Mark Twain’s Secret Vendetta with the Almighty by Gary Sloan (May 2001)

When Mark Twain died in 1910, he was an international superstar and an American institution. He was America’s knight errant against sham, cant, and pomposity in places high and low. His signature white suit, shock of gray hair, walrus moustache, and omnipresent cigar were etched in the national consciousness. Wherever he went, ebullient crowds applauded his droll wit and cornpone wisdom, journalists wheedled piquant quips, hosts vied for after-dinner remarks. He was toasted by royalty, wooed by moguls, embraced by the intelligentsia. Andrew Carnegie donated a thousand dollars to spread “a new Gospel of Saint Mark” (an anti-imperialist tract). Charles Darwin kept a Twain volume on his nightstand. William Dean Howells, a lifelong friend and esteemed arbiter of belles lettres, dubbed him “the Lincoln of our literature.”

Only a handful of intimates knew this revered creator of Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher, and Huck Finn had died a bilious adversary of the Almighty. In his twilight years, Twain’s volcanic pen belched ceaseless vitriol against his Maker. Spewed into letters, notebooks, essays, dialogues, autobiographical dictations, and sundry fragments, none of this uneven gallimaufry was published in his lifetime. This was gospel for the future.

At seventy-two, Twain wrote: “I expose to the world only my trimmed and perfumed and carefully barbered public opinions and conceal carefully, cautiously, wisely, my private ones.”1

Impressed by the audacity of his naughtiness, he initially reckoned the world would need 500 years to catch up. Later, in a flush of philanthropy, he revised the estimate to 2006 CE.

Twain’s private opinions had never been arrestingly pious. His father, who died when Mark was twelve, was an easygoing Hannibal lawyer and storekeeper, whom the son would later suspect of having had an agnostic bone or two. His Presbyterian mother showed flashes of heterodoxy. In his autobiography, Twain recalls her sympathy for Satan because he never got to tell his side of the story. Like Tom and Huck, his alter egos, young Twain preferred smoking, cussing, spelunking, and lollygagging to sermons, Sunday school, and other heavy-duty moral cleansers. When he did attend to religion, his empirical proclivities threatened orthodoxy. After his bible teacher had explicated the verse “Ask and ye shall receive,” Twain spent three days praying for gingerbread. When none materialized, he filched a convenient piece. He concluded that prayer is an inferior mode of acquisition.

As an adult, he adopted the Christianity of enlightened liberalism, congenial with his burgeoning deism. He discarded heaven and hell, the immortality of the soul, and the divinity of Jesus Christ. From Thomas Paine, whom he had read in his cub pilot days, Twain imbibed the idea that religions derive their authority from spurious claims by their founders that they had received revelations from God, transmitted to posterity as incontrovertible holy writ. Bibles diminished the grandeur of the real God by straitening “him” to the narrow confines of parochial imaginations.

The true revelation was Nature, best apprehended through science. Twain touted reason and logic as antidotes to ignorance, superstition, and humbuggery of every ilk.

Compared with the majestic pageantry of astronomical phenomena, church creeds seemed insular, petty, and egoistic. In a letter to Howells, Twain recounted the constricting effect of his sister-in-law’s religiosity on his brother Orion: “She is saturated to the marrow with the most malignant form of Presbyterianism–that sort which considers the saving of one’s own paltry soul the first & supreme end & object of life, so you see she has harried him into the church several times, & then made religion so intolerable to him with her prayings & Bible readings & her other & eternal pious clack-clack that it has had the effect of harrying him out of it again.”2

Despite his strictures on church and bible, Twain long retained respect for Jesus. He told Orion: “Neither Howells nor I believe in hell or the divinity of the Savior, but no matter, the Savior is none the less a sacred Personage, and a man should have no desire or disposition to refer to him lightly, profanely, or otherwise than with the profoundest reverence.”3

When Twain married the wealthy Olivia Langdon, of Elmira, New York, in 1870, he wasn’t averse to her conventional piety. At this time, according to Howells, Twain was still “far from the entire negation he came to at last.”sup>4 Livy’s ardor for church, bible reading, and family prayers certified her virtue. Like many men of his era, Twain believed the female aptitude for spirituality exceeded the male’s. Deferentially, he acquiesced in his wife’s faith. He offered morning prayers and daily readings from Scripture. He desisted from snide remarks about the Book. He regularly attended a church pastored by his friend Joseph Twichell–a “progressive Christian,” Twain enthused.

Temporarily, at least, he slipped comfortably into the vestments of Christian respectability. Even after the punctilious phase of his piety had waned, he observed an extended truce with orthodoxy. Forty years of halcyon fortune shored up his subterranean optimism.

Then, in the 1890s, he was buffeted by a series of blows from which he never recovered.ÊSpeculative investments brought him to bankruptcy, his oldest daughter, Susy, died of meningitis, his youngest, Jean, was diagnosed an epileptic, Livy began a slide into lasting invalidism (she died in 1904), and Twain’s own health was in eclipse. “Having long derided the notion of special providence,” said John Tuckey, a Twain scholar, “he was now forced to consider himself the personal victim of a scheme of providential retribution.”5

When the crushing afflictions were visited on him, Twain reacted like an irascible Job. He struck back at the Almighty with his best weapon, words–feverishly, obsessively, endlessly, but never publicly, discharged. Firing these paper bullets of the brain momentarily eased his leaden grief.

For a time, his rancor was confined to the Old Testament God, whom he had intellectually, but never emotionally, sloughed off. Twain “could never quite free himself from reading the Bible with fundamentalist passion,” said Twainian Stanley Brodwin, “even as he ridiculed it in the name of reason.”6

Jehovah, Twain calculated, was statistically the biggest mass murderer in history.ÊOffended, he reflexively slew everything in sight: “All the men, all the beasts, all the boys, all the babies, all the women and all the girls, except those that have not been deflowered. What this insane Father requires is blood and misery; he is indifferent as to who furnishes it.”7 Nothing drove Jehovah’s dudgeon higher than minor lapses in hygiene. Anyone “who pisseth against the wall” was sure to provoke “a wholesale massacre.”8

Despite the recurrent bludgeonings, the pious confer on the brutal autocrat epithets of love and respect: “With a fine sarcasm we ennoble God with the title of Father–yet we know quite well that we should hang his style of father wherever we might catch him.”9 “There is only one Criminal,” catechized Twain, “and it is not man.”10

Before long, Twain’s ire extended to Jesus Christ–a.k.a. Jehovah “after he got religion.”11 The all-new Jehovah was not an improvement. He had added braggadocio and deceitfulness to his repertoire of defects. “His Old Testament self is sweetness and gentleness and respectability compared with his earthly self. In Heaven he claims not a single merit and hasn’t one–outside of those claimed by His mouth–whereas in the earth He claims every merit in the entire catalogue of merits, yet practices them only now and then, penuriously.”12 With some historical legerdemain, Twain credited (or discredited) Jesus with the invention of hell. This was the most egregious rascality imaginable because it deprived the wretched human race of its lone solace, eternal rest. Thus, “the meek and gentle Savior was a thousand times crueler than ever he was in the Old Testament.”13

Eventually, Twain’s odium encompassed the stolid Designer of the deists. He, too, was destitute of morals. As the author of natural law, he was culpable for the thousand shocks flesh is heir to. Twain was stupefied by “the all-comprehensive malice which could patiently descend to the contriving of elaborate tortures for the meanest and pitifulest of creatures.”14 The effectiveness of the traps, pitfalls, and gins, Twain mused, in no way depended on obtrusive intervention:

“He could invent the tortures and set in motion the laws and machinery which should continue them through all time without his supervision, then turn His attention elsewhere and trouble himself no further about the matter.”15 The cosmic Watchmaker could install automatic detonating devices. This absentee knavery was worse than Jehovah’s in-your-face immediacy.

Twain’s anger was aggravated by the supposition that God, were he genially inclined, could eliminate all unhappiness. Twain ridiculed the moral axiom that suffering builds character. It was more apt to destroy than to edify. Twain inverted Alexander Pope’s cheery maxim that “whatever is, is right.” Since God is malevolent, reasoned Twain, whatever is, is wrong. Twain obsessively documented the wrongness: “The day we are born he begins to persecute us. Even our littleness, our innocence, our helplessness cannot move him to any pity, any gentleness. Day after day, week after week, month after month, the wanton torture goes on.”16 Twain frequently chanted litanies of ailments: “Mumps, measles, whooping cough, croup, tonsilitis, diphtheria, asthma, bronchitis, itch, cholera, cancer, consumption, scarlet fever, yellow fever, bilious fever, typhus fever, hay fever”–the list was endless. In sum, the paragon of animals “is but a basket of festering offal provided for the support and entertainment of swarming armies of bacilli, armies commissioned to rot him and destroy him, each army equipped with a special detail of the work”17

Twain oft rehearsed the ubiquitous malignity of the fly. God gives it its orders: “Depart into the uttermost corners of the earth, and diligently do your appointed work. Persecute the sick child; settle upon its eyes, its face, its hands, and gnaw and pester and sting; worry and fret and madden the worn and tired mother who watches by the child, and who humbly prays for mercy and relief with the pathetic faith of the deceived and unteachable.”18

Twain couldn’t imagine himself as heartless as he supposed God to be: “I often put a dog on the fire and hold him down with the tongs, and enjoy his yelps and moans and strugglings and supplications [in reality, Twain was kind to animals], but with a man it would be different. I think that in the long run, if his wife and babies, who had not harmed me, should come crying and pleading, I couldn’t stand it; I know I should forgive him and let him go, even if he had violated a monastery.”19 So, too, others: Most people are “better, kinder, gentler, more to be respected, honored, and esteemed” than the Deity they ostensibly revere.20

Viewing Satan as a heroic rebel against the real Archfiend, Twain often used him as a mouthpiece. In “That Day in Eden,” Satan commiserates with the fallen Adam and Eve, baffled by God’s punishment: “Poor ignorant things, the command of refrain had meant nothing to them, they were but children, and could not understand untried things and verbal abstractions which stood for matters outside of their little world and their narrow experience.”21

Twain deprecated the Moral Sense (he always capitalized it), a legacy of the mythic Fall, as the fount of immorality. By allowing humans to distinguish good and bad, its sole effect was to tempt and to enable us to do evil. Without it, we would live in a state of idyllic innocence, unafflicted by conscience. With it, we are inferior to the creatures, spared the accursed faculty: “Whenever I look at the other animals and realize that whatever they do is blameless, I envy them the dignity of their estate, its purity and its loftiness, and recognize that the Moral Sense is a thoroughly disastrous thing.”22

Like a Calvinist sans the grace, Twain dwelt in an absurd universe where human automatons trick themselves into believing they are autonomous. All the while, the cosmic Puppet Master is pulling the strings: “Man is a poor joke–the poorest that was ever conceived–an April-fool joke, played by a malicious urchin Creator with nothing better to waste his time upon.”23 Being nothing but an “automatic mechanism, man is not to blame for what he is. He didn’t make himself. He has no control over himself.” Yet the cosmic Sadist “punishes man for doing things which from the beginning of time He had intended that he should do.” Hence, only “unthinking fools” believe they have an “obligation to God and owe Him thanks, reverence, and worship.”24

Occasionally, Twain sought refuge in solipsism. After his wife’s death, he wrote Joseph Twichell: “There is nothing. There is no God and no universe, there is only empty space, and in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible Thought. And I am that thought. And God, and the Universe, and Time, and Life, and Death, and Joy and Sorrow and Pain only a grotesque and brutal dream, evolved from the frantic imagination of that same Thought.”25

In his grief and despair, Twain arrived at an endgame of utter nihilism.

An atheistic observer might be tempted to descry in Twain’s fate an exemplum on the perils of anthropomorphic theism. I’ll resist. At the end, for Mark Twain, nothing short of death would do. He had been stretched out on the rack of the world too long. Fame, Love, Riches, Pleasure –these, he said, were life’s false gifts. Death was the only true boon.

Gary Sloan writes: “I am a retired English professor in Ruston, Louisiana. Besides many articles in academic journals, I have written for U. S. News & World Report, The Skeptic, Free Inquiry, The Humanist, American Atheist, The Freethinker (London), The American Rationalist, Exquisite Corpse, Impact, and other popular publications. I have also written commentaries for the Scripps-Howard news service. My thrill-packed saga ÔEpistolary Adventures in the Bible Belt’ appears in the March 2000 issue of Freethought Today.”


1 Darrel Abel, American Literature, vol. 3 (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1963), p. 28.

2 Twain-Howells Letters, ed. Henry Nash Smith and William Gibson (Cambridge: Belknap Pr. of Harvard UP, 1960), p. 256.

3 Twain-Howells, p. 238.

4 William Dean Howells, “My Mark Twain,” in The Shock of Recognition, vol. 2, ed. Edmund Wilson (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1955), p. 679.

5 Mark Twain, Fables of Man. Ed. John Tuckey (Berkeley: U of Cal. Pr., 1972), p. 130.

6 “Mark Twain’s Masks of Satan: The Final Phase,” American Literature 45 (1973), p. 215.

7 Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth, ed. Bernard DeVoto (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), p. 52.

8 Letters from the Earth, pp. 50-51.

9 Mark Twain, “Reflections on Religion,” ed. By Charles Neider, Hudson Review 16 (1963), p. 348. This is a convenient compilation of Twain’s late eruptions.

10 Mark Twain, The Devil’s Race-Track: Mark Twain’s Great Dark Writings, ed. John Tuckey (Berkeley: U. of Cal. Pr., 1980), p. 7.

11 Letters from the Earth, p. 45.

12 “Reflections,” p. 335.

13 Letters from the Earth, p. 46.

14 “Reflections,” p. 347.

15 Mark Twain, What Is Man? And Other Philosophical Writings (Berkeley: U. of Cal. Pr., 1973), p. 486.

16 What Is Man? p. 478.

17 What Is Man? pp. 87-88.

18 Fables of Man, p. 113.

19 What Is Man? pp. 116-117.

20 What Is Man? p. 483.

21 Mark Twain, The Complete Essays of Mark Twain, ed. Charles Neider (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1963), p. 672.

22 What Is Man? p. 475.

23 Twain-Howells, p. 689.

24 “Reflections,” pp. 351-352.

25 Mark Twain, MT’s Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts, ed. William Gibson (Berkeley: U. of Cal. Pr., 1969), p. 30.

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