From WILLIAM EDELEN
The Contrary Minister
Ernest Hemingway paid tribute to Mark Twain in these words: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain, called Huckleberry Finn.” T. S. Eliot called it “one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction.” Willliam Dean Howells has called Mark Twain “The Abraham Lincoln of American literature.”
The word brilliant may be overused, but surely in the case of Mark Twain it applies. He seems forever contemporary. His linguistic needles are as sharp, his observations on the human race as precise, and his sarcasm and humor as glittering today as they were when he originally placed pen to paper.
I guess that everybody has read Huckleberry Finn, but I find few who have read Twain’s Letters From the Earth, a book that is filled with his observations on something that we call “religion.” That book made my summer a few years back.
For several glorious and wondrous weeks I lived in a teepee high on an alpine meadow in the mountains of Montana. After getting my new home in order, I lay down under a mountain sun, bathed by cool afternoon breezes, and started reading Twain on “religion.” Perhaps some samples will whet your appetite for more:
“The Bible tells about creation. God did it. He did not call it the “universe.” That name is modern. His whole attention was upon our world. He constructed it in five days… and then? It took him only the one remaining day to make 20 million suns and 80 million planets and 8 billion galaxies. (Twain would have had a field day with today’s creationists.)
“Darwin was wrong. Man has certainly, obviously, not ascended from any lower animals. He has, quite obviously, descended from the Higher Animals, the apes and primates, to the lower animal that man now is… (stupidly fighting over religious creeds and doctrines… man made).
“Now I am going to really put a strain upon you. Man thinks he is the noblest work of God. This is the truth I am telling you. Man really believes that. He even hires preachers to tell him so once a week. And very few even laugh. Man, the special pet, whom God has given mumps, measles, whooping cough, croup, colds, asthma, bronchitis, itch, cancer, cholera, typhus, piles, constipation, warts, pimples, boils, corns, tumors, insanity, jaundice, bunions, abscesses, diseases of every organ in the body, but why continue the list?…”
If you do not take yourself, or your religious creeds, too seriously, and if you can take a good sharp look at our human species and laugh at the foolish little games we play, then you will love Letters From the Earth. But if you are religiously thin and tight lipped, out to save the world and judging others through squinted eyes, then Letters From the Earth is for you too. Twain may guide you through and out of your labyrinth.