Mark Twain’s childhood biography of Satan

In the midst of working on something for The Awl, I returned to Twain’s brilliant riff — from Is Shakespeare Dead? — on his boyhood obsession with Satan. Here it is, for the uninitiated.

When I was a Sunday-school scholar something more than sixty years ago, I became interested in Satan, and wanted to find out all I could about him. I began to ask questions, but my class-teacher, Mr. Barclay the stone-mason, was reluctant about answering them, it seemed to me. I was anxious to be praised for turning my thoughts to serious subjects when there wasn’t another boy in the village who could be hired to do such a thing. I was greatly interested in the incident of Eve and the serpent, and thought Eve’s calmness was perfectly noble. I asked Mr. Barclay if he had ever heard of another woman who, being approached by a serpent, would not excuse herself and break for the nearest timber. He did not answer my question, but rebuked me for inquiring into matters above my age and comprehension. I will say for Mr. Barclay that he was willing to tell me the facts of Satan’s history, but he stopped there: he wouldn’t allow any discussion of them.

In the course of time we exhausted the facts. There were only five or six of them, you could set them all down on a visiting-card. I was disappointed. I had been meditating a biography, and was grieved to find that there were no materials. I said as much, with the tears running down. Mr. Barclay’s sympathy and compassion were aroused, for he was a most kind and gentle-spirited man, and he patted me on the head and cheered me up by saying there was a whole vast ocean of materials! I can still feel the happy thrill which these blessed words shot through me.

Then he began to bail out that ocean’s riches for my encouragement and joy. Like this: it was “conjectured” — though not established — that Satan was originally an angel in heaven; that he fell; that he rebelled, and brought on a war; that he was defeated, and banished to perdition. Also, “we have reason to believe” that later he did so-and-so; that “we are warranted in supposing” that at a subsequent time he travelled extensively, seeking whom he might devour; that a couple of centuries afterward, “as tradition instructs us,” he took up the cruel trade of tempting people to their ruin, with vast and fearful results; that by-and-by, “as the probabilities seem to indicate,” he may have done certain things, he might have done certain other things, he must have done still other things.

And so on and so on. We set down the five known facts by themselves, on a piece of paper, and numbered it “page 1″; then on fifteen hundred other pieces of paper we set down the “conjectures,” and “suppositions,” and “maybes,” and “perhapses,” and “doubtlesses,” and “rumors,” and “guesses,” and “probabilities,” and “likelihoods,” and “we are permitted to thinks,” and “we are warranted in believings,” and “might have beens,” and “could have beens,” and “must have beens,” and “unquestionablys,” and “without a shadow of doubts” — and behold!

MATERIALS? Why, we had enough to build a biography of Shakespeare!

Yet he made me put away my pen; he would not let me write the history of Satan. Why? Because, as he said, he had suspicions; suspicions that my attitude in this matter was not reverent; and that a person must be reverent when writing about the sacred characters. He said any one who spoke flippantly of Satan would be frowned upon by the religious world and also be brought to account.

I assured him, in earnest and sincere words, that he had wholly misconceived my attitude; that I had the highest respect for Satan, and that my reverence for him equalled, and possibly even exceeded, that of any member of any church. I said it wounded me deeply to perceive by his words that he thought I would make fun of Satan, and deride him, laugh at him, scoff at him: whereas in truth I had never thought of such a thing, but had only a warm desire to make fun of those others and laugh at THEM. “What others?” “Why, the Supposers, the Perhapsers, the Might-Have-Beeners, the Could-Have-Beeners, the Must-Have-Beeners, the Without-a-Shadow-of-Doubters,
the We-are-Warranted-in-Believingers, and all that funny crop of solemn architects who have taken a good solid foundation of five indisputable and unimportant facts and built upon it a Conjectural Satan thirty miles high.”

What did Mr. Barclay do then? Was he disarmed? Was he silenced? No. He was shocked. He was so shocked that he visibly shuddered. He said the Satanic Traditioners and Perhapsers and Conjecturers were THEMSELVES sacred! As sacred as their work. So sacred that whoso ventured to mock them or make fun of their work, could not afterward enter any respectable house, even by the back door.

How true were his words, and how wise! How fortunate it would have been for me if I had heeded them. But I was young, I was but seven years of age, and vain, foolish, and anxious to attract attention. I wrote the biography, and have never been in a respectable house since.

See also (a sampling) Stop the clocks: How Twain celebrated Thanksgiving; Once more with feeling: Who Is Mark Twain?; and my pitch for Twain’s autobiography.


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