The following book review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Dwayne
_Mark Twain and the Spiritual Crisis of His Age_. Harold K. Bush, Jr.
University of Alabama Press, 2007. Pp. 352. Hardcover, $47.50. ISBN
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
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Near the end of his new cultural biography, Harold Bush quotes Shelley
Fisher Fishkin's observation that the version of Twain "we claim as our own
reveals much about who we think we are--and who we want to be" (p. 276).
This insight rings particularly true when it comes to Mark Twain and
religion. Where some Victorians demonized him for ridiculing Christian
beliefs and practices (one minister went so far as to accuse him of being a
"son of the devil"), modernists have typically portrayed him as an
irreligious skeptic whose literary "symbols of despair" represent an
embittered attempt to detonate God's universe into nothingness.
In recent years a small but growing number of scholars have opposed or
questioned the critical view of Mark Twain as an irreligious, even
nihilistic critic of religion. These views range from Jason Gary Horn's
_Mark Twain and William James: Crafting a Free Self_ (1996) to William
Phipps's _Mark Twain's Religion_ (2003). Bush's _Mark Twain and the
Spiritual Crisis of His Age_ is a noteworthy contribution to this emerging
perspective in Twain studies.
The author's aim is to identify "the positive contributions of American
religion in the life and works of arguably our most famous author" (p. 2).
In doing so, he offers an analysis of "one of the many faces of Mark Twain"
(p. 276) from an academic Christian viewpoint.
As the title suggests, Bush is concerned with exploring the "spiritual
crisis" that emerged in America following the Civil War. This crisis was
engendered in large part by Darwinism, a complex theory of natural
selection that called into question traditional religious accounts of
divine creation, and the German "higher criticism" movement which
undermined scriptural authority by subjecting biblical texts to intensive
In his examination of Twain's life and work, Bush merges two different
narratives into a single book--the dominant one, of most interest to Twain
scholars, delivers an interesting analysis of how the Christian ethos of
Twain's era significantly influenced him as a writer and as a person; the
secondary narrative presents Bush's critique of modern spirituality.
Bush effectively organizes his study chronologically around key aspects of
Twain's life that intersect with the larger religious and social milieu of
his era. Beginning with Twain's childhood in the South and his time out
West, the book encompasses Twain's married life and his friendship with
Congregational minister Joseph Twichell; the humorist's deep commitment to
progressive Christian causes; the Civil War's religious background and its
influence on Twain; the theological undercurrents of Twain's humor; and
Twain's later years of loss and grief.
Each chapter, in varying degrees, offers insightful analysis on the topic
at hand. The chapter on Twain's childhood delves into the tension between
Jane Clemens's "conservative Protestant evangelicalism" and John Clemens's
form of deistic free thought that cast a lifelong shadow over Twain's own
spiritual life. The characterization of John Clemens's views seems
unnecessarily harsh, however, as when Bush states, "the deathbed conversion
of an aging skeptic, perhaps motivated not by genuine faith but simply the
extreme terror regarding his imminent demise, compounds the perception that
he turned out to be either a pathetic hypocrite, a man of no real
conviction, or at best a man of great religious confusion" (p. 31). Still,
he gives an interesting look at the impact of John Clemens's death on his
young son's religious sensibilities and its literary and spiritual
influence on Twain.
Bush further traces the religious quandary of Twain's formative years to
his bohemian lifestyle in Nevada and California and how a possible
religious conversion experience there not only saved his life but gave
birth to his persona. "We should remember that the final years of life in
California featured a very close proximity between suicidal despair and the
announcement to the world that Mark Twain considered his authorial gift to
be a kind of spiritual 'calling'" (p. 54). While he glosses over the
Unitarian beliefs of two influential ministers Twain befriended out West,
Horatio Stebbins and Henry Bellows, Bush points out how they and other
liberal San Francisco clergymen played a part in transforming "the wild
humorist of the West into the more mature and steady New Englander" that
Twain later became.
Although many scholars may believe Twain was a much harsher critic of basic
Christian faith than is emphasized in this book, Bush's discussion of
Twain's involvement in progressive Christian causes helps illustrate the
ultimately ambiguous nature of the humorist's faith. Bush gives many
examples of how Twain was motivated to give his time, talent, and money
toward furthering the Social Gospel's agenda, which one proponent defined
as working "in this world to establish a Kingdom of God with social justice
For example, Bush connects Twain's literary realism with an underlying
liberal faith that also motivated his participation in a Catholic urban
mission in Hartford and Twichell's American Chinese Educational Mission
which sponsored Chinese students for study in America. Bush also discusses
Twain's support of integrating African Americans into American society
through his connections with abolitionists like Twichell, the Langdon
family, Booker T. Washington and others who "had strong ties with
progressive, reform-minded churches" (p. 150). The chapter on the religious
background of the Civil War also makes an intriguing case for understanding
the conflict, and especially its aftermath, as a "clash of religious
worldviews" between the North and the South. In this regard, Bush does a
fine job of placing Twain within the context of the North's emerging civil
religion after the war and discusses how Twain took pains to refute the
South's "Lost Cause" mythos in his writing.
In pointing out how Sir Walter Scott's writings on Scotland's struggle for
independence from England deeply influenced the Confederate worldview, Bush
underscores the significance of references to Scott in Twain's writing,
which were a "cultural shorthand for corrupt southern ideology" (p. 189).
His compelling comparison of Lincoln and Twain's "agnostic theism"--which
he defines as a "vague in-betweenness" located somewhere between faith and
doubt--is also very convincing in characterizing prevailing religious
sensibilities in postbellum America.
In an interesting take on Twain's satire, Bush aligns Twain's literary
deconstructions of human pretensions and social injustice with the motives
underlying the Old Testament prophetic tradition, which sought to reveal
"shalom," or God's vision of "the way things ought to be." After
establishing how Twain defined his humor as a form of preaching, Bush
compares Twain's jeremiads against "hollow spirituality" in _Innocents
Abroad_ with his "sentimental" meditations on Jesus (p. 79, 80). He also
shows how Christian views positively shaped Twain's thought well into his
supposedly nihilistic phase late in life. The book includes, for example,
an excerpt from a speech Twain gave at Carnegie Hall in 1906, in which the
alleged antagonist of Christianity invoked Christian morality in his
support of the Tuskegee Institute:
"At Tuskegee they thoroughly ground the student in the Christian code of
morals; they instill into him the indisputable truth that this is the
highest and best of all systems of morals, that the Nation's greatness, its
strength, and its repute among other nations is the product of that system.
. .They teach him that this is true in every case, whether the man be a
professing Christian or an unbeliever; for we have none but the Christian
code of morals, and every individual is under its character-building
powerful influence and dominion from cradle to grave. . ." (p. 159)
Bush's discussion of Twain's staggering losses late in life is especially
poignant in its handling of Twain's response to daughter Suzy's sudden
death. His section on the spiritual ramifications of parental grief is an
affecting counterbalance to the often condescending scholarly treatment of
Twain's loss. Citing Hamlin Hill's "insensitive" analysis of Twain's later
years (which characterized Sam and Olivia's attraction to Susy's memory as
"ghoulish" and "less than mature"), Bush states it "is time to admit that
all of this armchair psychoanalysis based on Freudian models more than
fifty years out of date is very troubling--especially in its willingness to
approach the tender subject of the death of a child with such ruthlessly
cold logic" (p. 238).
Intertwined throughout this larger narrative on Twain is Bush's evangelical
critique of contemporary spirituality. He states in his introduction that
the "double-barreled attacks" on traditional dogma by Darwinism and higher
criticism created a "spiritual crisis from which American Christianity is
still trying to recover" (p. 2). In developing this secondary theme, Bush
occasionally offers readers sweeping statements such as, "Humor is in
keeping with the best of the Christian tradition--and was even exemplified,
like all positive human traits, in the life of the Master Himself. Indeed
it seems shocking to many today to be told that Jesus Christ was quite the
humorist, but that is what Elton Trueblood and others have shown" (p. 70).
Providing an example of Christ's humor for those unfamiliar with Quaker
theologian Trueblood's work (or with the Gospels themselves) would have
helped support Bush's argument.
Bush also writes, ". . . given the extreme affinity that biblical
Christianity had with the founding and the nurturing of a peculiarly
American ideology, the simultaneous attacks of Darwinism and of the German
higher criticism implicitly advanced criticisms against America's civil
religion. Due to Christianity's close allegiance with political rhetoric
throughout American history, any attack on the faith implicitly questions
American political ideology" (p. 207). He appears to overstate this point,
considering the significant influence critics of orthodox religion (such as
Thomas Paine--an obvious influence on Twain--and Thomas Jefferson) had on
forming American political thought.
Additionally, Bush frequently relies on modern evangelical Christian
sources to frame his argument that "the spiritual side has been perhaps the
most overlooked" aspect of Twain's life and work (p. 276). His discussion
of "shalom," for instance, is defined by modern-day evangelical scholars
such as Cornelius Plantinga's _Not the Way It's Supposed To Be: A Breviary
of Sin_, (1995) and Nicholas Wolterstorff's _Art in Action: Towards a
Christian Aesthetic_ (1980). Using theological sources from Twain's own
time, as Bush does with W. E. H. Lecky's and Nietzsche's anti-religious
writings when discussing Twain's skepticism, may have been more helpful in
defining these important concepts influencing Twain's life and writing.
The book's treatment of Twain's pastor Joseph Twichell, while informative,
omits evidence hinting at Twichell's more theologically adventurous side.
For example, according to Twichell's journal, he and Twain attended what he
refers to as a "very interesting lecture on evolution" at the Radical Club
by Harvard zoologist Edward S. Morse in Boston in 1874. As the name
suggests, the Radical Club consisted of religiously liberal-minded thinkers
and activists who gathered to debate religion, science, and culture.
Other omissions in the book include a discussion of the nineteenth century
schism in American religion between liberal and orthodox
Congregationalists. Such a discussion could have shed more light on Joseph
Twichell's sympathies and may have helped anchor in a historical context
Bush's discussion of Arminianism (which rejected Calvinism's emphasis on
predestination and human depravity) and Pelagianism (which denies the
doctrine of "original sin").
Overall, though, Bush does not attempt to explain nor defend some of
Twain's blatantly deistic or ostensibly anti-religious writings. Instead,
he offers a thought-provoking reexamination of the ignored or underplayed
spiritual dimensions of Twain's life and work. Readers may not always agree
with Bush's theological assumptions or conclusions, but much of what he
presents should help to inspire further debate on whether Twain really
deserves his reputation as a darkly embittered religious skeptic.
Dwayne Eutsey is an independent Mark Twain scholar. His latest article
"'From the Throne': What the Stranger in 'The War Prayer' Says about Mark
Twain's Theology," is in the current issue of _Mark Twain Studies_ (Japan).
He is currently developing a book on Twain's religious views when his
day-job and family responsibilities permit.