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Sundays with the Christianists: How Mark Twain Steered America Toward Hell
You may have thought that Mark Twain was some kind of literary genius, but did you also know that he personally ruined America by being such a good writer of books, which ruined America? We've finally reached the chapter we've been waiting for in Kevin Swanson's culture-war epic Apostate: The Men Who Destroyed the Christian West, in which the Colorado radio preacher and homeschooling advocate explains how pretty much everything we think of as Western Civilization is actually an assault on true civilization, by which he means the Bible and people who read it like Kevin Swanson does. We bought this horrible little e-book last year after Swanson talked about Twain with fellow wingnut Rick Wiles and claimed that Twain was clearly influenced by demons. We figured it would be a pretty good fight: America's greatest writer versus a rightwing radio preacher who thinks birth control pills fill women's innards with hundreds of fossilized dead babies. Our money was definitely on the literary genius, who still held the advantage despite being dead for over a century.
Still, you have to give Swanson credit for ambition: It takes some chootspah to lay the destruction of American culture at the feet of a writer who many think epitomizes its best qualities. Here's Swanson's opening paragraph on Twain (sans endnote numbers):
Born in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835, Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) would come to popularize the American independent spirit. Just a few months after he was born, the first wagon trains left Independence, Missouri to settle the Western frontier. Out of this new breed of independent Americans there came a great deal of family-disintegrating feminism, murderous violence, libertarianism, divorce, strange cults, and weak Christian churches. To this day, the highest divorce rates in America are found in the Western states. Mark Twain either played off of this social milieu or contributed to it.
And you thought it was the gays what destroyed your marriage! Turns out it was that time you read Huckleberry Finn in sixth grade.
It's not especially surprising that a fundamentalist would not be a fan of Mark Twain, of course; in our very first foray into the world of textbooks for Christian homeschoolers, we learned from a Bob Jones University Press textbook that
Twain’s outlook was both self-centered and ultimately hopeless. Denying that he was created in the image of God, Twain was able to rid himself of feeling any responsibility to his Creator. At the same time, however, he defiantly cut himself off from God’s love. Twain’s skepticism was clearly not the honest questioning of a seeker of truth but the deliberate defiance of a confessed rebel.
For Swanson, though, those are just the starting points of what's wrong with Twain. Of Twain's many theological errors, Swanson explains that Twain started out by saying that his "antipathy was towards 'organized religion,'” and that "I'm spiritual but not religious" is hardly a modern trope:
It was not unusual for the 19th century apostates to save their most acidic salvos for the organized church, while eking out a little faint praise for Jesus and God just in case He exists ... Predictably, Jesus would not have been impressed by these attacks on His church, with which He is intimately connected. He would say, “Love Me, love My friends, love My church” (John 13: 34, 35; 1 John 4: 20,21). When it comes to the church of Christ, somehow the apostate mind becomes a straw-man factory. Given enough time, an unbelieving, malicious mind will characterize every church and every Christian as the great enemy of all that is rational, good, and authentic. To this day, millions of Americans freely express contempt for the organized church, though they still half-heartedly acknowledge a “God” or a “Savior.”
One of the delights of reading Swanson is seeing just how much he dislikes most other Christians, who are on the whole not up to his standards.
In a departure from his usual modus operandi, where he picks apart his subjects' lives for proof of what huge degenerates they are, Swanson doesn't say a heck of a lot about Samuel Clemens's life, probably, we suspect, because of the risk that readers might see in Clemens a loving father and husband who lost nearly everyone dear to him. Swanson merely says that in his later years, "his apostasy became increasingly self-conscious, serious, and foreboding," without mentioning that there might have been some reasons for that: So much of Twain's life after 1890 involved unfathomable tragedy. For starters, there was his 1894 bankruptcy, mostly due to a series of bad investments -- we're somewhat astonished that Swanson doesn't take the opportunity to gloat at what a poor steward of wealth Clemens was, although perhaps he simply didn't want to acknowledge that, through long speaking tours, Twain eventually paid back all his creditors in full, despite the bankruptcy's formal erasure of his debts. Very strange -- an agnostic whose Protestant work ethic was considerably stronger than most modern job creators?
Also surprising is the fact that Swanson makes no mention of the series of tragedies in Clemens's family, starting with the 1872 death of his only son, Langdon, from diptheria at the age of only 19 months. Of Sam Clemens's four children, only one, Clara, outlived him. Just as Twain was getting his finances back in order, his 24-year-old daughter Susy died of meningitis in 1896, and Twain's writing career never really recovered -- his best work was done. The long illness and death of his wife Livy, in 1904, left him devastated. Of these losses, Swanson says not a word. Again, this strikes us as a surprise. Swanson was eager -- almost ghoulishly so -- to blame Karl Marx for the deaths of his children. Swanson says Marx "starved three of his children to death," although they actually died of illness in the slums of London. He doesn't even take the opportunity to blame Clemens for the 1909 death of his daughter Jean, who drowned in a bathtub during an epileptic fit. It almost seems as if Swanson's blame reflex has grown weak -- or perhaps Swanson simply doesn't bother mentioning the string of family disasters that Clemens experienced in his final 20 years because leaving them out makes Twain's depictions of God as a capricious bully seem all the more spiteful.
Indeed, once Swanson turns to the subject, he paints Twain as a literary giant who simply didn't appreciate his fame and success:
By the end of his life, he may have been the most famous writer in the world. He was a great leader in a rapidly expanding literary world, and he was an apostate of apostates. In 1906, he chose to include a chapter in his autobiography that revealed his complete break with the faith. He warned his publisher William Dean Howells up front, “Tomorrow I mean to dictate a chapter which will get my heirs and assigns burnt alive if they venture to print it this side of AD 2006.”
And in fact that full autobiography wasn't published, at Twain's direction, until 2010, and it contains some genuine blasphemies:
In this bone-chilling chapter, Mark Twain clearly communicated his unmitigated hatred for Christians, the Bible, and God. For example, he called the Bible “the most damnatory biography that exists in print anywhere.” He added, “It makes Nero an angel of light and leading, by contrast.” He also referred to God as “repulsive,” “vindictive,” and “malignant.” Ultimately, he conceded that death is “the only unpoisoned gift earth ever had for them -- and they vanish from a world where they were of no consequence; where they achieved nothing; where they were a mistake and a failure and a foolishness. . .”
Nihilism! Fuck me. Swanson is simply aghast, and he stacks the deck by completely leaving out any mention of the experiences that led Twain to reject his faith. We're not asking Swanson to agree with Twain -- no fundamentalist would ever say that turning away from a just and merciful God could be justified, of course -- but it's enormously lazy and dishonest of Swanson not to at least acknowledge that Sam Clemens went through a series of Job-like tragedies before Mark Twain wrote his most fiery denunciations of God and the Bible. Fine: Twain didn't emerge from his trials like Job. Condemn him for not responding to intolerable adversity by just shouldering his cross and singing "How blessed are we!" But don't lie by omission and send Clemens's wife and children down the memory hole on the off chance that some readers might sympathize with the old apostate.
Next Week: More apostasy, and why Twain unfairly blamed Christians for slavery.