Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain. By Lawrence I. Berkove and Joseph Csicsila. University of Iowa Press, 2010. Softcover. Pp. 288. ISBN: 978-1-58729-903-2. $39.95.

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The following review appeared 29 September 2010 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
David Foster
Ashland University

Mark Twain wrote that "Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever." Both are exactly what Twain's humor did, according to this provocative book by Lawrence I. Berkove and Joseph Csicsila. They argue that our maestro of the humorous story preached and taught a peculiar, heretical version of Calvinism. This religious teaching is not obvious because Twain spent much of his life openly criticizing and emphatically trying to break with the strict Presbyterianism that was his spiritual inheritance. Berkove and Csicsila maintain that despite his great effort of repudiation, Twain found Calvinism's view of God and humanity too compelling to discard. In the end, he was able to reject only one of Calvinism's three main tenets. While he agreed that God is omnipotent and omniscient, he denied that God was benevolent: Twain's God is a malevolent trickster who toys with mankind for his own entertainment. As Berkove and Csicsila sum it up, Twain "preached all his life in his literature a distinct departure from a conventional Christian message: that because of God's malice life is deceitful and humans are not meant to achieve in it their dearest goals of freedom, happiness, and fulfillment" (p. 2). This "countertheology" is not only present in each of Twain's major novels, but is the deep, albeit sometimes hidden, source of those novels' true meaning. It is therefore the clue to recognizing Twain's literary genius and the theme that gives his corpus unity of purpose and consistency from Roughing It to the last unpublished writings.

In making the case for their rather grim thesis, Berkove and Csicsila are sensitive to biography and autobiography, but their primary evidence is laid out in detailed and very readable discussions of Twain's books. They devote a chapter to each of five novels: Roughing It (a good case is made that this is a novel), The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger. The final chapter, "The Last Letters from Earth," examines many unpublished works written in the final decade of Twain's life. The basic story told is of the gradual revelation of Twain's "countertheology." At first it is expressed indirectly and cautiously and sometimes, perhaps, also somewhat unconsciously. It gradually becomes more overt, emerging most fully developed, though still veiled by artistry, in Connecticut Yankee, which is said to rival Huckleberry Finn as Twain's greatest novel. No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger explores a potential escape from Calvinism through scientific psychology, but in the end circles back to confirm it. In the final works, the "countertheology" becomes explicit, but its harshness is somewhat mitigated by Twain's growing compassion for the human condition.

Heretical Fictions makes several valuable contributions. The thesis that Twain's works are organized around one idea poses an important challenge to many conventional readings, which see Twain as a mere humorist or an inconsistent, episodic writer, who showed flashes of genius, but whose literature is determined by shifting biographical influences, mercurial intellectual interests, sudden losses of focus, and so on. The focus on theological issues also leads to many fresh readings, useful suggestions, and stimulating insights. For an example, see the discussion of allusions to Christ's birth in the annunciation of Hank Morgan's newspaper (p. 136 ff). Throughout the book interesting light is shone on words, incidents, and literary techniques, especially hoaxes and dreams.

Few readers would deny that Twain was concerned with religion, but some might wonder how stories that millions have found delightful or funny and even inspiring could support the thesis that Berkove and Csicsila lay out here. Facing this question directly, they argue that Twain must be read as a kind of esoteric writer. Early in his career, Twain was "devious or circumspect about hiding his targets and beliefs beneath dark hints and veiled clues," and he always used a "layered style" of writing (p. 55). Accordingly, we must distinguish between the "surfaces" of his books, which express the gifts of narrative and humor that established and sustained his reputation, and "the deep tidal swells of his mind that drive his creativity" and give depth and unity to his corpus (p. 7).

The difficulty in making this distinction is especially acute in the case of Roughing It, the earliest work considered here, and a book that is usually considered a rip-roaring medley of funny stories, practical jokes, hoaxes, and tall tales. Acknowledging that it is all that, Berkove and Csicsila argue that it also presents a vision of reality that can be summed up as a "close-up tour of ruined Eden overlooking hell" (p. 53). The transition from amusing stories to ruined Eden is found by noting that the novel's humorous surface falls into several repeated patterns. The most important is that many of the stories show that those who went West in search of easy wealth--that is, who tried to evade the labor imposed by God as punishment for the fall--find their hopes and dreams frustrated, usually in bitter and violent ways. Their hopes and dreams turn out to be hoaxes. Repeated in story after story, the pattern becomes, the authors suggest, a metaphor for Twain's pessimistic view of existence. The novel suggests that man never learns from failures and that he is unable, through self-examination, to find a more sober guide to life than romantic dreams and extravagant hopes. In seeking an explanation for this outlook, the authors note that the inevitability of failure depicted in Twain's narratives has the tincture of predestination about it. In addition, it is difficult to tell which Twain holds more responsible for the human condition--man's own vices and folly, or the Creator; and this duality resembles the Calvinist doctrine of double-damnation, according to which humans, most of whom are already predestined to damnation, are also damned for their actual behavior. Putting all this together, the authors suggest that Calvinism is the "probable source" or "wellspring" of the pattern of failure found in Roughing It.

Thus, the authors argue that the surface features of Twain's novels that normally attract readers both hide the deeper currents of meaning and contribute to their development. I have no objection to reading Twain as an esoteric writer. The proliferation of hoaxes, tricks, concealed and double identities, and other such devices that abound in his fiction speaks strongly in favor of this approach, and it is a significant contribution of Heretical Fictions that it makes a serious argument for this way of reading Twain. On the other hand, I am not persuaded that in the case of books like Roughing It, the surface features should be interpreted in the light of "deeper" meanings that appear most clearly only in much later works. The authors do show that Twain's later pessimism existed to some extent in his earlier works, but was it already the controlling theme? Maybe, but I wonder whether it might not rather have been a sign of an internal struggle or debate whose outcome was at this point still undetermined.

Berkove and Csicsila argue that St. Petersburg in Tom Sawyer (and the other towns that appear in Twain's fiction), depict not only Twain's view of social life, but are metaphors for his view of the cosmos. And they argue that both society and the cosmos are characterized by "the omnipresent threat of violence," spiritual repression, cruelty, loneliness, moral hollowness, "deadening " and "disfiguring" reality, and above all, autocratic or tyrannical rule and the complete absence of any form of freedom (Chapter 3). There is no doubt a dark side to Twain's depiction of social life, which is amply brought out here, but the description of St. Petersburg seems overwrought. The town's Russian namesake has an autocratic czar, but there is no such thing or real equivalent in 19th century democratic America. And to treat "culture" as the source of repression and cruelty is to suggest, implausibly, that culture is an autonomous force independent of the will of human beings. The argument treats Tom as motivated solely by a desire for freedom (until he experiences the "savagery" of nature on Jackson's Island and gets co-opted by society). But that ignores some of the lessons of the fence-painting incident, Tom's desire from the beginning to be a leader among the small boys, his desire for Aunt Polly's affection, and his spontaneous initial love for Becky, all of which point to other motives than the desire for freedom. In short, the book is filled with good observations, but there is sometimes a tendency by the authors to infer too much from them.

Probably the most controversial argument of the book (apart from the idea that Twain really believed in a God he hated) is that, contrary to appearances, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is not an affirmation of freedom but actually "denies the possibility of human freedom" (p. 109; 84). The argument turns on an interpretation of the well-known problem of the "evasion" chapters at the end. Most previous readings either consider the end a major flaw or strain to fit it into the hopes for freedom generated in other parts of the novel. Against these readings, Berkove and Csicsila maintain that the "evasion" chapters make perfect sense when they are read as showing the impossibility of human freedom. They show that neither Huck nor Jim is free in the sense that neither has the capacity "to create his . . . own identity" (p. 85). Both are forced by Tom (and society) into an "impersonation" or role that they would never choose: Jim, to be a prisoner, Huck, a romantic hero. The general idea is that family, society, environment, and ultimately destiny, providence, or God compels each of us to assume certain "impersonations," thereby denying us freedom. This is perhaps the most important of the many hoaxes that God plays on man: while making man desire freedom and think it possible, He so constructed the world that freedom is actually impossible. Indeed, the hope of freedom is what disguises its absence! Twain's novel is an imitation of this divine hoax, since its surface makes us hope that Huck and Jim are or could be free, while its deeper meaning is that freedom is impossible.

This reading has the advantage that it renders Huckleberry Finn a coherent whole and thereby vindicates Twain's excellence as an author. But I suspect that not every reader will be convinced. In most of the story, Jim's freedom in the normal, political sense is the main concern. To be sure, Berkove and Csicsila argue at some length that Jim will not be fully free even in that sense, for emancipated slaves were restricted in many grievous ways. Still, in the novel, Jim who had been someone's property is at the end legally a free man. That there are limits to this freedom does not do away with that freedom, nor does the fact that no human is perfectly able to construct his own identity. To suggest that each of us should be master of his or her own identity is to set up an impossible standard of freedom, given the need all individuals have for some education and the need all societies have for some rules and conventions.

A great contribution of Heretical Fictions is that it establishes in detail that biblical or theological themes are crucial for understanding Twain's literature. Having said that, it may seem churlish to complain that some biblical references are overlooked or inadequately discussed. Neither Tom Sawyer's inability to memorize the beatitudes, an important clue to his character, nor the cross marking Injun Joe's treasure are analyzed. A more important example concerns the sermon through which Tom suffers in Chapter 5 and to which Berkove and Csicsila draw our attention in the epigraph to their chapter on Tom Sawyer. The minister's theme is the millennium, which, in the context of Calvinism, raises questions about the elect, the damned, and predestination. In the novel the mood appropriate for considering these momentous themes is destroyed by the mirth created by the actions of a poodle and a pinchbug. The passage suggests something like the Enlightenment strategy of laughing orthodoxy out of existence. In this case, the surface humor of the novel would be a weapon against its "deeper" theological meaning, not an attractive way of masking objectionable beliefs (25, 29). In making their case, Berkove and Csicsila sometimes allude to this possibility (see p. 55-56), but do not give it the sustained attention it deserves.

According to Heretical Fictions, Mark Twain's humor is the honey conveying a hefty dose of wormwood. But if there really is no freedom, because everything is predetermined by an omnipotent, omniscient, and malevolent God, Twain's literature itself would have to be understood as a predetermined expression of divine malice. And in that case, could we continue to admire it? For this reason and others, we can hope that, as thought-provoking as it is, Heretical Fictions is not the last word on Twain's humor or on his deepest preaching.