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Mark Twain and the Bible

Mark Twain (1835-1910)Mark Twain is best remembered for his wit. The story goes that by the end of his life, all he had to do was shamble onto the stage at the beginning of a lecture time to send the audience into fits of laughter. Gentle, often double-edged, satire marks this man’s work. How unexpected, then, when Twain steps back from his usual tone in order to offer observations in a more serious tone. In The Innocents Abroad, Twain makes such a move. While we have been treated to many pages of commentary upon the foibles of both Americans and the inhabitants of the Old World, of both our narrator-guide and those he encounters, when the author takes up the topic of the Bible, the mockery subsides, if only for a paragraph.

It is hard to make a choice of the most beautiful passage in a book which is so gemmed with beautiful passages as the Bible; but it is certain that not many things within its lids may take rank above the exquisite story of Joseph. Who taught those ancient writers their simplicity of language, their felicity of expression, their pathos, and above all, their faculty of sinking themselves entirely out of sight of the reader and making the narrative stand out alone and seem to tell itself? Shakspeare is always present when one reads his book; Macaulay is present when we follow the march of his stately sentences; but the Old Testament writers are hidden from view.

Twain is not so glowingly appreciative of all would-be scripture. In Roughing It, he shares his opinions on the Book of Mormon:

The book is a curiosity to me, it is such a pretentious affair, and yet so “slow,” so sleepy; such an insipid mess of inspiration. It is chloroform in print. If Joseph Smith composed this book, the act was a miracle—keeping awake while he did it was, at any rate. If he, accourding to tradition, merely translated it from certain ancient and mysteriously-engraved plates of copper, which he declares he found under a stone, in an out-of-the-way locality, the work of translating was equally a miracle, for the same reason.

One has to wonder if these contrasting appraisals can be explained by mere bigotry. Twain is, at least nominally, a Christian, a Missourian who would have heard the tales of the “Mormon War” of 1838 in which the followers of Joseph Smith were driven out of the state only to settle in Nauvoo, Illinois, some seventy miles up the Mississippi from Hannibal. Actually, one has only to wonder at this, in my opinion, until reading comparative passages from the two books, but perhaps that is my bigotry speaking.

Reading Twain’s humor in the light of his admiration for the Bible underscores what, in my view, made him such a successful comic talent. Unlike so many of those reputed to be so funny today–Will Farrell and Tina Fey come to mind–one can see that Twain usually preserves a healthy measure of affection and appreciation for those characters whom he most strongly lampoons. He laughs at himself with the same vigor that he laughs at others.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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