A familiar voice, albeit one that has been relatively quiet for decades, recently rejoined the cacophonous debate that is American public discourse. Welcome back, Mark Twain.
Late last year saw the release of the "Autobiography of Mark Twain." Twain had begun his autobiography in 1906, largely through dictation, with the idea of writing reminiscences as they occurred to him rather than in any chronological order. After Twain’s death in 1910, several versions of his autobiography were published, but they were quite toned down. Twain and his family had wanted the more harsh elements put under seal for a century. The current autobiography, also available online via the Mark Twain Project, is being touted as the unexpurgated version.
Outside of his published fiction and nonfiction, Twain’s essays and other writings have as their focus his thoughts on issues of the day, as well as on issues timeless, namely his criticisms of politics and society, of the human race and of religion. Twain was a public critic of the United States' turn-of-the-century policy of imperialism, particularly as played out in the Spanish-American War. He was a pretty harsh and confirmed skeptic, more so for the reason that man, whatever his religion, remains unregenerate, growing even worse because of or in the name of religion.
Despite the fact that much of Twain's worldview has been available for several generations, this new autobiography has been holding its own on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Publishers and booksellers underestimated the appeal and have had difficulty keeping it in stock. Libraries report having waiting lists of patrons lined up to read the book, some even providing multiple volumes to meet the demand.
What explanation can be given for the renewed appeal? Why does Twain still speak to us? Would his criticism of religion, and Christianity in particular, be harsher or softer if he were alive today?
English teacher Jeff Carpenter is an adjunct instructor and tutor for international students at a Chicago-area community college. He also writes for Spotlight, ReFrame Media's international English-language program.