Letters from the Earth Summary
by Mark Twain

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Letters from the Earth Summary

(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 half. (The other pieces in the second section include such miscellaneous sketches as “Simplified Spelling,” “Cooper’s Prose Style,” a story Twain used to tell his daughters about cats, and an unfinished burlesque on books of etiquette.)

Letters from the Earth is thus the title both of the book that DeVoto compiled in 1939 and that Smith edited in 1962 and of the first, long piece—in a collection of more than a dozen—titled “Letters from the Earth” (a distinction maintained in this essay through use of italics for the book and quotation marks for the essay). The first, prefatory section of “Letters from the Earth” (which is unnumbered) is a third-person narration describing the “Creator” sitting upon his throne with the three archangels—Satan, Gabriel, and Michael—at his feet. God creates the world (including man); Satan is banished for his sarcastic remarks and visits earth, sending back reports in the letters to Gabriel and Michael that follow.

Man is a strange bird, Satan reports in Letter I, for he believes he is the Creator’s pet, prays to him, and believes he will go to hell if he does not follow the Creator’s commandments. Man is so strange, in fact (Letter II), that he has imagined a heaven where his supreme delight, sexual intercourse, has been banned! In the third letter, Satan gives a brief history of Christianity, the two testaments of the Bible (which has some poetry but “upwards of 1000 lies,” Satan reports), and the story of Adam and Eve. Satan tells the story of Noah’s ark (Letters IV-VII) but also lays out some biblical contradictions (for example, the fact that man believes in a God who sends him disease). Man is a fool, Satan writes in Letter VIII; look at the contradiction between the true Law of God (human temperament) and the supposed Law of God (as written by man into the Commandments). Satan notes that “every statute in the Bible and in the lawbooks is an attempt to defeat a law of God—in other words an unalterable and indestructible law of nature.” Noah lands on Mount...

(The entire section is 1,011 words.)