Mark Twain: The Whited Sepulchre

Often lauded as one of America’s literary giants, Samuel Langhorne Clemens—better known as Mark Twain—lived a life filled with great joys, exciting journeys and investments, and a number of bitter defeats.

William Dean Howells, novelist, Atlantic Monthly editor and personal friend of over four decades, described Twain in a 1910 tribute as “a youth to the end of his days, the heart of a boy with the head of a sage; the heart of a good boy, or a bad boy, but always a wilful boy, and wilfulest to show himself out at every time for just the boy he was.” Even in old age, the inner bushy-red-haired rascal of a boy still burst out of the hoary-headed exterior, whether in written or spoken word.

Twain’s novels and travelogues made him a rich man, and many of his novels continue to be taught in schools as some of the finest examples of distinctively American literature. He is most often remembered as a humorist, of course, but a number of biographers have noted that the work of his later years reveals a darkness, a bitterness that overcame him, and an increasing distrust of God and His motives.

Part of his satisfaction in wearing the white suit was knowing that it was a joke against himself, a ‘whited sepulchre’ that concealed a heart with darker moods and a character that was far from spotless.”

Michael Shelden, Mark Twain: Man in White (2010)

In the 2010 biography Mark Twain: Man in White, Michael Shelden broadens this traditional scholarly view of Twain’s later life by introducing us to what he calls “the grand adventure of his final years.” The image of Twain most today would recognize—the shock of white hair, the white three-piece suit, the cigars and the sharp wit—was, according to Shelden, a purposeful redefinition of his image, a strikingly successful attempt to create a legacy for himself and for his writing.

So who was the man in the white suit?

Pauper and Prince

Born in 1835 Missouri, Clemens grew up close to the poverty line, but by age 24 he was a licensed riverboat pilot, a position that brought him previously unknown disposable income and gave him his first taste of a more comfortable lifestyle. He joined a volunteer unit at the outbreak of the Civil War, but it soon disbanded, and he began his writing career proper as a journalist and travel correspondent. Clemens married at age 34 in the midst of the immense publishing success of The Innocents Abroad, which allowed him to begin developing some very expensive tastes.

The next 15 years saw the birth of his four children (and the death of his only son at age 2), as well as the publication of a series of successful novels and travel books that would make him world famous and financially secure. The companion book to Ken Burns’s 2001 Twain documentary notes that by 1885, “when the average annual wage in the Unites States was less than $500, Twain was spending $30,000 a year simply on household expenses. There were private tutors for the three children, daily visits from a barber for Clemens himself.”

This high living was not to last, however. The Clemens family’s later life was plagued by a return to the ever-hovering penury he experienced as a youth. Twain was a persistent technophile who poured much of the profits from works including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Prince and the Pauper into inventions and publishing schemes that were met with limited success or, in truth, more often abject failure.

In 1891, in an attempt to both stretch the family finances and improve his wife’s sickly disposition, Twain moved his family to Europe. The effort would be unsuccessful, however: less than four years later, as the renowned writer was approaching the age of 60, bankruptcy loomed, and his wife’s health remained tenuous at best.

Twain hit the road again on the lecture circuit to raise money to pay back his creditors. His wife, though unwell, was still his near constant companion on these tours. But the long hours on tour took their toll on his family. While the rest of the family was in Europe in 1896, the eldest of his three daughters died unexpectedly of meningitis. And in 1904 his wife, who had been the first to read his writings and file off the rough edges, died. Twain was grief-stricken, a changed man.

In what were to be the last few years of his life, his grief appears to have turned him back with vigor to the increasingly dark works that the tragedies of the former decade had started him writing. Among them were various versions of a story published posthumously as The Mysterious Stranger. They were meant, as he wrote in an 1899 letter to his longtime friend Howells, to “tell what I think of Man, . . . and what a shabby poor ridiculous thing he is, and how mistaken he is in his estimate of his character and powers and qualities and his place among the animals.”

The church is always trying to get other people to reform; it might not be a bad idea to reform itself a little, by way of example.” 

Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad (1879)

Twain’s brooding pessimism about man, God and religion is traceable back through his writings to a much earlier date, however. The first studies for “What Is Man?” were, according to its author, begun as early as 1878. When he published them in 1905, Twain noted: “I have examined them once or twice per year since and found them satisfactory. I have just examined them again, and am still satisfied that they speak the truth.”

Scholar and Twain expert Everett Emerson notes that in the essays, Twain “acknowledges the existence of God but not in terms of a providential intervention in man’s world. . . . There is no system of divine reward or punishment. Whether there is life after death he is uncertain and ‘wholly indifferent.’ He finds biblical injunctions frequently wrongheaded and inconsistent. He levels most of his criticism at man’s hypocrisy and tendency to be cruel. The Bible he calls ‘the strongly worded authority for all the religious atrocities of the Middle ages.’”

The Bible According to Twain

Other biblical themes also occupied Twain, who spent years writing and rewriting his version of the creation of the first humans, their time in the Garden of Eden, and their life after “the fall.” Don Roberts’s 1997 edition of that work, titled The Diaries of Adam and Eve, notes that between 1893 and 1906 several versions of the diaries appeared in print, in both magazine and book form. Roberts melded and republished them, together with four related works never published during Twain’s lifetime, remarking that “they are perhaps the most personal of Mark Twain’s writings.”

Twain imagines Eve as a spark of beauty, always curious and interested in Adam and the garden around them, while the first man is a loner, a dolt who for several weeks tries to stay away from her, from her persistent questioning and her obvious intelligence. Twain’s humor sparkles as Adam grows to tolerate her, but not until they are thrown out of the garden after Eve eats of the forbidden fruit: “I find she is a good deal of a companion. I see I should be lonesome and depressed without her, now that I have lost my property. Another thing, she says it is ordered that we work for our living hereafter. She will be useful. I will superintend.”

Only after Abel’s death does Eve begin to realize what she and Adam did by eating of the forbidden fruit: “It is a day and night now that he has slept. We found him lying by his altar in his field that morning, his face and body drenched in blood. He said his eldest brother struck him down. Then he spoke no more and fell asleep. We laid him in his bed and washed the blood away and were glad to know the hurt was light and that he had no pain, for if he had had pain he would not have slept. . . .

. . . Often I crept in and fed my eyes upon his gentle face and was thankful for that blessed sleep. And still he slept on. . . .

We cannot wake him! With my arms clinging about him, I have looked into his eyes, through the veil of my tears, and begged for one little word, and he will not answer. Oh, is it that long sleep—is it death? And will he wake no more?”

Twain’s writerly ability to portray the first human encounter with death, and to so deftly capture the emotions involved, is striking, and it is all the more poignant because it’s the story of a mother and her child.

In Twain’s retelling, Eve later looks back on their first great mistake and their subsequent expulsion from the garden with no small degree of vitriol: “They drove us from the garden with their swords of flame, the fierce cherubim. And what had we done? We meant no harm. We were ignorant and did as any other children might do. We could not know it was wrong to disobey the command, for the words were strange to us and we did not understand them. We did not know right from wrong—how should we know? . . . We knew no more than this littlest child of mine knows now with its four years—oh, not so much, I think. Would I say to it, ‘If thou touchest this bread, I will overwhelm thee with unimaginable disaster, even to the dissolution of thy corporeal elements,’ and when it took the bread and smiled up in my face, thinking no harm, not understanding those strange words, would I take advantage of its innocence and strike it down with the mother-hand it trusted? Whoso knoweth the mother-heart, let him judge if I would do that thing. Adam says my brain is turned by my troubles and that I am become wicked. I am as I am; I did not make myself.”

Eve lays the blame at the feet of an unjust God, who created humankind as fallible but innocent and then held it to an impossible standard. Is it fair, though, to call these Twain’s feelings? Maybe the perennial humorist was still joking. How can you be sure when he’s being serious?

In one of his later novels, Letters From the Earth, the main character (Satan) is sent down to see how “the Human-Race experiment” is going, and he talks a bit about Adam and Eve: “God had warned the man and the woman that they must not eat of the fruit of a certain tree. And he added a most strange remark: he said that if they ate of it they should surely die. Strange, for the reason that inasmuch as they had never seen a sample death they could not possibly know what he meant. . . . The mere word could have no meaning for them, any more than it would have for an infant of days.

. . . The serpent said the forbidden fruit would store their vacant minds with knowledge. So they ate it, which was quite natural, for man is so made that he eagerly wants to know. . . .

. . . Naturally you will think the threat to punish Adam and Eve for disobeying was of course not carried out, since they did not create themselves, nor their natures nor their impulses nor their weaknesses, and hence were not properly subject to anyone’s commands, and not responsible to anybody for their acts. It will surprise you to know that the threat was carried out. Adam and Eve were punished, and that crime finds apologists unto this day. . . .

As you perceive, the only person responsible for the couple’s offense escaped; and not only escaped but became the executioner of the innocent.”

Letters from the Earth begins with a tone of humorous criticism of the God of the Christians, but Emerson notes that “soon the fiction is largely forgotten, and Mark Twain expresses his mature opinions on the folly of man’s worship of God and the hypocrisy of Christianity; the ignorance of the writers of the Bible, . . . the stupidity of the Bible’s teachings; and God as the author of illness.” The letters “shift subtly to attacks on the ‘real’ God, as Mark Twain had called Him in his 1906 dictations.”

That so much of Twain’s work flows down this similar path in the last 10 to 15 years of his life is instructive. The acrid tone is also evidenced in his personal correspondence. In the waning years of his life, he produced reams of papers, manuscripts and unfinished works, many intended for posthumous publication. His only surviving daughter, Clara, would not even consent to the publication of several of these works for many decades after her father’s death, because she felt they put him in a bad light; they were not her father as she remembered him. Shelden notes, though, that “there was nothing distorted in the work,” and that what “changed between middle age and old age was that he became less guarded about sharing his unvarnished opinions.”

Making Choices

Were Twain’s views on God and His treatment of humans well founded? The source material for some of the writer’s works, the book of Genesis, describes the expulsion from Eden as a merciful act, not one of cruelty or callousness: “‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—’ therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Genesis 3:22, English Standard Version). The motivation was to spare humanity from an unending life of sorrow. Death is a merciful end to physical life in a world imbued with evil.

The problem in Twain’s retelling of the Adam and Eve story is at least twofold: it assumes God is petty and unfair, and it injects emotional reasoning into the argument in the place of rational consideration. Emotion generates a non sequitur: mankind is flawed, God must have created him thus, therefore God is worthless and inexplicably cruel.

If assumptions and emotion leave us questioning God’s motives, His position, His right to work with humankind—His own creation—as He sees fit, we take on ourselves exactly the prerogative that God sought to prevent Adam and Eve from grasping: by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they rejected the wisdom of their Creator and took to themselves the right to decide what is right or wrong.

Twain’s misanthropic view of the Old Testament God—whom Emerson notes “he heartily despised”—may have found its full voice late in his life, but it developed from an early age. Like the first man and woman about whom he so eloquently wrote, Twain himself came to a choice about what to believe, preferring a bitter, doubtful deism based on what he saw of his fellow man’s hypocrisy and inability to live equitably and justly.

Each of us, too, has a choice with regard to belief, as well as an obligation to base our belief on an open-minded and logical search for truth and understanding.