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Religious and Esthetic Vision in Mark Twain's Early Career James D. Wilson Discussions of Mark Twain's theology and attitudes toward religion usually focuson the deterministic cosmic view, the savagery of his attacks upon an implacable deity, and the unrelenting despair characteristic of the last fifteen yearsof his life. The publication of Bernard DeVoto's edition of Letters from theEarth (1962),the recent widespread availabilityof letters, autobiographical dictations, fables and fragments from the last decade of Mark Twain's life have enabled those interested in Mark Twain to construct a reasonably coherent theological system under which the aging author labored, and which he articulated forcefully and unremittingly from 1896 (the publication of Joan of Arc) to his death in 1910.1 Mark Twain's oft-quoted reference to "the damned human race" becomes, Stanley Brodwin contends, "a theological condemnation and judgment" that reflects both the author's childhood training in Presbyterian theology and his mature intellectual commitment to the scientific determinism prevalent in late-nineteenth-century Anglo-American culture.2 I should like in this essay, however, to focus not on Mark Twain's theology asit crystallizes toward the end of his lifebut on the author's attitudes toward Christian faith and religious experience as they began to take shape in the mid- to late-1860s. During this formative period, Mark Twain's concerns gravitatedtoward esthetic and religious matters: in recasting the Alta California letters into The Innocents Abroad he became more conscious of the esthetic Canadian Review of American Studies, Volume 17, Number 2, Summer 1986, 155-172 156 James D. lVz'lson dimensions of his art and committed to a career as a serious man of letters; in his courtship and eventual marriage to Olivia Langdon, Mark Twain underwent a stringent examination of conscience which resulted in his resolve to seek a reasonably orthodox Christian life.His artistic and religious concerns gradually fused to form at the outset of his professional career an esthetic credo that Mark Twain neither fully satisfied nor completely abandoned. 3 As Samuel Clemens began with The Innocents Abroad (1869) firmly to establish his identity as Mark Twain, he was a man already alienated from the comfortable religious homilies of his childhood. His early training in the Hannibal Presbyterian church and the support and example of his parents had left him a conscience keen to humanitarian concerns and personal moral responsibility, and a knowledge of, ifnot belief in, the basic tenets of Protestant faith. He had by this time become disenchanted with religious orthodoxy, distrustful of the emotionalism and sentimentality characteristic of superficial or falsepiety, and impatient with any hint of religious chicanery. If the frontier tradition encouraged in Clemens a penchant for playful irreverence and an eye for the hypocrisies and occasional nonsense of the established churches, he nevertheless exhibited little disposition to blasphemy. Clemens continued to attend church services on occasion and, although he considered himself a sinner, he was capable of sensitive expression of pious sentiments. Clemens also developed in the 1860s a fascination and respect for the ministry, "the highest dignity to which a man may aspire in this life" as he wrote in a 4March 1870letter to a former childhood playmate, Frank Walden.4 To his brother Orion, Clemens confessed that he "had but two powerful ambitions in my life": to be a riverboat pilot and a "preacher of the gospel." Although he surrendered the latter because his "aspirations were the very ecstasy of presumption," Clemens nevertheless encouraged his brother toward the ministry: "I would rather be a shining light in that department than the greatest lawyer that ever trod the earth." 5 Showman and entertainer that he often was,the effectivegospel preacher appealed to the young writer's incipient esthetic sense. When in NewYork in 1867just prior to the Quaker Cityvoyage, Clemens arose one cold morning, "earlier than any Christian ought to be out of his bed ... ," to hear a sermon delivered by the distinguished Henry Ward Beecher. Clemens admits to being in a "pious frenzy" to hear Beecher, although to do so meant contending with the massive crowds that jammed the church. So inspiring was Beecher's attempt to blend "poetry, pathos, humor, satire" into an...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 155-172
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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