James's Reviews > Letters from the Earth: Uncensored Writings

Letters from the Earth by Mark Twain
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's review
Apr 30, 11

bookshelves: kurzgeschichte
Read in January, 1970

This collection of largely unpublished material is the most impressive contribution to books by Mark Twain after "The Mysterious Stranger" of 1916, with which it shares an imaginative grandeur. Mark Twain thought, while he was alive, he was going to terrify the world with a metaphysical masterpiece, "What Is Man?" (1917), but that book is mostly unreadable. However, he included similar ideas in both "The Mysterious Stranger" and Letters From the Earth, and they are both better books as they demonstrate better the genius of his imaginative skills. The cosmic irony of The Mysterious Stranger, in which Satan, a nephew of the "great" Satan, visits a group of boys in the Austrian village of Eseldorf (really Hannibal, Mo., in disguise) results from the incongruity between Satan's enormous powers and celestial foresight, and his contempt of the values of the human race. This irony, almost savagely pressed into the consciousness of the reader, gives range, strength and splendor to the present volume.

The story of the publication of "Letters From the Earth" needs to be told. It was put together as a book by the late Bernard DeVoto, then editor of the Mark Twain papers, as long ago as 1939. Parts of it were even published in the magazines, but the book was delayed for almost a quarter of a century by the objection of Clara Clemens that the papers present a "distorted" view of her father's ideas. In this interval Bernard DeVoto has died, but Clara Clemens' scruples have been overcome, and Henry Nash Smith, who is the present editor of the Mark Twain papers, has got the book out. I picked it up many years ago in an inexpensive paperback version which I have referred to again and again to this day. This is the adult Mark Twain - far removed from his days of creating Princes, Paupers and Connecticut Yankees. (This edition includes bibliographical notes by Bernard DeVoto.)

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