As A Written Leaf: “Letters from the Earth”

By: Elyanna Saperstien  |  September 30, 2020

By Elyanna Saperstein 

“Letters from the Earth”

By: Mark Twain

Genre: Fiction 

Total score: 7/10

Book in five words: Satanic memoir, heresy, religious musings 

If you love: Heresy and heretical takes on history, cynicism — this is the book for you.

If you hate: Serious images of G-d, optimistic views of religion and the human race, super long books — this is the book for you.

P.S. If you’re looking for a less heretical, albeit slightly more Christian and positive take on G-d and humanity, may I please recommend C.S Lewis’s “Screwtape” letters.

Mark Twain’s “Letters from the Earth” is a surprisingly short book, clocking in at 22 pages. It’s really a super long essay or a short collection of letters, more reminiscent of “Cannibals in Cars” than “Tom Sawyer.” Anyone familiar with Twain’s biting sense of humor and sarcasm will find much fun in this heretical little novel.  

It starts off with Twain’s take on the creation of the world by an incredibly humanized G-d (whose depiction only devolves throughout the book). Satan, then portrayed as a rational ministering angel, soon gets kicked out of heaven and goes to check in on his Lord’s creation. He writes letters back to his old friends, Gabriel and Michael, in which he describes the paradoxical nature of religion. As the letters progress, they become less about the human follies of religion and more about the fundamental paradox of religious good and evil. Essentially, this paradox is the requirement of humans to do good versus the fact that G-d created evil.  

The book and letters are funny (as literary heresy often is); however, the narrative fails to arrive at any sort of conclusion on the matter. Twain does not attempt to reconcile his perception of G-d as a hypocrite, leaving the reader with a deeply cynical feeling at the end. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but as the book goes on, it sacrifices its humor for pontification on G-d’s perceived evils. The last two letters are essentially Twain bemoaning the violent nature of historical religion while pointing out textual discrepancies in scripture. All we are left with at the end is the idea that yes, if G-d was human and acted the way he did … we wouldn’t understand. Without humor, it’s hard to justify the consistent harping on the subject. 

As a religious Jew, I have grappled with the idea of the existence of evil in conjunction with G-d’s ultimate good, and that dialect is complex, to say the least. Nonetheless, I am pleased (albeit a little disappointed) to admit that this book lacked any real addition or influence to that conversation. By humanizing G-d to the point that, other than immense power, there seems to be little about him that is actually G-dly, Twain unfortunately neuters all serious discussion. 

All in all, I recommend “Letters from the Earth,” but more for its words and humor, as opposed to the overall message. 

Agree? Disagree? Have something to say? Books to suggest? Reach out to me on Facebook: Elyanna Saperstein.