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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Greg Camfield <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 21 Feb 1997 10:03:54 -0800
Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
TEXT/PLAIN (57 lines)
On Wed, 19 Feb 1997, Andrew J Hoffman wrote:

> Questions on astronomy and cigar consumption:
> As I said, he maintained an interest in things astronomical, but it was
> the interest of any literate man in the second half of the nineteenth
> century.  One could say that he was passionately interested in dinosaurs,
> for example, because he wangled a private tour of the brontosaurus at the
> museum of Natural History in NYC before it opened to the public; in fact,
> he was excited about it, like most people.  He wanted to attend the big
> party celebrating the opening, but Livy's recent death prohibitted his
> appearance.  He marvelled at astronomical distances and so on because
> they were the most startling scientific discoveries of his time.  I
> suspect most of the Forum subscribers are very interested in neuroscience
> -- though none of us are neuroscientists -- for the same reason and in
> the same way.  >
To say that he was interested in science much as any literate person of
his day was interested in science is not the same as to say that it was
much as any literate
person now is interested in science.  Whether natural philosophy even WAS
a science was a bone of contention among the literate of the middle to
late nineteenth-century precisely because the epistemolgoical status of
science bore so heavily on religious faith.  The literate then were not
mere dabblers in a fascinating and ACCEPTED field, they were actively
considering whether or not the conclusions of geology, archeology and
required changes in religious faith.  And of course these physical
sciences bore profoundly on the most controversial theory to come out of
nineteenth-century science, the theory of origin of species through natural

Not surprisingly, then, Samuel Clemens's interest reflected his interest
in metaphysical questions.  His early reading of Guillemin's _The
Heaven's_, in which Clemens learned about the astonishing distances
between celestial bodies, for instance, led him to quote the old testament,
"What is
man, that he should be considered of god," but enabled him to imply a
skeptical answer to the question.  Such skepticism bore fruit in "Captain
Stormfield's Visit to Heaven," which challenges the comfortable  theism
of Phelps's _The Gates Ajar_, in which Phelps argues an anaolgy between
earth and heaven.  Phelps's argument, predicated on Anglican Bishop
Joseph Butler's _The Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the
Constitution of Nature_  took a very common stance toward natural
philosophy, that nature very comfortably supports conventional
Christianity.  Twain's parody challenges the validity of trying to
anaolgize between the known of nature and the unkown of heaven precisely
because he came to understand the distances involved in space.  In this
way his use of "science" was much like that of Huxley, in that it
promoted a skeptical agenda.  Given that a large portion of the literate
population of Clemens's day used science in exactly the opposite way, is
it really fair to say that his use of science was typical even if we agree
that his understanding of it was not extraordinary?

                                Gregg Camfield