When people think of Mark Twain, the title that immediately comes to mind is Tom Sawyer. That's too bad, because Twain wrote some pieces a great deal more insightful. Don't get me wrong, Tom Sawyer is a good piece of writing, but when compared to some of his other more provocative works, such as Puddin'head Wilson, The Mysterious Stranger or even the skewered-by-Bing Crosby A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court, the classic tale of the bad boy pales in comparison.
Even more neglected are Twain's later works. Among these is the speculative collection of writings entitled Letters From The Earth.
Be Nice Now, Mr. Twain
If these other works are so good, how come all we ever hear about is Tom Sawyer? Well, as rascally as he is, Tom Sawyer is fairly tame when it comes to big ideas. Not so with many of Mark Twain's other works. Puddin'head Wilson confronts racist ideas of biological determinism. The Mysterious Stranger toys around with a satanic character who isn't all bad. A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court practically promotes Communism.
It's true! If you aren't aware of Twain's radicalism, it's because you've been fed the Walt Disneyfied version of the funny Southerner who liked cigars and celebrated American boyhood. Well, he did like cigars and his books do celebrate boyhood (and show the pain of its coexistence with an unjust adult society), but there's a lot more to Twain that your High School English teacher wasn't comfortable enough to tell you about.
An Irreligious Skeptic: Surprise!
Book reviewers often pooh-pooh Twain's later works, such as The Letters From Earth, claiming that he was just moody when he wrote them. In reality, these works are among his sharpest, but they disturb people because they dissect the most treasured security blanket of the American people: religion.
The Letters From Earth is written from the point of view of Satan, who has been banished to the Earth for a time. The character of Satan, who is certainly rebellious but not at all evil, writes letters back to Michael and Gabriel about how silly people are.
In particular, Satan pokes fun at the religions created by people in the name of God. He wonders why the same people who love sex so much exclude sex from their ideas of Heaven. He is confused about how those in the human's Heaven can rest in peace when everyone is singing and playing harps all the time. He marvels at how humans can simultaneously live on such a fatally flawed Earth and believe that God loves them.
Page after page, Twain takes all of the ideas that undergird American ideas about religion and show how ridiculous they are. Using Satan as the objective outside observer, he turns the ideals of the sanctimonious on their heads, implicitly arguing for a reformed society based on critical thinking and skepticism in which religion is cast aside.
For Open-Minded, Courageous Readers Only
Mark Twain writes in an accessible style, but his content isn't for everyone. If you want a fun, easy, read from Twain's works but don't want to be challenged, go with Tom Sawyer, the Reader's Digest abbreviated version. However, if you're secure enough to have your holy-of-holies overturned, Letters From The Earth is the right read for you.