Letters from the Earth Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 1939, the literary critic Bernard DeVoto was asked by the trustees of Mark Twain’s estate to select suitable material for publication from the thousands of pages of manuscripts left by the author at his death in 1910. DeVoto recommended—among other possible books—a collection of miscellaneous pieces including the manuscript of “Letters from the Earth.” Clara Clemens, Twain’s daughter, objected to the publication of this volume on the grounds that it “presented a distorted view of her father’s ideas and attitudes,” and it was not published until 1962, with a preface explaining its complicated publishing history by Henry Nash Smith, then the literary editor of the Mark Twain Papers. Like many of Twain’s works at the end of his life—for example, “The War Prayer” (1905), “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven” (1909), or The Mysterious Stranger (1916)—Letters from the Earth reflects the bitterness that personal tragedy (including the deaths of his wife and another daughter), financial losses, and deepening depression created in Twain’s last years. Written in part during Twain’s final illness in Bermuda in 1909, Letters from the Earth contains a great deal of pessimism and not a little black humor.

As Smith explained in his 1962 preface, the book actually comprises two main parts: a first section, which includes “Letters from the Earth” (more than fifteen thousand words occupying pages 3-55 of the original publication), a narrative of about the same length titled “Papers from the Adam Family” (pages 59-114), and the shorter “Letter to the Earth” (later published as “Letter from the Recording Angel,” pages 117-122). The second section of Letters from the Earth contains a dozen miscellaneous pieces, but several (for example, “Something About Repentance,” “The Damned Human Race,” and “The Great Dark”) touch on religious issues raised in the first...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

Letters from the Earth Bibliography (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Baetzhold, Howard G., and Joseph B. McCullough, eds. The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1995. The volume collects the most relevant Twain pieces of writing on religious themes, characters, and settings.

Brodwin, Stanley. “Mark Twain’s Theology: The Gods of a Brevet Presbyterian.” In The Cambridge Companion to Mark Twain, edited by Forrest G. Robinson. New York: University of Cambridge Press, 1995. A thorough analysis of Twain’s views on religious issues from early in his career through his last dark period.

Ditsky, John M. “Mark Twain and the Great Dark: Religion in Letters from the Earth.” Mark Twain Journal 17, no. 4 (1975): 12-19. An early and comprehensive study of Twain’s religious views revealed through “Letters from the Earth,” which shows the thematic connections to the other, miscellaneous sketches in the collection in which it appears.

Ensor, Allison. Mark Twain and the Bible. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1969. A thorough study of Twain’s familiarity with, use of, and attacks on the Bible.

Foner, Philip S. Mark Twain: Social Critic. New York: International, 1958. An early but still valuable analysis of Twain’s views on a variety of institutions, including chapter 4, “Religion” (but written before the publication of Letters from the Earth).