The following speech was delivered this spring at Mark Twain's house in Hartford.
To every American writer this is a haunted house. My hair may turn white before this very short speech is done.
I now quote a previous owner of this house: "When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that have known him before–met him on the river."
I submit to you that this is a profoundly Christian statement, an echo of the Beatitudes. It is constructed, as many jokes are, incidentally, with a disarmingly pedestrian beginning and an unexpectedly provoking conclusion.
I will repeat it, for we are surely here to repeat ourselves. Lovers do almost nothing but repeat themselves.
"When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before–met him on the river."
Three words, in my opinion, make this a holy joke: They are "warm" and "personal" and "river." The river, of course, is life–and not just to river pilots, but even to desert people, to people who have never even seen water in that long and narrow form. Mark Twain is saying what Christ said in so many ways: that he could not help loving anyone in the midst of life.
I am of course a skeptic about the divinity of Christ and a scorner of the notion that there is a God who cares how we are or what we do. I was raised this way–in the midst of what provincial Easterners imagine to be a Bible Belt. I was confirmed in my skepticism by Mark Twain during my formative years, and by some other good people, too. I have since bequeathed this lack of faith and my love for the body of literature which supports it to my children.
I am moved on this occasion to put into a few words the ideal my parents and Twain and the rest held before me, arid which I have now passed on.
The ideal, achieved by few, is this: "Live so, that you can say to God on Judgment Day, 'I was a very good person, even though I did not believe in You.'" The word "God," incidentally, is capitalized throughout this speech, as are all nouns referring to Him.
We religious skeptics would like to swagger some in Heaven, saying to others who spent a lot of time quaking in churches down here, "I was never worried about pleasing or angering God–never took Him into my calculations at all."
Religious skeptics often become very bitter toward the end, as did Mark Twain. I do not propose to guess now as to why he became so bitter. I know why I will become bitter. I will finally realize that have had it right all along: that I will not see God, that there is no Heaven or Judgment Day.