Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain

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Challenging the prevailing belief that Mark Twain’s position on religion hovered somewhere between skepticism and outright heresy, Lawrence Berkove and Joseph Csicsila marshal biographical details of Twain’s life alongside close readings of his work to explore the religious faith of America’s most beloved writer and humorist. They conclude not only that religion was an important factor in Twain’s life but also that the popular conception of Twain as agnostic, atheist, or apostate is simply wrong.  

Heretical Fictions is the first full-length study to assess the importance of Twain’s heretical Calvinism as the foundation of his major works, bringing to light important thematic ties that connect the author’s early work to his high period and from there to his late work. Berkove and Csicsila set forth the main elements of Twain’s “countertheological” interpretation of Calvinism and analyze in detail the way it shapes five of his major books—Roughing It, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger—as well as some of his major short stories. The result is a ground-breaking and unconventional portrait of a seminal figure in American letters.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Every now and then a book comes along that illuminates Mark Twain's literature like a lightning flash, startling us about how casually we have overlooked a fundamental truth.  Heretical Fictions is such a work, boldly redrawing the map of Twain studies and ingeniously tracing a vital path of thought that underlies his major writings.”—Alan Gribben, author, Mark Twain’s Library: A Reconstruction

“Every now and then a book comes along that illuminates Mark Twain's literature like a lightning flash, startling us about how casually we have overlooked a fundamental truth. is such a work, boldly redrawing the map of Twain studies and ingeniously tracing a vital path of thought that underlies his major writings.”—Alan Gribben, author,

“Every now and then a book comes along that illuminates Mark Twain's literature like a lightning flash, startling us about how casually we have overlooked a fundamental truth. is such a work, boldly redrawing the map of Twain studies and ingeniously tracing a vital path of thought that underlies his major writings.”—Alan Gribben, author,

“I balked a little when I read that ‘religion was a main concern of Twain during his entire life,’ but Berkove and Csicsila soon brought me round to their point of view. This is in good part because they are not interested in listing biblical allusions and splitting theological hairs. Rather, they stick to the high ground and bring nuanced literary perceptions to their task. Their theological foundation is strong, as is their feel for the importance of religion in Twain's America, and they make clear that Twain was a Calvinist in his basic understanding of God, heaven, hell, free will, and human nature. They make an original and compelling case for the defining significance of religion in the works of Mark Twain.”—Forrest Robinson, author, In Bad Faith: The Dynamics of Deception in Mark Twain's America

“An important contribution to Twain studies, Heretical Fictions offers a provocative argument for the centrality of Calvinist religious thought in Twain's works that will surely spark significant debate. While readers may balk at some of their conclusions, Berkove and Csicsila offer close readings of Twain's major fiction that overall mount a formidable and compelling case for the pervasiveness of his struggles with—and against—the implications of a Calvinist worldview. Their reading reveals a coherent thematic structure that undergirds some of Twain's most apparently episodic major fiction, but more importantly, it offers an intriguing explanation for many of Twain's apparently contradictory stances during his lifetime. At its strongest, this book explores the serious moral inquiry beneath the surface of much of Twain's humor, arguing that Twain used fiction to test the emerging social and intellectual movements of his day against the Calvinist worldview, (sometimes desperately) seeking viable alternatives. Heretical Fictions argues cogently that the apparent pessimism of Twain's last ten years was not the morbid preoccupation of an aging and embittered man, but the compassionate culmination of a lifelong quest to test the reluctant conclusions of a ‘God-haunted mind.’”— Sharon D. McCoy, University of Georgia

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781587299032
  • Publisher: University of Iowa Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2010
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Lawrence I. Berkove is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. He is the editor of The Fighting Horse of the Stanislaus (Iowa), The Sagebrush Anthology: Literature from the Silver Age of the Old West, and The Best Short Stories of Mark Twain and coeditor of The Short Fiction of Ambrose Bierce, as well as numerous articles on Twain’s major novels, short fiction, travel literature, religious values, and the Sagebrush School associates. Joseph Csicsila is a professor of English at Eastern Michigan University. He is the author of Canons by Consensus: Critical Trends and American Literature Anthologies, co-editor of Centenary Reflections on Mark Twain’s No.44, The Mysterious Stranger, and of the Prentice Hall Anthology of American Literature, editor of The Gilded Age, and review editor of the Mark Twain Annual.

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Read an Excerpt

Heretical Fictions

Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain
By Lawrence I. Berkove Joseph Csicsila


Copyright © 2010 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-58729-903-2

Chapter One

Twain's Countertheology


I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things. -Isaiah 45:7

Perfect consistency can hardly be expected in human affairs, but Mark Twain poses more than the usual number of problems for readers searching for any key to his writings. He is one of the most brilliant and accomplished ironists in the history of literature. Hence, in addition to the complexity of his thought, a large part of the difficulty in arriving at a satisfactory understanding of his mind and art is due to the elusiveness of his irony. Attempting to summarize his beliefs, then, can be confusing. It can be proven, for instance, that Twain at times criticized wealth but at other times made strenuous efforts to acquire it; praised the United States and also denounced it; was both pro- and antidemocratic; was critical of quack medicine and nostrums yet experimented with faith healers and endorsed health products of doubtful results; extravagantly complimented friends or associates and shortly thereafter extravagantly denounced or denied them; was both realistic and sentimental; was alternately anti-Catholic and appreciative of Catholicism; was both antireligion and devoted to Christianity; and so on. In short, there is hardly an area of his existence where he did not eventually contradict himself. Supportive evidence for all of these contradictory positions, and more, can be readily found in his fiction, letters, speeches, notebooks, and autobiography.

Nevertheless, although Twain modified or changed his mind frequently on many issues of the day, in the area of private religious beliefs he was surprisingly consistent. This is especially true of his literature, which offers numerous insights into his mind and his art. Few would dispute the fact that religion was a main concern of Twain's during his entire life. From often shockingly heretical perspectives, Twain preached all his life in his literature a distinct departure from a conventional Christian message: that because of God's malice life is deceitful and humans are not meant to achieve in it their dearest goals of freedom, happiness, and fulfillment. This vision is at the center of his most important works and forms the organizing principle of his literary oeuvre. His major works are each artistically constructed around this idea, and it constitutes a recognizable common fingerprint which each shares with all others.

Religion, the conviction that God exists and dominates existence, was the sun around which Twain orbited, like Halley's comet, elliptically-now closer, now farther away-but always recurrently. While there are levels of social and political morality in his books, at the deepest level is the common theme of all his literature: a sense of the ultimate relationship of humanity and God to each other.

A tradition stretching over thousands of years has granted humans-prophets, saints, theologians, philosophers, and authors-the right to criticize humanity in order to "justify the ways of God to man." But it is an exceptional author who "presumes God to scan" and will call him to account. Inevitably, we ask such an author, "Who are you, and what are your qualifications to judge 'the Judge of all the earth'"? Individuals wounded and embittered by tragedies in their lives and brash youths and arrogant intellectuals have sometimes passed judgment on God for his sins and shortcomings, but seldom has so much of an extraordinarily gifted and balanced major author's extensive oeuvre, spanning more than forty years, been devoted to the process of painstakingly examining and reexamining God and his creation, recording the virtues and flaws of both parties and arriving at original conclusions on the basis of equity.

Religion itself was a central and controversial topic in the English-speaking world in the mid-nineteenth century, and in small communities-such as Hannibal, Missouri-where the opportunities for exposure to intellectual discussions were largely restricted to Sunday sermons and church doctrine, its prominence was intensified. Religion saturated American culture. On the national level, the belief in "manifest destiny" helped power the expansion of the nation across the continent and beyond. "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" imbued the Union cause with religious fervor; biblical literalism on the issue of slavery contributed to the decision of many to support the Confederacy. Capitalism received a boost from religious teachings that associated wealth with virtue; religion was a main factor in the rise and spread of social relief and improvement organizations such as the Red Cross, the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA), and labor unions. Even Darwinism, usually regarded as inimical to religion, was given a supernatural cachet with the endorsement of the teleological phrase "survival of the fittest" by the wing of it led by Herbert Spencer and the spiritualist Alfred Russel Wallace. It would have been peculiar if Twain, of all American authors so deeply representative of his time and place, had not engaged this topic. He did wrestle with it, and with surprising frequency. In fact, it is a major feature of his literature.

The topic of religion, although often mentioned in Twain studies, has until recently been relatively neglected as a subject of extended scholarly examination in its own right. Given its vastness and the many facets from which it may be viewed, scholars have been understandably hesitant about undertaking any detailed discussion of it, but it is much too important to be left on the shelf. However, in the past few decades some noteworthy books and articles have started to address the topic. The penetrating essays of Stanley Brodwin and James D. Wilson, two perceptive authorities on Twain's religious views, largely concentrate on biographical materials. Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough's The Bible According to Mark Twain (1995), though insightful on Twain's relationship to the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and most particularly Genesis, is an edition of Twain's frequently irreverent variations on biblical passages. More recently, William Phipps (2003) and, especially, Harold K. Bush Jr. (2006) have produced publications calling more attention to the importance of Twain's theology, inferring from biographical information for literary interpretation. Joe Fulton, too, has written usefully about the theological aspects of Twain's works, with emphases on Bakhtin, genre form, and religion in general. Tom Quirk's Mark Twain on Human Nature (2007) and this present book share considerable common ground, though our emphasis on Twain's Calvinistic heritage ultimately leads us in different directions.

There are significant differences between what Samuel Clemens allowed the world to know about his deepest thoughts and what was hidden but can be revealed in Mark Twain's writings. Fortunately, he left behind a considerable number of compelling manuscripts and letters about his personal beliefs which simultaneously assist an understanding and yet also make things perversely difficult. One of the most explicit of these follows, but within itself provides us with a rationale for not regarding it as a definitive pronouncement. It is a creedal statement, which Paul Baender tentatively dates to the years 1880-1885.

I believe in God the Almighty.

I do not believe He has ever sent a message to man by anybody, or delivered one to him by word of mouth, or made Himself visible to mortal eyes at any time or in any place.

I think the goodness, the justice, and the mercy of God is manifested in His works; I perceive that they are manifested toward me in this life; the logical conclusion is that they will be manifested toward me in the life to come, if there should be one.

I do not believe in special providences. I believe that the universe is governed by strict and immutable laws. If one man's family is swept away by a pestilence and another man's spared, it is only His law working; God is not interfering in that small matter, either against the one man or in favor of the other.

I cannot see how eternal punishment hereafter could accomplish any good end, therefore I am not able to believe in it. To chasten a man in order to perfect him might be reasonable enough; to annihilate him when he shall have proved himself incapable of reaching perfection might be reasonable enough: but to roast him forever for the mere satisfaction of seeing him roast would not be reasonable-even the atrocious God imagined by the Jews would tire of the spectacle eventually.

There may be a hereafter, and there may not be. I am wholly indifferent about it. If I am appointed to live again, I feel sure it will be for some more sane and useful purpose than to flounder about for ages in a lake of fire and brimstone for having violated a confusion of ill-defined and contradictory rules said (but not evidenced,) to be of divine institution. If annihilation is to follow death, I shall not be aware of the annihilation, and therefore shall not care a straw about it.

I believe that the world's moral laws are the outcome of the world's experience. It needed no God to come down out of heaven to tell men that murder and theft and the other immoralities were bad, both for the individual who commits them and for society which suffers from them.

If I break all these moral laws, I cannot see how I injure God by it, for He is beyond the reach of injury from me-I could as easily injure a planet by throwing mud at it. It seems to me that my mis-conduct could only injure me and other men. I cannot benefit God by obeying these moral laws-I could as reasonably benefit the planet by withholding my mud. [Let these sentences be read in the light of the fact that I believe I have received moral laws only from man-none whatever from God.] Consequently I do not see why I should either be punished or rewarded hereafter for the deeds I do here.

This profession of faith seems straightforward enough, but it is, in fact, problematic. For one thing, its similarity to Tom Paine's statement of creed and other of his theological arguments in The Age of Reason is evident to anyone who has read both writings. We know that Twain was sufficiently influenced by his reading of Paine to consider himself a deist in his young manhood. But we also know that Twain later attempted to become a believing Christian while he was courting Olivia Langdon and subsequently in their early married life. While it is plausible-mainly on the basis of the stationery and ink used in the undated manuscript-that the document was written in the early 1880s, even Paul Baender, the editor of the 1973 publication that first included the creed, admits that the date of composition is "conjectural" (Twain, What Is Man? 585). It is at least possible, therefore, that the untitled manuscript was composed while he was still a deist. But even if the editor's dating is correct and its date of composition corresponds to that of its writing, it is doubtful that Twain retained these beliefs later in life. The beliefs expressed therein are incompatible with those contained in What Is Man? (1906), which Twain claimed were begun "twenty-five or twenty-seven years" earlier (124), or with other short works of theological import written in the last decade or so of his life. It would seem, then, that the validity of this statement is limited to a period of Twain's intellectual life, and does not apply to his entire career. Another possible significance is that it is the product of his rational mind-that is, he thought that was what he believed at the time he wrote it-but does not reflect deeper beliefs he tried to suppress.

One shortcoming is that it omits crucial beliefs that we know he inherited from Calvinism. Even its first sentence is open to question. What does he mean by "God"? During the course of his career he sometimes and inconsistently distinguished between the God of the Bible (or of Calvinistic Presbyterianism) and the "true" God, which he partly defines here in a deistic way. In general, when he referred to the notion of God that he preferred, it was to the deistic God of impartial and immutable laws but who remains unresponsive to prayer. Though Twain regarded this conception of God as ultimately benevolent, even he recognized that this conception and those laws made no provision for what he valued as "sentimental justice," divine expressions of individualized compassion and approximations to human standards of fairness (Notebook 363, composed between May 30 and June 11, 1898). Most of Twain's thought and animus in his literature, on the other hand, is devoted to the revealed God of the Bible, whom he typically treats as a whimsical, angry, malevolent, and manipulating trickster deity. This view derived from the enduring Calvinistic legacy of his youthful years, which he could never throw off. Similarly, Twain was inconsistent in his references to hell. Usually it was to the specific place of punishment designated in the New Testament, but sometimes it was to the world he believed all humans experience between the cradle and the grave, made deliberately dysfunctional, illusory, and frustrating by the creator. As is the case with his use of "God," Twain sometimes slips from one meaning of hell to the other, or straddles the line between them, in the selfsame context. Hell, however, never has a mild meaning, and even his most favorable conception of God falls considerably short of the view of an infinitely loving and merciful personal God taught by all Bible-based religions.

Finally, it is necessary to consider how useful this abstract statement is to understanding Twain's literature. Does it help us to penetrate particular works of his literature? Does it help us to relate, say, an early book of his to a later book and thus give us some sense of continuity in Twain's values? It is not our intention to dismiss this creedal statement; we acknowledge its importance and usefulness, but question its import as a stand-alone definitive statement of belief that applies to all stages of his career and leaves no questions unanswered. It simply does not fairly represent Twain's positions in the great majority of his literature, and is inadequate even as autobiographical evidence. We will recur to it and make use of it, however, as well as similar statements, but always in conjunction with other evidence from Twain's literary texts that affect its applicability.

Five of Mark Twain's books, along with several shorter works, seem most germane to a systematic study of his beliefs: Roughing It (1872), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger (composed between 1902 and 1908). These writings supply evidence for interpretations that fall into definite patterns. Twain's other books hardly contradict our thesis but are nevertheless omitted. Some, like Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894) and Tom Sawyer, Detective (1896), are universally regarded as minor works. The Prince and the Pauper (1881), valuable for its examination of social issues and the influence of environment and circumstance on the individual, is nevertheless, as John D. Stahl maintains, "a significant step in the evolution of Mark Twain's thought and literary art" but "surely not a masterpiece" (592). The Innocents Abroad (1869), while permanently popular and not without religious content, is preeminently a travel book, and our focus is on fiction. For the same reason we have excluded Life on the Mississippi (1883) and Following the Equator (1897). Although we do not entirely pass over The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894), Hershel Parker's exposition of its textual problems, and the consequent editorial controversy that would force us into a digression, persuaded us not to engage in an analysis of that otherwise very interesting novel.


Excerpted from Heretical Fictions by Lawrence I. Berkove Joseph Csicsila Copyright © 2010 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 Twain's Countertheology I Have Always Preached....................1
2 Roughing It The Dream of the Good Life....................27
3 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer A Company So Small as to Be Hardly Worth the Saving....................62
4 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn The Hoax of Freedom....................81
5 A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court The Eclipse of Hope....................110
6 No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger The False Promise of the Mind....................153
7 The Last Letters from Earth Between Despair and Compassion....................189
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