Mr. Twain Explains Heaven and Earth

Captain Stormfield's Visit

Note: Book Does Not Include a Map

A month ago, I wrote about the death of my neighbor, and how mutton-headed I’d felt about never having even thought about discussing writing with him, a retired professor of American literature. Recently, my gal pal Alice and I were invited by James’ widow, May, to look though his big book collection to see if there was anything we wanted before she donated the books.

There were many works that I would have greedily grabbed in other days, but as it was, I just selected a few Scott Fitzgeralds, an old volume of Proust’s Swann’s Way and the sweet book you see pictured above. I’d read Captain Stormfield long ago, but hadn’t known it was the last story published before Twain’s death in 1910. The long story was serialized in Harper’s Magazine a year or two before its publication by Harper and Brothers in 1909. It’s a nicely bound volume, in great shape, still with the intact tissue paper before the title page. I didn’t realize it was a first edition until Alice pointed out its copyright page.

Cranberry Famers: Heavenly Experts

So, I get my first first edition of Twain from a Chinese professor of literature who taught on Taiwan. Twain himself would have found that amusing. The work is nothing short of amusing, much of it a conversation in heaven between the good captain and a cranberry farmer, who disabuses Stormfield of those quaint notions that heaven was all piety and angelic song. It’s a nice counterpoint to Twain’s Letters From the Earth, which was published posthumously by Twain’s estate, when the world was perhaps more prepared for some its hot-pepper views on religion. Here’s Satan speaking about man from one of the letters, and also on God’s view of man.

Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm.
He took a pride in man; man was his finest invention; man was his pet, after the housefly . . . .

It pleases me to think that James left behind that slim volume of Twain’s, and that it’s now moved into my hands, an unexpected neighborly connection where my long-dead favorite author makes the link live. I do hope that whatever version of heaven James moved to doesn’t have a lot of off-key singing.

PS George Jones, RIP

In consideration of people who could probably only get into heaven if they snuck in in the back of a potato truck (and would surely then make vodka out of the potatoes), George Jones died the other day. I’m more inclined to rock and roll for my daily diet of noise (and in country, more toward Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson), but you can hear more angel and devil in George’s songs than pretty much any singer. Jones probably never saw a drink he didn’t like, but he made some music that had a whole lotta soul. Here’s looking at you, George.

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5 thoughts on “Mr. Twain Explains Heaven and Earth

  1. Books which have been cared for just feel different. Even the ones worn from love are better for it.

    Yesterday Fiona made a comment about people reading and I mentioned that, after school, most people never read another book. I’ve never seen her eyes so wide; then she guffawed — not an easy thing for a 60-pound 9-year-old, but she guffawed. “Why would anyone NOT read?”


  2. Joel, when I read your comment, I immediately thought of the duct-taped trade-sized edition of Hesse’s Steppenwolf that I have. Not a particularly elegant means to preserve the volume, but it speaks to the preservation desire. I loved that book in high school, loved it when I read it again years later, and love it now, yellowed and shopworn, on my shelf. I suspect I’ll read it again (at the very least to test its taping).

    That Fiona is wise beyond her years. (A wise-gal to match that wise-guy father.)

  3. Yeah, that, the duct-tape and all.

    Tell me about Steppenwolf. Hesse is one of those writers, that is one of those books, which I’ve always edged gently around, making sure it never caught my eye, so it couldn’t ask me who I was and where, exactly, I thought I was going.

  4. Steppenwolf—well, it’s been years, but the main character is this curmudgeonly intellectual who is withdrawn from society. (He’s actually got some aspects of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, another crusty old bastard I admire—and am frightened of.) Then, and this may sound like uncreative stereotyping, he meets a young, viviacious woman who brings him back to existence.

    It’s also has some magical realism sections (he and the woman go to a transcendent place that’s also a kind of state of mind called the Magic Theater) that I thought were well carried, though again, I haven’t read it in years. But now that I’m describing it again, I should!

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