Mark Twain’s Tightrope Walk: Caught between Despair and Hope


Marybeth Baggett

Article ID:



Mar 7, 2023


Oct 26, 2020

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 41, number 4 (2018). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

​Over a hundred years after his death, Mark Twain remains one of the most colorful and well-beloved American authors. Even infrequent readers know of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn who have become iconic characters in the American imagination, and Twain’s public persona and incisive wit are the stuff of legend. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835,1 Twain was shaped by the western frontier, both in his native Missouri and through his various travels during his adventurous young adulthood. He in turn shaped the public imagination through his numerous tall tales and humorous sketches of a life largely unknown to the genteel Easterners who devoured his stories. By many accounts, Twain was the most recognized person of his time; his speaking tours, advocacy work, and prestigious honors led to his status as “the first modern celebrity.”2 Considering Twain’s most consistent and central themes — he repeatedly wrote withering critiques of institutions and individuals alike — this popularity seems surprising; however, factoring in his artful humor helps to account for the discrepancy.

Both prolific and profound, Twain managed to expose social ills and elicit a hearty dose of laughter from his readers, who themselves were often the very targets of his critique. Beginning with his first published story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Twain lampooned human pretensions, moral hypocrisies, political absurdities, and religious spectacle. As his writing matured, he took on racial oppression and imperialism, capitalism and animal cruelty. His imagination was both expansive and ethical, evidenced by his keen insights that the human condition was indeed pitiable. Even still, owing to Twain’s pervasive and characteristic humor, Harold Bush identifies him as an ultimately hopeful writer: “The moral aspect of his writings hinges upon both a desire for and an unshakeable faith in the possibility that things might change and that his work might become an agent for such change.”3 Other critics, however, find claims of this sort wishful thinking. Gabriel Brahm and Forrest Robinson notably identify Nietzschean nihilistic strains that run throughout Twain’s work.4


Honestly it’s difficult to adjudicate between those elements of Twain that feel very much like hope and love for humanity and those that resemble despair and disgust for his fellow creatures. These determinations require answering difficult questions, such as how much weight Twain’s end-of-life, remarkably scathing writings should get. Should his vociferous commentary on the “damned human race”5 be excused because of his intense grief over the death of his wife and daughter as he faced his own deteriorating health and imminent demise? If Twain’s youthful hope had anything to commend it, might not the very challenges he faced as his life came to a close be the optimal time for it to manifest and have purchase, providing counterbalance to those sorrows? That it didn’t, that Twain gave full vent to his angst about the intolerable injustices and everyday indignities of this unimaginably dark period of his life, I suggest, makes him all the more relatable. Regardless of his personal religious convictions — which is a matter of critical debate among biographers and Twain scholars6 — what the writings of Twain, from the beginning of his career to its end, vividly display is the all-too-human temptation to despair pitted against the all-too-human impulse to hope.

Truth be told, Twain was always a complicated figure. Paradoxical, or at least seemingly contradictory, positions abound in his work; Berkove and Csicsila identify at least eight areas — including democracy and medical fads — where he offered diametrically opposed views.7 Even after satirizing moneymaking schemes in his cowritten novel The Gilded Age (American Publishing Company, 1873), Twain sank $300,000 into an ill-fated typesetter enterprise.8 He critiqued romanticized visions of the South, most overtly in Life on the Mississippi (Osgood and Co., 1883), yet arguably dabbled in his own sentimentalizing of the frontier and unbounded human freedom in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Chatto and Windus, 1885). His most complicated attitudes, however, were reserved for organized religion, especially Christianity, and his relationship with God. What Nathaniel Hawthorne said of Herman Melville seems equally applicable to Twain: “He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief.”9 In many ways, Twain’s feelings toward Christianity matched those he evinced toward hope; he seemed to feel equally compelled and repulsed by it, desirous of faith but disdainful of its failures. As Reesman puts it, “He was clearly in a constant conflict about God and faith, and never could just leave it alone and move on. He wanted God, but he wanted a better God.”10


Twain’s relationship with church and religion began early. His mother was a devout Christian, and he spent much of his childhood singing hymns and attending services. He was familiar with Scripture, and its language, imagery, and themes fill the pages of his writing. Time and again, Twain used religious figures to epitomize boorishness (The Innocents Abroad, American Publishing Company 1869),11 vapidity (“Little Bessie,” collected in Tales, Speeches, Essays, and Sketches, Penguin, 1994),12 and hypocrisy (the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons in Huckleberry Finn).13 In his personal notebooks, he says, with biting flair, that “if Christ were here there is one thing he would not be — a Christian.”14 Satan even serves as the hero of several of his late pieces — most notably in the posthumously published The Mysterious Stranger (Harper and Brothers, 1916).15

And yet Twain persisted with religion. He surrounded himself with Christians; his closest friends and family affirmed a robust faith. From his wife to Congregationalist minister Joseph Twichell to fellow writer William Dean Howells,16 they all strongly influenced him, even if he felt less comfortable with God than they did. During his years in Hartford, Connecticut, Twain attended Twichell’s church regularly and generously supported the ministry with charitable giving.17 He even took to referring to himself as something of a lay preacher who used humor as his sermons.18 If humor defined his sermons, the historical record of injustice was his pericope. And no one was immune from his altar calls, including God Himself whom he put in the dock, faulting Him for allowing His creatures to suffer.19 But herein lies the dilemma that defined Twain’s religious struggles: hope for rectifying clear injustice required something uncorrupted by those wrongs. Twain seemed able neither to relinquish his hope for a better world nor to embrace a God of perfect goodness who alone is capable of accomplishing that redemption.


Twain’s lesser-known Pudd’nhead Wilson (Charles L. Webster and Company, 1894) showcases these central tensions that define his entire body of work. Here Twain used the story of children switched in infancy to depict the human toll of slavery and its long-lasting, seemingly intractable consequences persisting well past its eradication. The children themselves are innocent, of course, and the slave child’s mother Roxy knows intimately the degradation of slavery and desires a better life for her son Chambers, making her choice to switch him with her master’s child Tom eminently understandable. And yet her action dooms another to that same misery she wanted her son to avoid. The remainder of the novel’s plot reveals both the need for rectification and the impossibility of the characters to effect it, at least not fully. There’s always a gap between what needs to be done and what temporal beings alone can do. For example, Tom is ultimately restored to his “rightful” place, but the reader acutely feels the inadequacy of that restoration. In this way, Twain highlights the tenacious human desire for happiness and unwittingly gestures beyond this world for any actual hope of its fulfillment.

But is it wise to hope in a world filled with woe? While Twain was likely unsettled on that question, there is much to commend hope, as painful as it might be to live in the not-yet of its consummation. Without hope what can be said of those who suffer gratuitous evils? Perhaps, as Richard Creel has argued,20 we are obligated to hope that there is a God who can redeem such suffering. Abandoning hope is tantamount to memorializing those victims as little more than emblems of life’s tragic meaninglessness.21 Perhaps on the other hand, the question is not about wisdom but practicality: can human beings even live without hope, if only a modified hope that life has some semblance of meaning and purpose? What else could enable creativity, motivate and sustain relationships, justify social advocacy? True enough, the pragmatic function of hope isn’t necessarily evidence of its trustworthiness. Darwinianism, for example, offers an account of the persistent nature of hope as a necessity for the species’ survival. Additionally, Sherwood Cummings offers a compelling case that Twain was, at the least, influenced by Darwin’s theories.22 But even a modicum of reflection on such an evolutionary mechanism reveals that a Darwinian explanation, conjoined with naturalism, erodes the very foundation it purports to offer, explaining hope away. On Christianity, we may well have a moral obligation to hope; on atheism, it is difficult to see how we even have permission. And yet, for Twain, hope for change, for justice, and for good to prevail remained.

However indulgent a cynical Twain may at times have been, however rife and riddled with darkness were some of his words uttered or written at his lowest moments, his better lights that resisted despair and found expression in his persistent satirical commentary on America and the world — acute reflections about its potential and pitfalls, triumphs and temptations — revealed a soaring hope at once audacious and obstinate. It found dogged expression and towering erudition in what Bush calls Twain’s apocalyptic voice, which has resonated with readers ever since who likewise want desperately for all to be well.23 Is such hope mere wishful thinking signifying nothing, worthy of suppression, and bound to disappoint? Is a poignant recognition of human hearts and a world gone awry cause for unyielding despair, for the sober conviction that ultimately all is lost, pointless, or futile? Or, rather, is it a prelude and necessary prolegomenon to a message of good news and a hope that won’t disappoint, of a God who is good — better than even Twain’s capacious heart and fertile mind could imagine — a good God who loves us despite all of our unloveliness? Might hope, allied with faith and love, in fact be a particularly vivid example of what C. S. Lewis described as “a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy” — an inconsolable longing as engrained as it is beyond our autonomous grasp for a world redeemed, a divine prescription for an otherwise dismal diagnosis of a lethal malady?24 If to despair is human, might it be that to hope is divine?

Marybeth Baggett is professor of English at Liberty University and serves as associate editor for and Christ and Pop Culture. She holds a PhD in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and — along with her husband— recently has published The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God (IVP Academic, 2018).


  1. Lloyd N. Dendinger, “Mark Twain,” Critical Survey of Long Fiction, 4th ed. (Ipswich, MA: Salem, 2010), 1–7. Twain first used this famous pen name in 1862, drawing it from the riverboat cry marking a safe depth of two fathoms of water.
  2. Mark Twain, produced by Noah Morowitz (Bronx, NY: Greystone Communications, 1995), Biography,
  3. Harold K. Bush, “Mark Twain’s American Adam: Humor as Hope and Apocalypse,” Christianity and Literature 53, 3 (2004): 305.
  4. Gabriel Brahm and Forrest Robinson, “The Jester and the Sage,” Nineteenth-Century Literature 60, 2 (2005): 139.
  5. These writings from the early twentieth century, primarily centered on issues of social injustice, have been collected in Mark Twain on the Damned Human Race, ed. Janet Smith (New York: Sterling, 1994).
  6. Two representative examples of arguments made by critics who arrive at antithetical conclusions about the question of Twain’s faith are Dwayne Eutsey’s “Mark Twain’s Attitudes toward Religion: Sympathy for the Devil or Radical Christianity?” Religion and Literature 31, 2 (1999), 45–64 and Lawrence Berkove and Joseph Csicsila’s Heretical Fictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2010).
  7. Berkove and Csicsila, Heretical Fictions, 1.
  8. Sherwood Cummings, “Mark Twain’s Social Darwinism,” Huntington Library Quarterly 20, 2 (1957), 165.
  9. Nathaniel Hawthorne, “November 20th, Thursday,” Journals of Herman Melville, ed. Howard C. Horsford and Lynn Horth (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1989): 628.
  10. Jeanne Campbell Reesman, “Mark Twain vs. God: The Story of a Relationship,” Mark Twain Journal 52, 2 (2014): 120.
  11. David Shapiro-Zysk, “The Separation of Church and Twain: Deist Philosophy in The Innocents Abroad,” The Mark Twain Annual 4 (2006): 25–32,
  12. Bush, “Mark Twain’s American Adam,” 311.
  13. Reesman, “Mark Twain vs. God,” 120.
  14. Mark Twain.
  15. Brahm and Robinson, “The Jester and the Sage,” 145.
  16. Reesman, “Mark Twain vs. God,” 114.
  17. Bush, “Mark Twain’s American Adam,” 55.
  18. Jennifer Rafferty, “Clergy,” The Routledge Encyclopedia of Mark Twain, ed. J. R. LeMaster and James D. Wilson (New York: Routledge, 2011).
  19. Bush, “Mark Twain’s American Adam,” 310.
  20. For a fuller treatment of this discussion, see The Morals of the Story by David and Marybeth Baggett (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018), 207.
  21. Jerry Walls, “The Wisdom of Hope in a Despairing World,” The Wisdom of the Christian Faith, ed. Paul Moser and Michael McFall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 249.
  22. Cummings, “Mark Twain’s Social Darwinism,” 166.
  23. Bush, “Mark Twain’s American Adam,” 305.
  24. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 136.


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