Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Twain's Best Collection Of Essays And Bits: Letters From The Earth!

The Good: Bold satire, diversity, narrative style
The Bad: Some pieces unfinished, less polished
The Basics: Biting satire, witty, funny and highly intelligent, essential for the scholar but much to enjoy for those who are not.

When most people mention american novelist Mark Twain, they tend to have an image of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn or the Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. That's a shame because the obscure Letters From The Earth is easily their match, if not their superior. Letters From The Earth is a brief collection of essays and articles written by Twain, including several unfinished works that were edited and are included in this edition with commentary on the notes on how Twain intended to finish some of them.

The title comes from the first brilliant satire of the book, a series of letters from angels working on Earth to god, including a letter from Satan. They are funny, they are cynical, they are accurate observations on the nature of humanity. Basically, it's an irreverent look at biblical and historical stories as only Twain could re-interpret them. Twain seems obsessed with deconstructing the biblical mythos in the "Papers Of The Adam Family" wherein the notable Bible characters, like Eve, Methuselah, and Shem are given Twain's voice to speak their interpretation of how their stories should have been written. The passages are funny and made better by the complexity that is illustrated when one understands the sparse biblical stories that they allude to.

In perhaps the most fitting acknowledgment of the intelligence of the writers of Star Trek The Next Generation, when they introduce Twain into the series for a pair of episodes ("Time's Arrow") they have him speaking lines from this book, rather than referencing one of his more popular works. Twain's commentary on oysters is actually from Letters From The Earth - the section on "Was The World Made For Man?"

The problematic aspect is that Twain's voice is absent or easily misunderstood in some of the sections. So, for example, Twain goes on at length criticizing the verbosity of James Fennimore Cooper for his opening to "The Last Of The Mohicans." As Twain cuts up the poetic lines as examples of using too many words, it is very easy to read the argument as earnest. However, one needs to recall that Twain is a master satirist and his critique is directed more at the critics of Cooper. This is made a little more difficult in Letters From The Earth only in that Twain's own short stories are especially sparse in the realm of details.

Letters from the Earth is a collection of satirical tales, a good number of them relating to the relationship between man and the divine. Many of them are funny, like the "Letter TO the Earth" and "From a Burlesque" (which gives such wonderful advice on funerals such as "Do not criticize the person in whose honor the entertainment is given." (152)). The book endures because Twain has a very sharp view of the human and he's right on in his observations!

The truest flaw of the book is not its "blasphemy" (if you believe such things), but rather in that some of the stories aren't polished and some end abruptly, like "The Great Dark" which ends right as it's getting good!

For other significant scholarly works, please check out my reviews of:
The Communist Manifesto
The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare


For other book reviews, please check out the index page!

© 2010, 2008, 2001 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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