Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Letters from the Earth [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Mark Twain, ed Bernard DeVoto.
The cover of my paperback copy of Letters from the Earth boasts “new uncensored writings by Mark Twain” with a little more significance than such labels usually hold. The contents of this volume were the very first to be edited for posthumous publication by the Twain literary estate, but Twain’s daughter Clara Clemens’ misgivings denied publication to the book until 1962, after the editor’s own death! By then, several of the individual texts included had seen individual publication in periodicals and a book of Twain scholarship.
Although she gave as her motive the concern that the book’s contents would misrepresent Twain’s actual ideas as she understood them, a reader will readily infer that Clara’s fear was chiefly about offending against conventional piety. Nearly half of the book consists of satires grounded in biblical mythology: the title piece (largely in the voice of the angel Satan), the “Papers of the Adams Family” thus organized and titled by editor Bernard DeVoto, and the brief “Letter to the Earth.” The first of these, and apparently the most finished in Twain’s own manuscript, is clearly modeled on Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, in which a traveler from a distant land reports back to his own people on the bewildering and exotic features of the culture shared by the reader and the actual author of the text.
“Letters from the Earth” at one point refers to sex as “the Supreme Art. They practiced it diligently and were filled with contentment. The Deity ordered them to practice it. They obeyed, this time. But it was just as well it was not forbidden, for they would have practiced it anyhow, if a thousand Deities had forbidden it” (25). Satan supplies a sober and accurate appraisal of the Christian revelation: “… as the meek and gentle Savior he was a thousand billion times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament–oh, incomparably more atrocious than ever he was at the very worst in those old days!” (46)
The “Papers of the Adam Family” treat antediluvian society with attention to the premise that the long lifespans of characters in Genesis–even assuming that they waited a few extra decades before parenthood–made for a society many living generations deep, and thus strangely dense and hierarchical. Several of these “translations from the Adamic” are in the voice of Eve, “the Most Illustrious, Most Powerful, Most Gracious, Most Reverend, her Grandeur, the Acting Head of the Human Race” (91-2). There is also a focus on the early tenth century as clocked from Eden, consisting mostly of thinly-veiled satire on Twain’s own time, which certainly had catastrophe imminent.
A number of short pieces include a whimsical cat-focused story (where Twain in passing vaunts his own “conscience torpid through virtuous inaction,” 113), a merciless criticism of the prose style of James Fenimore Cooper, a reasonably funny parody of etiquette instructions, some travelogue from England, and a few other essays.
The book concludes with its longest and strangest item. “The Great Dark” (title furnished by the editor) is a horror story that hinges on its protagonist’s efforts and failures to assign reality to his actual circumstances after being subjected to a dream-world of simulation. Latter-day readers might see this piece as a precocious Matrix sort of story. (Who needs wetware and full-body VR when you have a Victorian microscope?) But of course the central conundrum goes back to Chuang Tzu and probably to the dawn of reflective thought.