Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy – Chapter 10 - “Jonathan Edwards, Calvin, Baxter & Co.”: Mark Twain and the Comedy of Calvinism

Chapter 9 review here. Chapter 8 review here. Chapter 7 review here. Chapter 6 review here. Chapter 5 review here. Chapter 4 review here. Chapter 3 review here. Chapter 2 review here. Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

Joe B. Fulton serves up an article piping hot with Twainian wit and comic relief that is, refreshingly, tossed with a respectable amount of sobriety. The article's sub-heading comes from a comment by Twain:
In modern times the halls of heavens are warmed by registers connected with hell--& it is greatly applauded by Jonathan Edwards, Calvin, Baxter, & Co. because it adds a new pang to the sinner's sufferings to know that the very fire which tortures him is the means of making the righteous comfortable (240).
Early on Fulton comments, “Twain delights in putting Calvinist definitions in the mouths of characters such as drunken miners and Satan” (241), but don't let observations like this mislead you in to thinking that Fulton is leveraging Mark Twain's literary legacy merely to bash him some Calvin. In fact, quite the opposite is at play.

Fulton argues that the “contribution” by Calvin(ism) to American literature has been (largely) misunderstood, e.g., “its [the contribution of Calvinism to American literature] influence is tracked inversely: American literature terminates, thrives, then flowers precisely as it sheds the dead husk of Calvinism in which it had been entombed” (242), and Fulton decries these literary histories written during the early twentieth century, the proponents of hasty inversion.

Contrarily, Fulton argues throughout his article that Mark Twain was “more alike than different” those men who contributed to the Calvinistic “husk” frowned upon by the early twentieth century literary historians, and that instead of being mere husk, “Jonathan Edwards, Calvin, Baxter, & Co.,” because they “[both Calvinist theology and Mark Twain] shared a theological vocabulary, metaphysical assumptions, and a view of God as sovereign. Their disagreements were substantial, but Mark Twain and the Calvinists were partners in the same enterprise” (253), is proof that Calvinism was a contributing (perhaps even a determinable) element of that savory kernel which is Twain's comic voice. (Fulton provides plenty of examples from Twain's catalog, both fiction and non-fiction, in support of his argument.)

Fulton is rather astute in all of this, and mentions, “Twain's criticism of Edwards and Calvinism is so compelling because it is a disagreement among writers who share most of the same fundamental theological conceptions” (252). This is invaluable for understanding the contributory-relationship between Calvin(ism) and American literature. It is, however, important to note that Fulton acknowledges that Twain's Calvinism is a “twisted version of Calvinist theology” (252), but this outlook only reinforces Fulton's argument that Twain was not merely dismissing Calvinism as an author within the American literary tradition but took it seriously.

In interacting with Calvinistic theology, Twain's wit and comedy was a true and serated edge, however, he is a far cry from the “shock and awe” which characterizes a villain from contemporary slasher/horror film—Twain's slashes are purposeful, calculated, like the creative activity of the Triune God of Calvinistic Theology--Twain's slashes are not random. This means, as Fulton says, “Twain's grappling with Calvinism is earnest” (245).

My thoughts: I enjoyed this article. I have not read anything by Twain since middle school (and what I read at that time were the three or four classics), but Fulton has inspired to me to “take up and read” Twain, again. A lazy Saturday may be on the horizon, and, if so, then I feel that I may read me some Tom Sawyer.

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