Letters from the Earth is one of Mark Twain's posthumously published works. The essays were written during a difficult time in Twain's life; he was deep in debt and had lost his wife and one of his daughters. Initially, his daughter, Clara Clemens, objected to its publication in March 1939, probably because of its controversial and iconoclastic views on religion, claiming it presented a "distorted" view of her father. Henry Nash Smith helped change her position in 1960. Clara explained her change of heart in 1962 saying that "Mark Twain belonged to the world" and that public opinion had become more tolerant. She was also influenced to release the papers due to her annoyance with Soviet propaganda charges that her father's ideas were being suppressed in the United States. The papers were edited in 1939 by Bernard DeVoto. The book consists of a series of short stories, many of which deal with God and Christianity. The title story consists of eleven letters written by the archangel Satan to archangels, Gabriel and Michael, about his observations on the curious proceedings of earthly life and the nature of man's religions. Other short stories in the book include a bedtime story about a family of cats Twain wrote for his daughters, and an essay explaining why an anaconda is morally superior to Man.
Textual references make clear that sections, at least, of 'Letters from the Earth' were written shortly before his death in April 1910. (For instance, Letter VII, in discussing the ravages of hookworm, refers to the $1,000,000 gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr. to help eradicate the disease – a gift that was announced on October 28, 1909, less than six months before Twain's death.) However, the following excerpt appears in a discussion of the Palestinian town of Nablous, in The Innocents Abroad. This passage was written more than four decades before his death, in 1867 or 1868, and appears to be an oblique reference to the idea that later became 'Letters from the Earth.'
|“||Carefully preserved among the sacred archives of this curious community is a MSS. copy of the ancient Jewish law, which is said to be the oldest document on earth. It is written on vellum, and is some four or five thousand years old. Nothing but bucksheesh can purchase a sight. Its fame is somewhat dimmed in these latter days, because of the doubts so many authors of Palestine travels have felt themselves privileged to cast upon it. Speaking of this MSS. reminds me that I procured from the high priest of this ancient Samaritan community, at great expense, a secret document of still higher antiquity and far more extraordinary interest, which I propose to publish as soon as I have finished translating it.||”|
A stage adaptation by Dan Savage was produced in Seattle in 2003
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