Twain, Mark

Mark Twain (pseudonym of Samuel L. Clemens, 1835-1910) is considered by many to be the most important fig- ure in American literature. He wrote many well-known novels, such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, plus a great many short stories and humorous essays.

However, Twain spun his humor around a dark core. His personal religious viewpoint seems to have been a heretical caricature of Calvinism: he accepted that human beings were depraved and that most were predestined to hell, but he viewed the god who had made things this way not as righteous, but as a malevolent trickster. According to some Twain scholars, much about Twain’s worldview can be clearly seen in his works if one keeps always in mind that Twain believes God is evil.

On encountering the Book of Mormon, Twain reacted much as journalist Obadiah Dogberry had; he found the new scripture ridiculous. Twain objected not only to its content but its clumsy faux-King James Bible style, famously dismissing Joseph Smith’s prose as "chloroform in print."

Through most of his career Twain took care to camouflage his acid worldview. However, after 1899, after his literary success was assured and after several personal tragedies, Twain wrote several works in which his bitter worldview and harsh views of organized religion were clear for all to see. Among them: "The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg" (1899) and What Is Man?, a misanthrophic book that argued that human choices were totally predetermined. Even harsher attacks on religion could be found in two books published after his death: The Mysterious Stranger and Letters from the Earth.

Twain has deep ties to Elmira, having married Olivia Langdon, who belonged to a distinguished Elmira family. For many years he spent summers in the area, writing major portions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippi, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Prince and the Pauper, A Tramp Abroad, and many short pieces in an octagonal wooden study now preserved on the campus of Elmira College.