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William E. Phipps, Mark Twain’s Religion – Bo Pettersson

The Electronic Journal of the Department of English
at the University of Helsinki

ISSN 1457-9960

Volume 3, 2004

Literary Studies


© 2004 Bo Pettersson

 

 

Book Review:

William E. Phipps, Mark Twain’s Religion. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003.
386 p.

 

 

Bo Pettersson

 

 

One of the most abiding interests in Twain criticism has been his relation to religion, the Bible in particular. Excepting analyses by classic Twain critics, there are some studies devoted to this aspect in his writings, such as Caroline Harnsberger’s Mark Twain’s Views of Religion (1961), Allison Ensor’s Mark Twain and the Bible (1969) and most recently John Q. Hays’ Mark Twain and Religion: A Mirror of American Eclecticism (1989). As a professor emeritus of religion and philosophy at Davis and Elkins College, West Virginia, William E. Phipps, in his Mark Twain’s Religion, is able to introduce novel insights into a topic usually discussed by critics with a literary background.

Phipps’ study is structured chronologically (with the exception a brief introduction and conclusion), with chapters 2 to 9 forming a kind of critical biography highlighting Twain’s relation to religion of various kinds. Only chapters 7 (‘Biblical Usages’) and 8 (‘Theological Journey’) offer more detailed surveys of Twain’s use of the Scriptures as well as of his views of God, Jesus and evil. Most other chapters also include insightful discussions of religious motifs. This is why it is a pity that the headings of the subchapters are not detailed enough to help readers with specific interests to find, say, the most sustained treatment of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the study. The rather compressed and incomplete index of mainly names is of rather little help in this respect (even if one of the few references one does find to Twain’s works in the index is rather unexpectedly Finn, Huckleberry). As a matter of course, the structure of any study has its share of blindness and insight, so that, for instance, what is gained by biographical understanding is lost in thematic depth.

What Mark Twain’s Religion adds to previous scholarship is careful documentation of Twain’s life in the light of his many and versatile connections with religious practices and practitioners, with an understandable emphasis on Christianity but without overlooking his contacts with and comments on other religions. By his study, Phipps has clearly produced a labour of love: the wealth of documentation based on a thorough acquaintance with all the central Twain collections in the United States, including Twain’s own library, has led to his being able to refer not only to works and letters but also to enlightening marginalia from books read and commented on by Twain.

The overall approach is sensitive to the many twists and turns in Twain’s views of religion. Indeed, Phipps warns his readers early on to ‘beware of accepting at face value the pronouncements of one who told the truth obliquely’ (6). Of course, it would be too much to ask that the author himself had employed this insight when quoting Twain on almost each page for almost four-hundred pages – it would simply have made the text unbearably self-conscious. But the discussion of Twain as a humorist and a preacher included in the conclusion might have been better in the introduction (363-368), so as better to pave the ground for Twain’s multifarious, at times even paradoxical, views on religion. By this I do not mean to suggest that Twain’s views were not heartfelt, but that they were both complex and subject to change and that his use of irony at times was so subtle that it can be hard to figure out what he really meant.

Mark Twain’s Religion has many strengths, one of which is to illustrate how throughout his life Twain befriended men of the clergy and other devout people, such as the Beechers, George Cable, Joseph Twichell and William Dean Howells. These friendships are of course well-known from Twain biographies, but Phipps shows how Twain’s stance on central issues, like race, politics, women’s rights and imperialism (in chapters 5 and 6), can be illuminated by Twain’s religious views. It is unfortunate that neither the table of contents nor the index implies that the study includes perceptive comments on his familial and social life (passim); discussion of Twain’s relation to African-Americans elsewhere than ‘Race Relations’ in chapter 5; an analysis of Twain’s views of the clergy, in a subchapter called ‘To the Pacific’ (50-55); and an intriguing paragraph on Twain as a latter-day Stoic (220). The author’s thorough knowledge of the Bible serves him well in helping him spot many biblical allusions, many of which enrich Twain criticism. However, occasionally I am not entirely convinced, as when a statement about Jim at the end of Huckleberry Finn (‘the nigger never made the least row nor said a word, from the start’) supposedly ‘has overtones of’ Isaiah 53:7 (‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth’) (176).

As a painstakingly researched and enjoyably written study, Mark Twain’s Religion in many ways complements John Hays’ Mark Twain and Religion and is a welcome addition to the body of Twain scholarship.
E-mail: bo.pettersson@helsinki.fi

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