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Mark Twain: An Estrangement with Religion

By Rae Martin

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

     It’s no secret that throughout Western history – before the rationalist and secular movements of the past few centuries – organized religion has held massive sway over humankind.

By Rae MartinMark Twain, for his time, was quite progressive in some of his views on religion – and obliquely depressing in others.

It’s surprising, on both accounts, considering he was born in a conservative small town, which typically leads to a strong sense of faith.

Being born in Florida, Missouri today would be hard enough, but during the 19th century? Unfathomable. It’s simply stunning that Mark Twain grew to criticize religion, an establishment still venerated by some today.

“If you think something is important, and it’s going the wrong way, you get really passionate,” said Steve Courtney, publicist and publications editor of the Mark Twain House & Museum,

Passionate is a meek word for some of Twain’s last writings on religion and life.

If his appreciation of the importance of religion comes from his social environment growing up, then his amiability in terms of differing beliefs comes from his mother, Jane Clemens.

She was not a puritan in any sense, but a sampler of religion who brought her son along for a taste of faith at different houses of worship.

And from church, to cathedral, to synagogue; she sampled religious tastes. And if you can’t already tell, that kind of thing simply didn’t happen.

“His attitude toward religion changed considerably,” said Courtney.

With that history in mind, it now seems unlikely that Twain would have grown up to be anything other than open-minded when it came religion and slavery, the two biggest social conventions of the day.

Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum, described Twain as “very spiritual.”

It’s clear to me that Twain did believe in some sort of god, and his rants against that god is more to disparage the church of the day and as an expression of feelings stirred by the deaths of three of his four children.

The untimely deaths of all but one of his children, coupled with increasing American imperialism, the hypocrisy of Gilded Age culture and immense worldwide fame built up a mocking critique of bullshit dogma from religious institutes.

If Twain was alive and writing today, he would probably be agnostic.

Mark Twain “gravitated between two views,” said Courtney, either believing that God didn’t exist, or thinking God is a sadist.

He’d have possibly railed against the contemporary church even more than he did against the church of his time, due to a surge in anti-religious and anti-church thought that has swept through the Western world.

If he had been born in contemporary times, he would be a Christopher Hitchens-type figure, relentlessly questioning and challenging organized religion.

Twain was not only a magnificent writer of prose but a well-versed public speaker on all issues of culture and society. Not only jabbing at religion, but also foreign policy, class warfare, social and economic dispositions.

His provocative inquiries would likely ignite hatred and threats of personal violence as his distinct boldness in the oral and literary arts is marked by a refusal to back down in the face of cultural taboo.

Another parallel is the surprising friendship that the atheist Hitchens found with Pastor Douglas Wilson. Twain found close counsel in the Rev. Joseph Twichell of Asylum Hill Congregational Church in Hartford, where the Clemens family attended.

In today’s extremely polarized society, Twain’s caustic demeanor would certainly have been drawn out even more than in his day. He would have been right at home in contemporary pop culture, a place ripe for the pickings of a satirist of Twain’s caliber.

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Mark Twain Sketch

Twain Sketch, Alan Burkholder

Mark Twain sketch by Alan Burkholder, Writing Apprentice

Sam Clemens AKA Mark Twain

By Meaghan Szilagyi

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Who was Mark Twain? A novelist? A newspaper reporter? A famous author? A popular speaker?

Mark Twain was a “persona” in the eyes of Patti Philippon, chief curator of The Mark Twain House & Museum. He was a mask that was worn by a man named Samuel Clemens.

Samuel Clemens was a real person: family man, father, son, husband.

Philippon said that Clemens’ daughters disliked Mark Twain. The world saw their father as the humorist he presented himself to be, when he was really so much more than that. He was caring and loving. Clemens would do anything for his family but when people saw Mark Twain, they didn’t see the family man he truly was.

Sam made mistakes. Any real person makes mistakes. A few times, before his years as a husband, Clemens spent a few nights in jail for disruptive behavior and disorderly conduct, according to a Ken Burns documentary about Twain.

Clemens grew up as a rowdy young fellow and had no trouble seeking out adventure. He had many memories of his childhood friends that he later used in his stories.

Samuel Clemens traveled the world during Mark Twain’s great lectures. Samuel Clemens fell in love with and married Olivia Langdon. And Samuel Clemens became the mastermind behind Mark Twain.

While leading a tour of the Mark Twain House, Grace Belanger, assistant manager of visitor services at the museum, said that when the Clemens’ had guests over, Mark Twain was present.

Samuel Clemens treated Mark Twain as his job, nothing more.

Mark Twain was a one-dimensional character. Sure, you could go to the theater and watch him in 3D but it wouldn’t really be him, would it?

Twain presented himself as a humorist – that much is clear.

Twain House publicist Steve Courtney even goes as far to call him a “stand-up comedian.” But was he anything more than that?

Could Samuel Clemens have had multiple personality disorder?

Philippon and Courtney think not. Since it was common for people to have pen names in the Gilded Age, they believe that Clemens was a person with a pen name and that’s it.

So who was Mark Twain, really?

Now that he is long gone, I guess we’ll never know the real story. But that’s part of the fun, isn’t it? Mystery adds intrigue and who was Mark Twain, if not a man of mystery?

Burns Documentary Fails To Capture Twain’s Zestful Life

By Nick Sherman

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

There is quite a difference between a bit of deadpan humor and nearly four hours of monotony.

While director Ken Burns’s works are often described in reviews as “fascinating” and “vivid,” those critics are just not critical enough when it comes to Mark Twain: A Film Directed By Ken Burns.

Certainly a subject such as America’s greatest writer can capture the audience’s attention – but if this is the case, what was it that had half the audience asleep?

The problem certainly didn’t lie in the subject matter. There has perhaps never lived a more interesting individual than Mark Twain, and a biographical documentary on Twain should certainly interest the young journalists who made up the audience.

But the execution of the video left much to be desired. Be it the repetitive musical score, the emotionless voice of narration or the unappealing photography, the many insufficient elements of production offer a wide variety of choices to blame for the film’s failure.

I may be considered too harsh, but Twain himself, ever the cynic, may even have found enjoyment in pointing out the production’s flaws.

Mark Twain Didn’t Hold Back

 By Rae Martin

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Of all writers in America’s brief history, none stand as tall as a literary giant as Samuel Clemens, who went by the moniker of Mark Twain.

Twain, the defining author of American literature, is probably also its most prolific.

The depiction in the documentary Mark Twain: a film directed by Ken Burns, is true to what I’d heard. The level of detail to which the featurette descends makes him a bit of an inspiration.

I see in Twain the one trait all successful writers must have, an almost instinctual one. It is the characteristic of keeping it raw.

When writing a work of either fiction or nonfiction, nothing must be held back.

It is necessary that it be dark, scathing, caustic; it has to be something old done from a different perspective, or something new entirely. It mustn’t conform, and preferably should make those who are rigid and conservative loathe it, or something close.

Just far enough outside the box that someone reads it, but not too far that it doesn’t sell.

If a devout Catholic,  or an otherwise religious person, can read it and not be offended, then it’s a bit weak.

If you’re reporting a story that the government doesn’t want in the public eye, and then balk due to controversy, then you’re either a sheep, or in their employ.

If your parents can read it and wholeheartedly agree with it, then you’ve lost the spark.

Maybe the reason I believe these things to be true can be attributed to my youth, but it doesn’t make it any less true.

And I’ve a feeling that Twain would agree.

A Lecture On A Man

By Alan Burkholder

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

Recently I watched a documentary about the life of a man named Samuel Clemens. But the name isn’t important. What’s important is the man belonging to the name, and how he’s just as much of a human as anyone else on the planet with that kind of name.

A name is a label that’s a be-all description of any being, human or otherwise, from birth to death. You’ll never be able to read the full description, at least not all at once, because people change moods during their lifetime.

And Samuel Clemens was a man who was constantly changing.

He was born a poor boy in the town of Florida, Missouri, grew up a troublemaking brat in Hannibal, sailed up and down the Mississippi River as a young man, became a sensational writer in Nevada during the Civil War, became a family man and America’s sweetheart afterwards, and a frivolous man and America’s enemy after that, before dying an old man, once again a sweetheart, but not the same as before.

And what can you say about a dead man that hasn’t already been said, or thought at least once? Some could say nothing printworthy, but damn it all if I’m going to let that stop me.

Mark Twain described himself once as the perfect man. He was far from perfect, but he wasn’t saying he was. He meant that he was instead the epitome of what it means to be human. What it’s like to be happy, what it’s like to be sad, what it’s like to be rich, what it’s like to be poor, what it’s like to love, what it’s like to hate, and overall what it is to live and die.

It’s a long story that’s not for the faint of heart. It involves death, depression, racism, hypocrisy, murder and torment. But that’s all part of life.

Twain was a man who made himself great. But before that, he was just like anyone else: born an idiot with no idea what was going on. I myself was born an idiot, I have lived life as an idiot, and shall continue to be one until I learn all there is for me to learn. And then I will die. It’s a fact of life.

Just like Twain, there will be hardships in my life and I shall have to move past them and learn from the experience.

Everyone falls at the same speed, but our strength is defined by how fast we are able to get up again. Luckily for me, I’ve been able to get up pretty damn fast so far, and I hope to whoever is up there watching over me, that I’ll still be able to get up when I’m older.

Twain’s Hypocrisies, Failures Show Author’s Humanity

By Molly Miller

Writing Apprentice

Mark Twain Studios

I have a strong appreciation for people who fail often before becoming successful. This appreciation stems from not only an admiration of the ability of individuals to pull themselves back up after getting knocked down, but also from a desire to know that even if I fail, I am not necessarily a failure.

I don’t consider Samuel Clemens to be a failure, and I have a feeling that most other people don’t as well, so in the Ken Burns documentary Mark Twain, it was very refreshing to see him fail and constantly try new things before becoming an established author and personality.

However, I couldn’t help but wonder what Clemens would have been like had he been born a girl. There’s no doubt that he wouldn’t have been taken seriously as a newspaper reporter, miner, or steamboat captain, but he would have also probably had fewer opportunities to try and fail.

The crass wit which made him famous would have never been accepted by society.

Nonetheless, I allowed myself to be inspired by his story. Clemens’ personal path allowed him to become personally acquainted with all types of human nature, and he turned the characters he met in his travels into characters in books.

I appreciate that Clemens was aware of the hypocrisy that came with maintaining two identities, although I don’t condone the hypocrisy itself.

He wanted to be rustic and take down the mighty, yet he also wanted to be the mighty; he criticized those who were obsessed with material goods and get-rich-quick schemes, and yet he spent $30,000 a year on his home while the average American brought home $500 in a yearly salary.

There is no doubt that Clemens was imperfect, but the fact that he seemed well-aware of his imperfections and dealt with a great deal of self-loathing makes him seem much more human.

Before watching the documentary, I never knew how much he hated giving comedic lectures. I never knew that he sat alone in the dark for hours before going on stage to perform, or that he tried to kill himself. These flaws make him all the more interesting and relatable as a personality, and I feel that his self-awareness opens him up to more sympathy from others.

Clemens was obviously well aware of racial divides by the time he became an established writer, and has been celebrated for his frank expositions of slavery and poor interracial relations. However, it seems bizarre that the man who would write so openly about race, as well as the diversity of life and human experiences in America, would call himself “The American.”

I understand that he represented a variety of human experiences within his own set of alter-egos, but at the same time, he can’t claim that he knows what it means to be a poor black woman, or a Native American, or a European immigrant, so it seems overly rash and uncharacteristic for him to claim there is one American.

With that said, the documentary gave me a stronger appreciation and awareness of the importance of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

I read the book in ninth grade English class, I wrote a research paper on censorship, and I loved it. But I didn’t realize how revolutionary the representations of racial relations in the novel were.

 It’s been a while since I’ve read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but I think the existence of “Huck Finn” makes “Tom Sawyer” so frustrating.

“Huck Finn” might be to “Tom Sawyer” what the crash was to the roaring ‘20s. It was the “bye, bye” to the American pie.

It kicks ignorant innocence in the face, and I love that. It’s strange to think that the man who wrote “Huck Finn” also wrote “Tom Sawyer” with wavering intentions of writing a sequel. Without “Huck Finn,” Mark Twain might be seen nowadays as a liar, or as a “whitewasher,” if you will, of southern history.

Typically, I loathe being instructed by “literary experts” with regards to how I should feel about novels which I am perfectly capable of reading myself, but I have a much greater respect for the approach Twain took to writing “Huck Finn,” as well as for the voices he gave his characters, after I watched the documentary.

While the documentary may have been long, and some of the literary experts interviewed liked the sound of their own voices a bit too much, it was definitely worthwhile for the nuggets of enlightenment they provided.

Film Reveals Twain’s Tragedies

By Cecilia Gigliotti

Writing Apprentice

Twain Studios

The works of Mark Twain, especially Huckleberry Finn, have intrigued and impressed me throughout my education.

So I was surprised tMark Twain documentary logoo find in Ken Burns’ documentary Mark Twain that the life of this American literary and comedic giant was marred by such tragedy.

How could this man approach writing and society with such a wicked and irrepressible sense of humor after bankruptcy and the loss of a younger brother, two children, and eventually his wife?

How could he have remained such a source of entertainment and joy for family and friends and for the nation when his personal and business affairs were a shambles?

How could he have continued serving in this fashion while holding himself fully responsible for the horrors befalling him, his family, and his country?

His experiences seemed to have given him an incredibly tough skin. Twain’s idiosyncratic writing style has always struck me, but after watching the documentary, I am even more deeply moved by the extent of his personal resilience and determination.

I can just about verify that I would hardly be motivated to continue forward if I were in such a position as he found himself in his middle age.

The idea that one can extract a sense of humor, not from an optimistic outlook on the human experience, but from an understanding that people need cheer in an otherwise rather cheerless world, moves me as a writer and as a human being, particularly because I am conscious of my own daily quest for happiness.

Reflecting on what I have seen, I can claim neither happiness nor unhappiness to have been Samuel Clemens’s lot. But when Samuel Clemens grew cold and lost hope, his ability to withstand the winter by seeking solace in the eternal summer of Mark Twain – a personality which he regarded as his job – fills me with perhaps more awe than the ability of his writing to withstand the test of time.

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