as Schwartz details, it was Robert Ingersoll’s speech that captured Twain’s admiration (184). He wrote to his wife, Livy, soon after the event, expressing his admiration for Ingersoll and calling Ingersoll’s speech “just the supreme combination of English words that was ever put together since the world began” (Paine 1:371). A few days later, he wrote to William Dean Howells, saying “Bob...