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Mark Twain - 1905, Click To Enlarge

Mark Twain
(My complete GMD bio/commentary is here).
Bibliography

 

 

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was perhaps the only great writer (at least on occasion) aside from Herman Melville that the USA has ever produced. His children's stories: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, along with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, are what he will always be remembered for by most people. As C.S. Lewis said in a letter once: "I have been regaling myself on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I wonder why that man never wrote anything else on the same level." His stories, both fictional, and non-fictional, were nearly always marked by Twain's extraordinary wit which was probably only matched in writing by G.K. Chesterton some years later.

There was however, a very serious side to this man of words. The humor, especially in his political musings, was equally offset by a certain sense of true mistrust and doubt surrounding the condition of man and man's relationship to God. Twain was deeply religious in his own way. He was a practicing Presbyterian most of his life, but the inaccuracies committed by church leadership throughout history always kept Twain skeptical concerning anything and everything about the Christian Church and the bible. Like MacDonald, he had a great distaste regarding the manmade doctrine of biblical infallibility and was completely dismayed by the naiveté that clergymen often displayed about the historicalness of biblical events that seemed obviously in his opinion to be either mythological or perhaps just plain wrong. Twain's later stories such as: Letters from the Earth, Eve's Diary, and Extracts from Adam's Diary tackled the problems inherent when trying to treat certain biblical stories as history. His humorous treatment of Noah's flood raised many eyebrows both then and now; however, his disrespect was targeted at the church clergy who took such tales as historical and was not meant as disparaging to the tales themselves. But while Twain probably thought that passages about the flood or Eden may well have been allegorical, metaphorical, or mythological he also had troubling and depressing thoughts as to the nature of God and the state of the "damned human race". It's doubtful that he truly questioned the existence of God, but he certainly questioned God's goodness. In The Mysterious Stranger, the main character even slipped into solipsism, more or less thinking that perhaps he was God and the world his own illusion. It was the most depressing of all tales where the story's main character, Theodore, begins to have the kinds of thoughts that had put many a man in Hanwell as Chesterton would have put it. (Hanwell was a well known asylum for the insane in those days). The thoughts were put there by Satan, who actually plays a role of truth-giver in this yarn. It is Satan who tells Theodore in the end:

"Life itself is only a vision, a dream."

It was electrical. By God! I had had that very thought a thousand times in my musings!

"Nothing exists; all is a dream. God--man--the world--the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars--a dream, all a dream; they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space--and you!"

"I!"

"And you are not you--you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought. I myself have no existence; I am but a dream--your dream, creature of your imagination. In a moment you will have realized this, then you will banish me from your visions and I shall dissolve into the nothingness out of which you made me....

"I am perishing already--I am failing--I am passing away. In a little while you will be alone in shoreless space, to wander its limitless solitudes without friend or comrade forever--for you will remain a thought, the only existent thought, and by your nature inextinguishable, indestructible. But I, your poor servant, have revealed you to yourself and set you free. Dream other dreams, and better!

All men have probably had such thoughts as these; from time to time we all question reality and our own existence. It's not likely that Twain dwelled on these questions to an unhealthy magnitude in real life. Still, it does give one a shudder to read such passages.

It appears that George MacDonald met Mark Twain during MacDonald's 1872-73 lecture tour in America. Mr. & Mrs. MacDonald, accompanied by their son Greville, even stayed a few days at the home of Twain's mother-in-law while in New York. Twain's children enjoyed MacDonald's fairytales very much, especially At the Back of the North Wind, and the two authors had for a time discussed co-writing a book together. (The details of this are discussed in the book-length biography/commentary of this website here). The following year, while traveling through Scotland, MacDonald would repay Twain's hospitality by allowing him, along with his wife and infant daughter, to stay at his home. During his trip Twain would meet over a dozen well known authors including McDonald's friend Lewis Carroll. He commented in his autobiography about the occasion:

We met a great many other interesting people, among them Lewis Carroll, author of the immortal "Alice"--but he was only interesting to look at, for he was the stillest and shyest full-grown man I have ever met except "Uncle Remus." Dr. Macdonald and several other lively talkers were present, and the talk went briskly on for a couple of hours, but Carroll sat still all the while except that now and then he answered a question. His answers were brief. I do not remember that he elaborated any of them.

It's clear from Twain's autobiography that he enjoyed the conversation of George MacDonald (whom he always referred to as Doctor MacDonald) very much indeed. What they may have talked about in private is largely unknown, however; we do know that MacDonald wrote many tales that involved dream worlds and that he took dreams and visions seriously. Twain undoubtedly read many of these pieces, and he too looked upon dream worlds with much earnestness. He took them as a slice of a real world somewhere, someplace, where time runs in a different way from our time, and where the people and things one encounters are absolutely real and beyond our control, rather than the product of our imaginations. He said in his short story--Which Was the Dream?: "While you are in a dream it isn't a dream - it is reality, and the bear-bite hurts; hurts in a perfectly real way." He also wrote several stories that were based in dream worlds. Perhaps C.S. Lewis missed Twain's great unfinished masterpiece (untitled at the time of Twain's death but generally referred to as The Great Dark) about a sea voyage that takes place in a drop of water after a man falls asleep and in which Twain developed what is likely his most mysterious and profound character called the Superintendent of Dreams. Twain got the idea for the story after dreaming one night about his own voyage in a drop of water aboard a whaler. The Superintendent tries to convince the main character (plainly representing Twain himself) that this time aboard the dream-ship is reality and that the normal everyday life he thought had been real was in fact a sham. This may seem on the surface nearly as depressing as the lapse into solipsism in The Mysterious Stranger, and the Gnostic overtones are quite obvious (although one wonders if Twain himself realized it as such); however; this tale carries with it a tinge of hope that Twain never lives to see completely finished and brought to fruition.

Mark Twain would also agree with MacDonald that there are few real coincidences that happen in life (if any for the Christian MacDonald might add), and he wrote a good deal about this in his short account called Mental Telegraphy. One of the more intriguing parts of this narrative is his notion regarding crossed letters. He had many times in his life just written a letter to someone, often someone he hadn't had any communication with for a long time, and just before or after mailing the letter, he would find one in his mail box from that same person. He even found after a while that if he wished to hear from some old friend or acquaintance that he merely had to sit down and write them a letter and then tear it up. A letter from that person would generally soon follow anyway.

Some of Twain's most profound statements about dreaming and other realities are unquestionably found in his short story, My Platonic Sweetheart, a real account of a recurring dream Twain had all throughout his life on the subject of a relationship carried on with a young girl in these dreams. In the dreams he was always seventeen and she fifteen, and although the two love struck teens often differed in appearance and even had different names in the various dreams, they always recognized one another and would simply pick up where they had left off in the previous dream disregarding the fact that many years may have passed. Also, in these dreams time seems to stand still in the real world. Twain would say toward the end of the account: "For everything in a dream is more deep and strong and sharp and real than is ever its pale imitation in the unreal life which is ours when we go about awake and clothed with our artificial selves in this vague and dull-tinted artificial world."

Many biographers of Mark Twain have mentioned how depressed he seems to have been toward the end of his life, and this is obviously true. They would view his stories such as The Mysterious Stranger, The Great Dark, and My Platonic Sweetheart as his way of dealing with mental anguish. They incorrectly however, identify the source of anguish in these tales. Something else he had in common with George MacDonald was the fact that both had lost several siblings during their young lives, and they would both outlive their wives and a number of of their children as well. They each lived out their final years with a certain prevailing sadness, but while MacDonald could always see a greater good coming to him in the end ("something to good for you to know"), Twain tended toward despair. We must try to remember though, that he, like MacDonald, was a Christian, and no doubt still had a glimmer of hope that somehow, somewhere, all would come right in the end. Only, unlike MacDonald, he had no inner vision into that great pocket of God's most wonderful imagination. If he had, he would have comprehended his dream lover as the beloved--God himself--reaching out to him. Twain was not attempting to psychoanalyze himself with these stories. He was trying to reveal the true source of all things, the power behind that mysterious thread of reality which encircles us all, and he would play no favorites in this endeavor. He had no notions of a mind magically playing a trick on itself. He wasted no efforts trying to explain himself to himself. Rather, he was coming to grips as best he could with the startling realization that The Holy Other was something real and beyond human control. There would be no Anthropomorphic straw grasping in a vain attempt to see oneself in control of his own destiny. His life was not his own, and he knew it. It wasn't his state of mind that troubled him. It was the state of God's mind.

Twain also would argue in his autobiography that dreams were very often precognitive. He mentions a dream he had of the death of his brother some months before it occurred. Twain was in attendance of a club meeting at the home of his friend, the Reverend Frank Goodwin in the 1870's. Twain said of these meetings: "The club was founded by a great clergyman; it always had more clergymen in it than good people." The topic of discussion that day was--dreams. He listened intently as each of his friends would make one statement after another which sounded to Mark Twain's ears as "misplaced piety". After a man known as "Johnson" finished talking, Twain decided he could take no more:

The substance of his wandering twaddle--if by chance it had substance--was that there is nothing in dreams. Dreams merely proceed from indigestion--there is no quality of intelligence in them--they are thoroughly fantastic and without beginning, logical sequence, or definite end. Nobody, in our day, but the stupid or the ignorant attaches any significance to them. And then he went on blandly and pleasantly to say that dreams had once had a mighty importance, that they had had the illustrious honor of being used by the Almighty as a means of conveying desires, warnings, commands, to people whom He loved or hated--that these dreams are set down in Holy Writ; that no sane man challenges their authenticity, their significance, their verity.

At the meeting, Twain would go on to tell of a prophetic dream he had of the death of his brother:

In 1858 I was a steersman on board the swift and popular New Orleans and St. Louis packet, Pennsylvania, Captain Kleinfelter. I had been lent to Mr. Brown, one of the pilots of the Pennsylvania, by my owner. Mr. Horace E. Bixby, and I had been steering for Brown about eighteen months, I think. Then in the early days of May, 1858, came a tragic trip--the last trip of that fleet and famous steamboat. I have told all about it in one of my books, called Life on the Mississippi....

I had found a place on the Pennsylvania for my brother Henry, who was two years my junior... The dream begins when Henry had been mud clerk about three months... On the night of the dream he started away at eleven, shaking hands with the family, and said good-by according to custom... These good-bys were always executed in the family sitting room on the second floor, and Henry went from that room and downstairs without further ceremony. But this time my mother went with him to the head of the stairs and said good-by again. As I remember it, she was moved to this by something in Henry's manner, and she remained at the head of the stairs while he descended. When he reached the door he hesitated, and climbed the stairs and shook hands good-by again. In the morning, when I awoke, I had been dreaming, and the dream was so vivid, so like reality, that it deceived me, and I thought it was real. In the dream I had seen Henry a corpse. He lay in a metallic burial case. He was dressed in a suit of my clothing, and on his breast lay a great bouquet of flowers, mainly white roses, with a red rose in the center. The casket stood upon a couple of chairs. I dressed, and moved toward that door, thinking I would go in there and look at it, but I changed my mind. I thought I could not yet bear to meet my mother. I thought I would wait awhile and make some preparation for that ordeal. The house was in Locust Street, a little above Thirteenth, and I walked to Fourteenth and to the middle of the block beyond before it suddenly flashed upon me that there was nothing real about this--it was only a dream. I can still feel something of the grateful upheaval of joy of that moment, and I can also still feel the remnant of doubt, the suspicion that maybe it was real, after all. I returned to the house almost on a run, flew up the stairs two or three steps at a jump, and rushed into that sitting room, and was made glad again, for there was no casket there.

We made the usual eventless trip to New Orleans--no, it was not eventless, for it was on the way down that I had the fight with Mr. Brown1 which resulted in his requiring that I be left ashore at New Orleans... the night before the boat sailed I gave Henry some advice. I said: "In case of disaster to the boat, don't lose your head--leave that unwisdom to the passengers--they are competent--they'll attend to it. But you rush for the hurricane deck, and astern to the solitary lifeboat lashed aft the wheelhouse on the port side, and obey the mate's orders--thus you will be useful. When the boat is launched, give such help as you can in getting the women and children into it, and be sure you don't try to get into it yourself. It is summer weather, the river is only a mile wide, as a rule, and you can swim ashore without any trouble." Two or three days afterward the boat's boilers exploded at Ship Island, below Memphis, early one morning--and what happened afterward I have already told in Life on the Mississippi. As related there, I followed the Pennsylvania about a day later, on another boat, and we began to get news of the disaster at every port we touched at, and so by the time we reached Memphis we knew all about it.

I found Henry stretched upon a mattress on the floor of a great building, along with thirty or forty other scalded and wounded persons, ... he had inhaled steam....

The physicians on watch were young fellows hardly out of the medical college, and they made a mistake--they had no way of measuring the eighth of a grain of morphine, so they guessed at it and gave him a vast quantity heaped on the end of a knife blade, and the fatal effects were soon apparent. I think he died about dawn, I don't remember as to that. He was carried to the dead-room and I went away for a while to a citizen's house and slept off some of my accumulated fatigue--and meantime something was happening. The coffins provided for the dead were of unpainted white pine, but in this instance some of the ladies of Memphis had made up a fund of sixty dollars and bought a metallic case, and when I came back and entered the dead-room Henry lay in that open case, and he was dressed in a suit of my clothing. I recognized instantly that my dream of several weeks before was here exactly reproduced, so far as these details went--and I think I missed one detail, but that one was immediately supplied, for just then an elderly lady entered the place with a large bouquet consisting mainly of white roses, and in the center of it was a red rose, and she laid it on his breast.

... I have not told the entire dream. There was a good deal more of it. I mean I have not told all that happened in the dream's fulfillment. After the incident in the death-room I may mention one detail, and that is this. When I arrived in St. Louis with the casket it was about eight o'clock in the morning, and I ran to my brother-in-law's place of business, hoping to find him there, but I missed him, for while I was on the way to his office he was on his way from the house to the boat. When I got back to the boat the casket was gone. He had had it conveyed out to his house. I hastened thither, and when I arrived the men were just removing the casket from the vehicle to carry it upstairs. I stopped that procedure, for I did not want my mother to see the dead face, because one side of it was drawn and distorted by the effects of the opium. When I went upstairs there stood the two chairs which I had seen in my dream, and if I had arrived there two or three minutes later the casket would have been resting upon those two chairs, just as in my dream of several weeks before.

 

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