Happy Halloween!: Twain’s Favorite Ghost Story and Twain Speaks From The Netherworld

It’s Halloween, the day when, according to legend, the veil between this world and the spirit realm is at its most delicate. A fitting time to remember Mark Twain’s love for a good ghost story.

“Witches” from Chapter 34 of ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN

He was particularly fond of “The Golden Arm”, a folktale that spooked him during childhood visits to his Uncle John Quarles’ farm in the 1840s. He noted decades later in a letter to Joel Chandler Harris that the story was told by “old Uncle Dan’l, a slave of my uncle’s, aged 60, [who] used to tell us children yarns every night by the kitchen fire (no other light).” The story, which Twain referred to as a “negro ghost story,” actually has folkloric roots extending back to Europe long before the Grimm brothers first published it. However, by the time Uncle Dan’l mesmerized Twain with it by the kitchen fire, the story had become part of the oral tradition of Southern black culture.

The creepy story (or “creepypasta” in the parlance of our times) concerns a dead woman’s restless spirit returning from the grave to reclaim her golden arm from her grave-robbing husband. The suspense gradually builds with the ghost’s recurring mournful wail, “W-h-o–g-o-t–m-y–g-o-l-d-e-n arm?”, and after a carefully timed pause, climaxes with the storyteller suddenly lunging forward to shout, “You’ve got it!”

Twain recalled to Harris how much he and the other children on the farm loved to listen to Uncle Dan’l retell the story to them every night when “there was but a ghastly blaze or two flickering about the back-log”:

We would huddle close about the old man, and begin to shudder with the first familiar words; and under the spell of his impressive delivery we always fell a prey to that climax at the end when the rigid black shape in the twilight sprang at us with a shout.

This folktale had a lifelong impact on Twain. Not only did memories of Uncle Dan’l inspire his creation of the superstitious-yet-wise Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain also relished telling “The Golden Arm” himself from the lecture platform. “Of course I tell it in the negro dialect,” he wrote to Harris. “That is necessary.” And his telling always included all the “weird wailing, the rising and falling cadences of the wind, so easily mimicked with one’s mouth; and the impressive pauses and eloquent silences, and subdued utterances, toward the end of the yarn.”

It was probably these mimetic aspects of the story, along with its shock ending, that so mortified Twain’s daughter Susy when her father regaled her refined classmates at Bryn Mawr with a performance of the ghoulishly garish tale (even after she begged him not to tell it).

Twain’s interest in “The Golden Arm” is well known today, thanks in large part to Hal Holbrooks’ rendition of it in Mark Twain Tonight! and its inclusion in the repertoire of professional storytellers. (For an interesting reflection on problematic aspects of the story by a contemporary storyteller, click here.)

However, there is another strange (but true) ghost story that isn’t as widely known involving Twain, ouija boards, and, of all things, copyright law.

The convoluted saga begins in 1915 when an author named Emily Grant Hutching claimed that Twain, now five years dead, dictated a book to her from beyond the grave via a ouija board. David Thomson has compiled a lot of great information on this incident.

Emily Grant Hutching (Image from MarkTwainQuotes.com)

For a simple summary of Twain’s alleged foray into posthumous publishing, I turn to Mary Collins Barile’s Haunted Columbia, Missouri:

Now calling herself a psychic, Hutchings finally revealed…that the book was transmitted to herself, psychic Lola Viola Roddenmayer Hays and psychic researcher James Hervey Hyslop by none other than Mark Twain…Jap Herron (A Novel Written from the Ouija Board) tells the story of a young Missouri man who takes on adversity and becomes a newspaper editor. The book was rejected by publishing houses before Mitchell Kennerley, a New York publisher with a flair for the odd, released it. The reviews were not kind, including this from the New York Times on September 9, 1917: “If this is the best that Mark Twain can do by reaching across the barrier (death), the admirers that his works have won for him will all hope that he will hereafter respect that boundary.”

Not only did Twain’s supposed publishing debut from the spectral realm receive pallid reviews, his daughter Clara and publisher Harper & Brothers sued Hutching and Kennerley for violating the copyright they held on the pen name “Mark Twain”. The suit, as a tongue-in-cheek New York Times article reported in 1918, apparently had far-reaching implications beyond mere copyright infringement:

On the face of it the suit of Harper & Brothers vs. Mitchell Kennerley, publisher, involves a bald question of property right; but by indirection it involves also the questions whether spirit communication with the living is demonstrable, and whether there is a life hereafter. The riddle of the universe is about to be debated, not by theologians, but by lawyers.

Ultimately, the questions related to this cosmic riddle included (again, from the article):

Has the shade of Samuel Clemens any right to the use of a pseudonym he adopted in the flesh and permitted his publishers to copyright? What claims have The Departed on the relics of their earthly pilgrimage? These are obvious issues in the suit. And if it is established to the satisfaction of the Court that the spirit of Mark Twain did indeed communicate the novel, while the attorneys for the plaintiff are upheld in their contention that said spirit had no right to market any literary commodities except through the house of Harpers, owing to a contract made prior to his passing, by what mode of procedure can the disembodied by brought to book for such unbusinesslike, not to say immoral, conduct?

Regrettably, the suit did not resolve any existential conundrums, and Twain’s spirit gave no ghostly testimony from the netherworld. Instead, the anti-climactic outcome resulted in Hutchings and Kennerley agreeing to withdraw the book from publication and to destroy most copies of it.Yet, Jap Herron lives on. Hard copies of it may be difficult to dig up today, but there are versions of it still haunting the internet. Brave souls willing to venture into Twain’s otherworldly opus, which includes Hutching’s lengthy account of her supposed ouija board collaboration with him, can visit (if they dare).

Happy Halloween from everyone at the Center for Mark Twain Studies!

Scrub Angels & Practical Cats at Quarry Farm

About halfway through my recent two-week fellowship at Quarry Farm I felt a new affinity with something Mark Twain wrote while perched there “on top of the hill near heaven.”

“I have the feeling of being a sort of scrub angel,” Twain mused, “& am more moved to help shove the clouds around, & get the stars on deck promptly, & keep all things trim & ship-shape in the firmament than to bother myself with the humble insect-interests & occupations of the distant earth.”

Obviously, Quarry Farm was a special place for Mark Twain. For over twenty years, Twain and his family summered there at the home of his sister-in-law Susan and her husband Theodore Crane. His octagonal study, where he wrote many of his classics, was a short walk from the farmhouse to its celestial perch overlooking the city of Elmira and the Chemung River Valley.

The study can now be found down on Elmira College’s campus, the spot where it used to sit is mostly overgrown with trees these days.

It is still possible, however, to experience something like Twain’s scrub-angel epiphany at Quarry Farm. After a day there devoted to writing, sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch—taking in the scenic view of distant earth below and listening to the wind bloweth where it listeth through the trees—I felt a sincere “Amen” to Twain’s homily might be order.

What I heard instead was a cat’s thunderous meow.

That’s when I saw a black-and-white, bobtailed feline with emerald eyes sauntering across the porch toward me. With a sudden, acrobatically impressive back roll onto my foot, the cat lay supine looking up at me, letting me know I was to pay homage to him (or her…I didn’t ask what the cat’s pronouns were).

As I was petting my new furry friend (whom I dubbed Bob due to his or her tail, or lack thereof), it occurred to me that another bit of Quarry Farm’s Mark Twain lore (his love of cats) had manifested for me in purring fur ball at my feet.

Bob fit right in with Quarry Farm’s heavenly firmament. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Twain observed that “these graceful and harmless cats would easily become as sacred as any other royalties, and indeed more so…and must be worthy of a deeper love and reverence than the customary human king, and would certainly get it.”

Twain is known for his general love of animals, of course. But, as confirmed by several photos of him at Quarry Farm and elsewhere striking fond poses with a beloved cat, Twain had a special soft spot in his curmudgeonly heart for these enigmatic animals.

Susy Clemens wrote in her biography of her father that: “The difference between papa and mama is, that mama loves morals and papa loves cats.”

Not that there was a dichotomy for Twain between morality and cats. It’s just that cats embodied a code far more fitting for a place “on top of the hill near heaven.” In 1906, Twain noted how the qualities of a cat named Sour Mash exemplified this code:

I had a great admiration for Sour Mash, and a great affection for her, too. She was one of the institutions of Quarry Farm for a good many years. She had an abundance of that noble quality which all cats possess, and which neither man nor any other animal possesses in any considerable degree – independence. Also she was affectionate, she was loyal, she was plucky, she was enterprising, she was just to her friends and unjust to her enemies — and she was righteously entitled to the high compliment which so often fell from the lips of John T. Lewis — reluctantly, and as by compulsion, but all the more precious for that: “‘Other Christians is always worrying about other people’s opinions, but Sour Mash don’t give a damn.’”

Or perhaps she only gave a damn about things that ultimately matter.

That’s the attitude Bob (or whatever your deep and inscrutable singular name—ala T.S. Eliot—really is) and my stay at Quarry Farm instilled in me, if only for that time spent so close to heaven.

A Tragic Spring For Joe Twichell

Saturday, April 21, marked the 108th anniversary of Mark Twain’s passing.

For Twain, whose final decade was wracked by overwhelming bereavement, the promise of death’s release was something welcome. By the end of his life, Twain’s sentiments toward life and death were akin to Satan’s musings in Letters From the Earth (1909):

Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs–the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man’s best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free.

In memorializing him in the next day’s Hartford Courant, Twain’s close friend and pastor, Joseph Twichell, observed that the humorist who had brought so much laughter into the world “had lived to be a lonely, weary-hearted man, and the thought of his departure hence was not unwelcome to him.”

Unfortunately, the month of April 1910 would prove to be most unwelcome for Twichell as well. As he prepared to give a prayer at Twain’s funeral service in New York, Twichell received word that the health of his beloved wife Harmony had taken an unexpected turn for the worse. He managed to return to Hartford by train in time to speak with Harmony before she died shortly after midnight.

As a devout Christian pastor and a battlefield chaplain for the Union Army during the Civil War who had ministered to wounded and dying troops, Twichell was no stranger to death’s sharp sting. Still, according to Steve Courtney’s excellent biography, the eight years following the simultaneous loss of his friend and his wife were particularly difficult for Twichell (who would himself die in 1918).

According to Courtney, a grieving Twichell lamented to his son David, “I’ll just have to live from day to day. How many times have I told people that, and that in their sorrows God would give them comfort and strength for each day as it came.”

As trying as those remaining years were for Twichell as he sought daily comfort and strength in bearing his loss, I hope he found the same solace he had offered previously to Twain, who noted that Twichell had “something divine” in him that provided a consoling “touch that heals, not lacerates.”

Perhaps he found it in his wide, supportive circle of family and friends and in the Gospel he preached for decades from the pulpit of Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Perhaps Twichell, who shared Twain’s affinity for Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, found succor in these mystical ruminations.

At the very least, perhaps what he privately told Twain after Olivia Clemens’ death in 1904 also provided shelter from the storm for Twichell in the end:

“I, indeed, believe, that behind the riddle there is a Hidden and Awful Wisdom; that for me tempest-tost on these wide weltering seas there is an anchorage, that for the mortal spirit there is a practicable victory over the world with all its baffling mysteries.”

An Unlikely Patron of Civil Rights Jurisprudence

Although I generally like Chris Rock as a comedian, one of his jokes has always rubbed me the wrong way.

Rock told the joke back in 1999 as part of the Kennedy Center’s program honoring Richard Pryor as the first recipient of its first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. According to the Chicago Tribune’s account:

Chris Rock wondered what would have happened if Mark Twain had ever met Richard Pryor.

“(Pryor would) probably say, `I really enjoy your work,’” Rock surmised. “And what would Mark Twain say to Richard Pryor? He’d probably say, `N—–, pick up my bag.’”

It’s not surprising that the report goes on to note that the joke was met by “an underwhelming mix of nervous laughs and low-key applause.” It isn’t that Rock’s joke wasn’t funny and more than just a little biting (which, on one level, makes it a fitting tribute to Pryor). The problem with the joke is that based on what we know about Twain’s racial attitudes, Rock’s punchline is entirely false (a trait that Pryor’s truth-telling humor certainly lacks).

Twain is no doubt something of a mixed bag when it comes to race, as demonstrated by ongoing controversies surrounding his classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Shelley Fisher Fishkin points out in Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices that while Twain “recognized the intellectual or artistic aspirations” of a number of young African-American men and “provided financial aid to these individuals in all these endeavors,” he nonetheless “retained a lifelong affection for the minstrel shows he recalled from his Missouri childhood.”

There’s no evidence, however, that this fondness for the gross racial caricatures of minstrel shows in any way resulted in the ugly racist behavior Rock’s joke suggests. In fact, the example of Warner T. McGuinn, one of the men Twain financially assisted, indicates the opposite is true.

In the 1980s, Fishkin authenticated a letter that Twain sent to the dean of Yale’s Law School offering to help pay boarding for McGuinn, who was the school’s first black student. Interestingly, Twain wrote the letter in 1885, the same year that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published. In it, he confesses:

“I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it.”

Fishkin told the New York Times that “Twain’s brutally succinct comment on racism in the letter is a rare non-ironic statement of the personal anguish Twain felt regarding the destructive legacy of slavery.”

Unfortunately, Twain would not live to see the far-reaching impact his generosity had on dismantling that baneful legacy. McGuinn graduated from Yale and went on to become a lawyer in Baltimore, where he helped found a branch of the NAACP, was elected to the city council, and won a major civil rights victory in federal court.

Perhaps most significantly, McGuinn acted as patron and mentor to a young African-American attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who would argue the case, Brown v. Board of Education, that overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the United States and later became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.

As Juan Williams recounts in his biography of Marshall, McGuinn refused to hire Marshall into his own small firm in 1933, insisting that Marshall would learn faster by being his own boss. He told him,

“I have carefully watched your progress in law school. It is unbelievably good. And you want to let me have your beautiful, great brain, and I am not going to accept it. You’re going to practice by yourself and get your brains kicked out.”

McGuinn did supply Marshall with offices, secretarial staff, clients (particularly when they had especially difficult cases), and ample advice. Marshall recalled that “He was the only one who helped me,” offering his insights into the procedures, personalities, and peculiarities of the Baltimore court system, and making sure Marshall never went out of business, even though, as McGuinn had predicted, he lost much more often than he won. In 1936, McGuinn’s son, Robert, collaborated with Marshall in his first investigation into the condition of segregated schools.

One can reasonably speculate that without McGuinn’s assistance, Marshall may not have survived as an African-American attorney in Depression America, and that if McGuinn had not encountered Twain at a railroad station in Connecticut many years earlier, he might not have succeeded in becoming an attorney himself.

Based on the impact this serendipitous encounter would have on history, I think it’s safe to say that it didn’t begin with Twain gruffly snapping a racist epithet at the young law student and ordering him to carry his bags.

Mark Twain, The Mason: Anticipating The Premiere of MARK TWAIN’S JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM

A new documentary, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem: Dreamland, airs tonight on PBS. Narrated by Martin Sheen, the award-winning film features insights from Twain scholars around the world. According to the filmmakers, Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem will retrace “Twain’s footsteps using actual details from his letters and journals. The film tells a little-known story of Mark Twain as a young reporter, embarking on a maiden voyage over the Atlantic and across the Holy Land. His final destination – the ancient city of Jerusalem. Twain’s experiences and insights from this trip later shaped him as a quintessential American writer.”

The film’s trailer also asserts that journeying to “the mythical places he knew from the Bible will test Twain’s faith.” It will be interesting to see if this aspect of the film mentions his involvement in Freemasonry at the time and the special gift from the Holy Land he gave to the lodge in St. Louis, Missouri, that he joined in 1861.

Perhaps it will shy away from the touchy subject. Shrouded in mystery for much of its history, Freemasonry is to this day the focus of outlandish conspiracy theories.

The Masonic Service Association of North America describes the secretive, religiously oriented fraternity as:

“Not a religion, nor is it a substitute for religion. It requires of its members a belief in God as part of the obligation of every responsible adult, but advocates no sectarian faith or practice. Masonic ceremonies include prayers, both traditional and extempore, to reaffirm each individual’s dependence on God and to seek divine guidance. Freemasonry is open to men of any faith, but religion may not be discussed at Masonic meetings.”

Further, the site says that Freemasonry defines “God” as the “Grand Architect of the Universe.” Twain uses this phrase in his account of his trip, The Innocents Abroad, published in 1869. Masons believe “that there is one God and that people employ many different ways to seek, and to express what they know of God.”

So, to say the least, Twain’s faith was unconventional before he embarked on his life-changing trip to Jerusalem.

Although he apparently was not very active as a Mason and ultimately demitted his membership in 1869, many Masonic websites today like to note Twain’s involvement in the fraternity in the 1860s. For instance,

“During those years when Mark Twain was ‘roughing it’ in the West, his fraternal activities were apparently at a minimum. There is evidence that he paid a visit to the Chinese Free Mason Hall in Carson City; his mining partner Calvin Higbie, has described how Twain revealed his Masonic membership by giving – although with comic exaggeration – the fraternal ‘grand hailing sign of distress.’ At this point, Twain did not take his role as a Mason seriously and was removed from the organization for the most part. However, upon returning to St. Louis, he petitioned for readmission and was reinstated on April 21, 1867.”

If this timeline is accurate, Twain’s Masonic membership would have been freshly renewed just a couple months before setting sail for the Holy Land. This backstory may shed light on this handcrafted gavel made from a cedar tree in Lebanon that he gave to his Missouri lodge a year later:

According to The Masonic Dictionary“The Cedars of Lebanon are frequently referred to in the legends of Freemasonry, especially in the advanced Degrees; not, however, on account of any symbolical signification, but rather because of the use made of them by Solomon and Zerubbabel in the construction of their respective Temples.”

Phoenixmasonry.org reports that Twain “sent his lodge a gavel with this note: ‘This mallet is a cedar, cut in the forest of Lebanon, whence Solomon obtained the timbers for the Temple.’ Clemens cut the handle himself from a cedar just outside the walls of Jerusalem. He had it made in Alexandria, Egypt…”

After bestowing this gift upon his lodge, Twain apparently had little more to do with Freemasonry (aside from occasional allusions to it in his writing). In fact, according to an article entitled “Alas: Poor Mark!” in the Masonic New Yorker, A Journal of Masonic Information (March 15, 1907), the “great Apostle of Prevarication” seems to have provoked the ire of his former brothers after dismissing Freemasonry as “foolishness.” The Masonic correspondent found it “pitiable” that “the brother who charmed us with his humor” would “slap in the face the institution before whose alter he had thrice knelt.”

To learn more about this period in Twain’s career and the Quaker City tour which became his first bestselling book, tune in to the premiere of Mark Twain’s Journey To Jerusalem on PBS World tonight at 8 PM EST. The documentary, directed by A. D. Oppenheim and Diana Zaslaw, will no doubt be widely available for streaming soon thereafter.

“That Friendless Child’s Noise Would Make You Glad”: Unremembered Slaves on Frederick Douglass Day

As a follow-up to a post I wrote earlier this year on Mark Twain’s friendship with Frederick Douglass (who is from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I live), I wanted to share the following excerpt from Chris Polk’s article in the Sunday edition of my local paper, The Star Democrat:

It was a day for Talbot County’s native son.

Frederick Douglass, the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more has a day named for him every year in his native Talbot County.

Saturday, Sept. 23, in Easton, there was a parade and welcome ceremony on the courthouse green, near the statue of Douglass that was erected six years ago.

The courthouse green happens to be near the place where Douglass had been jailed briefly in 1836 for talking to a young slave about escaping, the jail being on the north side of the courthouse.

From his jail cell, perhaps Douglass could have seen where the ceremony was held.

Because I was busy researching Twain’s early years in Hannibal for a book I’m writing, I wasn’t able to attend the ceremony this weekend. Coincidentally, however, part of my research included reading Twain’s account in his autobiography of another Eastern Shore native that serves as something of a counterpoint to Douglass’s legacy.

We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from someone, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends halfway across the American continent and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing—it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for the past hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes and her lip trembled and she said something like this:

“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”

(from Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 1. Also quoted on the Huck Finn Freedom Center’s “Jim’s Journey” website).

Twain goes on to say that Sandy was the inspiration for one of the boys in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer whom Tom tries to con into painting the fence; however, he doesn’t recall the name he gave Sandy’s character in the book. According to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings (eds. Kevin Mac Donnell and R. Kent Rasmussen), Sandy “appears as Jim, ‘the small colored boy’” whom Tom ironically envies for his “freedom to fetch water while he must whitewash the fence.”

Although Twain recalls that during his childhood “all the negroes were friends of ours”, he also acknowledges that he and children like Sandy “were comrades, and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of, and which rendered complete fusion impossible.”

And that’s about all the background on Sandy’s story I’ve been able to find.

As I read the local newspaper’s inspiring account about Frederick Douglass, “the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more,” who went from jail cell in Talbot County to revered American icon, I couldn’t help but wonder whatever happened to Sandy? Did he (along with William Faulkner’s Dilsey) “endure”?

Or did Sandy’s ““singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing” grow still, as Twain’s mother dreaded, dissolving into memories of “his family and his friends halfway across the American continent”, memories that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man lamented “were all such a part of that other life that’s dead that I can’t remember them all. (Time was as I was, but neither that time nor that ‘I’ are anymore.)”

If anyone knows the rest of Sandy’s story, I’d love to hear it—and celebrate it or mourn it appropriately.

Remembering Reverend Conway, Mark Twain’s Second-Favorite Clergyman

While Mark Twain’s close bond with Congregationalist minister Joseph Twichell is well known among Twainians, the friendship he shared with another man of the cloth, the Rev. Moncure Conway, often receives little more than passing reference.

We read mostly of Conway’s role as Twain’s literary representative in England or of his glowing review of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Occasionally there’s a reference to the time he helped Twain arrange a surprise visit for Olivia Clemens to the grave of her beloved Shakespeare, or Conway’s letter to the New York Times defending Twain’s anti-imperialism and pointing out that “Mark Twain’s humor is apt to feather a serious arrow.”

Beyond these and a smattering of other examples, Twain scholarship (and history in general) has little to say about Conway, which is odd considering the wide-ranging influence thismost thoroughgoing white male radical produced by the antebellum South had on Twain’s era.

With a family background rooted in America’s past, Moncure Conway would spend much of his life lighting out for new territories.

As a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Conway was born into an elite, slave-owning family in Virginia. Despite his Southern aristocratic background, he became an outspoken radical abolitionist who not only personally advised Lincoln to make the Civil War about emancipation, but helped 31 of his father’s slaves escape to Ohio. An ardent egalitarian, he also advocated that suffrage be extended to freed slaves and women alike.

Reflecting a lifelong spiritual restlessness, Conway’s ministerial calling was mercurial and evolved throughout his life. Starting off as a circuit-riding Methodist preacher in Maryland, he went on to becoming a Unitarian minister after graduating from Harvard Divinity, where he was a protégé of Emerson, his “spiritual father.” When his abolitionism, coupled with his increasingly pointed critiques of Christianity, ran afoul of many old-line Unitarians, Conway left the Unitarian pulpit to emerge as a leading light in the free religion movement and the comparative study of religions (with an eye toward Eastern religions). In the years leading up to the Civil War, he also participated in the Underground Railroad and edited The Dial, the esteemed Transcendentalist journal that was “free in thought, doubt, utterance, knowledge, and love.”

While arguing the Northern cause in England during the Civil War, Conway was embroiled in controversy after secretly attempting to negotiate peace on his own with the Confederate envoy there (offering the South disunion if it agreed to free its slaves). No longer welcome in his native South and reprimanded by the North, Conway lived out much of his adult life as an expatriate in England, where he served as minister of South Place Chapel, one of the oldest freethought organizations in Britain (still active today as Conway Hall Ethical Society in London).

Conway met Twain in 1872, marking the beginning of a friendship that ended with Conway’s death in 1907. The two refugee Southerners shared much in common, including unorthodox religion, fondness for American revolutionary Thomas Paine (about whom Conway wrote a definitive biography) and humorist Artemus Ward, at whose funeral Conway officiated in 1867. Tragically, both Conway and Twain also suffered the loss of a young son (Emerson Conway in 1864 and Langdon Clemens in 1872).

For a good overview of Conway, I recommend watching The Empty Niche: The Long Lost Bust of Moncure Conway.

Produced by the Conway Hall Ethical Society, this hour-long film is not a biography, and it hardly mentions Twain. However, this video’s interesting story of Conway Hall’s quest to track down a bronze bust of Conway that vanished nearly a century ago sheds light on this radical minister, free-thinking intellectual, and spiritual pilgrim and how his legacy still endures even as memory of the man has faded.

 

A Connecticut Yankee in the New Gilded Age

In a recent New York Times column heralding “The Collapse of American Identity,” Robert Jones  notes that British writer G.K. Chesterton once observed that the United States was “a nation with the soul of a church.” According to Jones, Chesterton “wasn’t referring to the nation’s religiosity but to its formation around a set of core political beliefs enshrined in founding ‘sacred texts,’ like the Declaration of Independence.”

Jones uses Chesterton’s comment as a counterpoint to the “two mutually exclusive narratives emerging along party lines” he claims are currently pulling the country apart. While this contrast between Chesterton’s impression of America in the 1920s and today’s situation underscores the column’s overall point, I believe a literary work that speaks more directly to the zeitgeist of our times is Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

Contrary to breezy movie adaptations of this familiar story (Bing Crosby’s musical romp comes to mind), Justin Kaplan describes Twain’s story as “one of the queerer and more disturbing exercises of the American literary imagination, a brilliant comic fantasy that turns savage and shakes itself to pieces.” More precisely relevant to Jones’s column is Henry Nash Smith’s view, which Kaplan quotes, that the original text’s disjointed narrative reveals “a loss of faith in the doctrine of progress that was central to the American sense of identity.” Hank Morgan, Connecticut Yankee’s narrator, is afflicted with a malady that poet C.K. Williams called “narrative dysfunction, or what happens when we lose track of the story of ourselves, the story that tells us who we are supposed to be and how we are supposed to act.”

As a late 19th-century American stranded in Arthurian England, Hank is the epitome of someone who has lost the story of himself. Not surprisingly, Twain worked on Hank’s story in the mid-1880s, a time when the American narrative was unraveling at the peak of a tumultuous era Twain had dubbed the Gilded Age. The country was wracked by rapid and disorienting industrialization, a widening chasm between wealth and poverty, intensifying class conflict, new waves of immigration, and ceaseless political scandals. (For a thorough, and unsettlingly familiar, analysis of this period, see Sean D. Cashman’s America in the Gilded Age.)

Hank embodies the conflicted narratives emerging from these fault lines fracturing the country’s story of itself. He espouses the virtues of republican democracy while supplanting Arthurian monarchy with an autocratic form of capitalism that transforms the Knights of the Round Table’s spiritual quest for the Grail into an elitist “stock board…that used the Round Table for business purposes.” Despite embracing rational Enlightenment principles, Hank’s supreme political status as “The Boss” rests on his cynical exploitation of science to manipulate the ignorance and superstition of the medieval populace to his advantage.

These irreconcilable contradictions culminate in a cataclysmic civil war that makes Hank’s “dream of a republic” a nightmarish graveyard, leaving him “muttering incoherently” and “sinking away toward death.” Twain’s America may have avoided such a catastrophic fate, but he tapped into the growing anxiety of an “Age of Nervousness” characterized by what Jackson Lears calls “hazy moral distinctions and vague spiritual commitments.” Under such conditions, Lears writes, “personal identity itself came to seem problematic.”

As we make our way through the fractious New Gilded Age with hints of another “Age of Nervousness,” perhaps Connecticut Yankee can serve as a cautionary tale provoking us to heed Robert Jones’s call to “take up the more arduous task of weaving a new national narrative in which all Americans can see themselves.” At the very least, Twain’s disturbing tale might help us avoid Hank’s tragic fate of falling into what his assistant Clarence mused was “a trap, you see—a trap of our own making.”

Dreaming India The Marvelous & Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger

Mark Twain’s world lecture tour in the mid-1890s, which he recounts in Following the Equator, was generally unpleasant for him.

Not only did the humiliating stigma of bankruptcy that prompted the voyage haunt him, but while circumventing the globe with his wife Olivia and daughter Clara, Twain frequently suffered illness and depression. In South Africa, for example, Livy noted that her husband “has not as much courage as I wish he had [and] he has been pursued with colds and inabilities of various sorts…He does not believe that any good thing will come, but that we must all our lives live in poverty.”

Yet, there were at least two divine exceptions to the ordeal’s overall hellishness. One, which Twain mentioned to his friend William Dean Howells in a letter, was the “17 days of heaven” he savored while cruising the “vast solitudes of the Indian Ocean.” Twain recorded in his notebook that it was “a good time…to improve the mind, for about us is the peace of the great deep. It invites to dreams, to study, to reflection.”

The other exception to the tour’s general malaise was Twain’s three-month stay (January-April 1896) in what he dubbed “India the Marvelous.” Not only did his time in country boost his spirits, a meeting he had with a Hindu holy man might have influenced him years later during another difficult phase of his life when he wrote the enigmatic final chapter of No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger.

Of Twain’s time on the subcontinent, Albert Bigelow Paine said he “reveled in that amazing land—its gorgeous, swarming life, the patience and gentleness of its servitude, its pleasant pageantry, the magic of its architecture, the maze and mystery of its religions, the wonder of its ageless story.” Clara Clemens noted that in India her father “seemed like a young boy in his enthusiasm over everything he saw” and a “great wave of careless joy spread over the spirits” of their entourage.

In trying to capture adequately the immensity of India, Twain eloquently wrote in Following the Equator:

This is indeed India; the land of dreams and romance, of fabulous wealth and fabulous poverty, of splendor and rags, of palaces and hovels, of famine and pestilence, of genii and giants and Aladdin lamps, of tigers and elephants, the cobra and the jungle, the country of a thousand nations and a hundred tongues, of a thousand religions and two million gods, cradle of the human race, birthplace of human speech, mother of history, grandmother of legend, great-grandmother of tradition, whose yesterdays bear date with the mouldering antiquities of the rest of the nations…the one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once, by even a glimpse, would not give that glimpse for the shows of all the rest of the globe combined.

Twain’s Indian sojourn obviously left a positive impression on him. One of his most positive experiences there was his visit with a nude Hindu guru in Benares named Swami Bhaskarananda Saraswati, considered by his followers to be a “living god.” Although Twain downplays Saraswati’s divine status in Following the Equator, he nonetheless admired the “most pleasant and friendly deity” with a “conspicuously intellectual face, and a deep and kindly eye.”

Because Saraswati had attained a “state of perfection” through a long process of reincarnation, Twain writes somewhat longingly that when the holy man dies, “Nirvana is his; he will be absorbed into the substance of the Supreme Deity and be at peace forever.” The two exchanged books: Saraswati gave Twain a copy of his “Hindoo holy writings” while Twain returned the favor by giving him a copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because “it might rest him up a little to mix it in along with his meditations on Brahma…and I knew that if it didn’t do him any good it wouldn’t do him any harm.” It might be, however, that Saraswati’s “meditations” inspired Twain years later as he composed the final chapter of No. 44 during another challenging time in his life.

Compare, for instance, that chapter’s most controversial statement that “there is no God, no universe, no human race, no earthly life, no heaven, no hell. It is all a Dream, a grotesque and foolish dream”, with Saraswati’s essential insight into the unreal nature of the existence:

The world is not real. It never existed, it does not exist, and it will not come into existence in future. We all dream, and, while sleeping, we think that the things we see in the dream are real, but as soon as we wake up we perceive the mistake…as soon as true knowledge will dawn on us we shall be able to know that the world is but a dream, a shadow and not substance. (John Campbell Oman, The Mystics, Ascetics, and Saints of India, 1903)

Oman quotes Saraswati’s personal biographer here, who noted that the swami had this revelation after he “saw through the nature of the unreal world, and felt the existence of one Supreme Soul all through the universe.”

Twain couldn’t read the holy writings Saraswati gave him (they were in Sanskrit) and there’s no evidence that he read Oman’s book or the biography he cites. However, like many intellectuals of his time, he was well aware of the Vedantic philosophy Saraswati embraced and was quite informed concerning the holy man’s life.

So, perhaps the “nothing exists” dream of No. 44’s concluding chapter, so often cited as evidence of Twain’s deepening pessimism and nihilism late in life, was instead inspired by the “one Supreme Soul” that Saraswati intuited underlying life’s ultimate unreality. It was a similarly divine intuition that encouraged a forlorn Twain “wandering the empty eternities” at the end of No. 44 to “dream other dreams, and better.”

Dwayne Eutsey is a freelance writer, editor, independent scholar, former Quarry Farm Fellow, and contributor to Mark Twain Journal

Never In A Hurry To Believe: The Theology of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

On this day 132 years ago the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the first “banning” of Adventures of Huckleberry, by the Concord Public Library. Controversy has followed the novel ever since, with the most recent ruckus occurring just a few months ago in a Virginia school district. Recent attempts to suppress the book are prompted by its racially offensive language instead of snobby objections to “rough, ignorant dialect.” Both cases, however, seem fixated on the novel’s admittedly rude linguistic surface while missing the deeper moral undercurrents.

At the risk of violating Twain’s warning to avoid looking for any moral in his book, I discern a complex morality flowing through its pages as strong (and at times as murky) as the Mississippi River itself. And I am not alone. Victor Doyno, for example, summed it up as a boy’s journey “from religion to morality.”

While I agree with Doyno’s point generally, I also believe there might be a deeper religious significance to Huck’s moral growth than Doyno’s distinction between conventional Christianity and a morality grounded in secular skepticism suggests. I base this interpretation on the possibility that Twain may have been influenced as he was formulating Huckleberry Finn in early 1876 by two sermons his good friend and pastor, Joe Twichell, also preached at the time.

As I elaborated last summer in a lecture given at The Park Church in Elmira, I find an intriguing thematic link between these sermons eulogizing Twichell’s mentor, the controversial clergyman and theologian Horace Bushnell, and Huck’s attitudes toward (and personal experience of) religion. Twain knew and admired Bushnell and also regularly attended Twichell’s services at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, so he most likely was aware of these sermons, which Twichell originally preached in March at Asylum Hill and in April at The Park Church, which Twain’s in-laws helped to establish.

Dubbed the “Emerson of Hartford” for his highly unorthodox theology, Bushnell was unlike Emerson in that he remained a devout, lifelong Christian (despite being brought up on charges of heresy at one point). He dedicated his ministry, in fact, to revitalizing traditional Christian faith claims amid in a modern world wracked by, among other things, Darwinism and the Industrial Revolution.

Although not as radical as Bushnell, Twichell still shared a deep bond with his mentor that extended beyond theology. He reflected in one of the eulogy sermons that “no human being, save my father…had ever seemed to summon me to the purpose of living a true life…And as a man, far less than as a theologian, he continued to make his impression upon me to the last.”

Twichell touches on many of Bushnell’s beliefs in these sermons that would have been appealing to Twain. For example, pointing out that truth for Bushnell “was not the truth that is in the Bible particularly, but an universal thing, and wherever he saw it, however uttered and exhibited, he acknowledged and reverenced it.” Guided by prayer, Bushnell adhered to “the law of his mind and heart,” and therefore “he could not borrow or use other men’s views and reasons. It was his necessity to find his own, and when he found them he knew what they were, and had the confidence in them that comes of seeing to the bottom of a matter.”

At the heart of Bushnell’s unorthodox theology, steeped as it was in reason and fierce independence, was a quest for an authentic and personal experience of the divine. Twichell notes, “It was the soul of the Bible, that lives underneath its garment of language, that he craved to find, and he asked God day and night to give him a soul that could discern it.” In taking this approach, Twichell believed Bushnell exemplified “a new demonstration of the reasonableness of our Christian faith, and of its power to stand” as a “sign for doubters of every degree…groping in darkness.”

Twain, who had observed nearly a decade earlier as a journalist on the Western frontier that “a religion that comes of thought, and study, and deliberate conviction, sticks best,” certainly would have felt a kinship with such views. But it was in Bushnell’s unflinching willingness to explore his deepest religious doubt that I find the most direct connection between Twichell’s sermons and the development of Huck’s religious sentiments. Twichell points out two particular admonitions of Bushnell’s that are especially relevant: “Be never afraid of doubt” and “Never be in a hurry to believe; never try to conquer doubts against time.”

Huck is certainly never afraid of doubt nor is he ever in any hurry to believe anything when it comes to religion. These qualities are evident when he declares that he “don’t take no stock in dead people” after the Widow Douglas reads him the story of “Moses and the Bulrushers.” It’s also there when he concludes that Miss Watson’s claims that daily prayer will get him whatever he asks for just “warn’t so.”

Still, following the example of Bushnell’s openness to doubt, Huck begins to appreciate another dimension of prayer after he fakes his death and runs away. While a famished Huck watches the search party setting loaves of bread filled with quicksilver afloat on the river to locate his drowned corpse, he picks up one of the loaves that ironically finds its way to him and begins to eat it, reflecting:

“I reckon the widow or the parson or somebody prayed that this bread would find me, and here it has gone and done it. So there ain’t no doubt but there is something in that thing.”

Later, at the novel’s pivotal moment, Huck prays for strength to do what he’s been taught is God’s will: turn Jim in as a fugitive slave. The complicated theological irony here is that even though Huck concludes he “can’t pray a lie” and so chooses to go to hell instead of betraying Jim, his prayer resembles that of Twichell’s doubter groping in darkness, and, circuitously, helps him find the resolve to do the truly Christ-like thing and sacrifice himself for his friend.

Because Twain composed the first 400 pages of Huckleberry Finn in a burst of creative energy at Quarry Farm during the summer after Twichell preached the two Bushnell sermons, it seems plausible that the unorthodox theology of Horace Bushnell which Twichell eloquently reflected on may have informed the religious doubt in Huck that would eventually bring him to this ironic (yet morally empowering) encounter with God.