The Captain Making the Rounds (photo by author)

Mark Twain and My Neighbor Swap Books in Heaven

Tom Bentley
Nov 15, 2020 · 10 min read

Books Are Bridges

Lost books, as we all know, aren’t really lost — they’re just sleeping. An example: If I look out my kitchen window, I can see an old yellow trailer in my neighbor’s yard, where many volumes yet sleep. The trailer is big: it’s probably 35 feet long, up on concrete blocks. It’s filled with a collection of books, some of them in Chinese, though a goodly portion in English as well. Several years ago, the owner of all those books died.

I knew my neighbor James was a retired professor of American literature, who had fled mainland China for Taiwan when the communists took over. He taught on the island for many years before retiring to the U.S. Only after his death did I consider that just next door was a retired literature professor, and I’d never once spoken to him of books, of my own love of words. Why had that never occurred to me?

Sometime after his death, my girlfriend Alice and I were invited by James’s widow, May, to look though his big book collection to see if there was anything we wanted.

There were many works that I would have greedily grabbed in other days, but as it was, I selected only a few Scott Fitzgeralds, an old volume of Proust’s Swann’s Way and a hardbound copy of Mark Twain’s Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. I’d read Stormfield long ago, but hadn’t known until later that it was the last story published before Twain’s death in 1910. The long tale was serialized in Harper’s Magazine a year or two before its 1909 publication as a book by Harper and Brothers. James’s copy — and now, my copy — is a nice, cloth-bound first edition, a small red volume in great shape, still with the intact tissue paper before the title page.

There is some suggestion that the story was written long before publication, perhaps as early as 1868, or sometime in the 1870s. We do know, from the publication of the two-volume Autobiography of Mark Twain (the first volume published in 2010, at over 700 pages) that Twain suppressed the publication of a lot of his writing because he thought it too scurrilous or incendiary for release during his lifetime. We also know that Twain was a marketer of no small study: he knew that insisting that the material needed to cool for 100 years after his death would prompt no small interest, and interest readers it did. I know: I read all of the pages of the first volume of the Autobiography, though I didn’t study the 200 pages of footnotes with the avidity of an actual Twain scholar.

The autobiography is an instance of where an author deliberately “loses” his work, with the trick of arranging to have it found by a certain date, a time capsule of sorts. And then there is the matter of a writer of Twain’s stature, who put out so many acclaimed works that lesser efforts like Stormfield are in a sense lost, a small wave in a giant storm. Some of Twain’s writing of the 1860–1870 period was mundane, or unexceptional: I read his 1866 Letters from Hawaii without feeling much of that Twainian spark of insight, humor and fresh language.

It’s not that Twain phoned it in (and not just because phone service was lousy then), but that he wasn’t inspired in the way that others of his travel works, like Innocents Abroad — published just three years later — demonstrated: a man in full command of his word-roping powers, who could ride backwards on a galloping horse of words, have his hat fall off and snare it with his literary lariat while with his other hand he lit a weedy cigar.

Even if the early pen behind Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, the pilot of Life on the Mississippi, was writing merely serviceable material and not deathless prose, the key is that Twain kept writing. He kept wrasslin’ words, no matter if they were wiggling in short stories, essays, lectures, speeches, travelogues or novels, and even a miserable play or two. He wrote straight journalism and crooked journalism, parody and commentary. He wrote stinging satire and fiery polemics, but also sentimental sketches. And he wrote Captain Stormfield, which has both satire and sentiment.

Before we get into the book’s conceit, let’s talk about its inner wrapping. The book is typeset with very broad margins all around, so that there’s a block of centered text that appears a little lonely on the page. As his Autobiography volumes demonstrated, Twain had plenty of words; Harper and Brothers might have dug up some Twain marginalia that included an addendum here on Stormfield’s family life, his hygiene and perhaps his favorite foods, but the publisher demurred.

To our hero Stormfield’s journey: he’s a ship captain who has moved beyond the earthly plane to his just reward. He’s piloting his celestial boat through the ether, and races a comet on the way, which throws him a bit off course. He arrives at the wrong gate, where a fussy bureaucrat peppers him with questions that establish that Earth was considered no great shakes within the boundaries of the broad beyond. In fact, while Stormfield agitates, it takes two days for the gatekeeper clerk to find the obscure Earth on the celestial map. But the clerk isn’t so sure: what he thinks could be Earth “might be fly specks.” When it’s clear it’s the planet in question, he lets the flabbergasted Stormfield know it’s been dubbed “the Wart.”

When Stormfield finally makes his way to the minuscule shred of heaven where his once-earthly fellows reside, he meets up with a cranberry farmer with whom he has a long exchange about how things go in the territory. Heaven, it turns out, ain’t quite like it was described down below. Like so many of his fellows that he observes, Stormfield soon drops his wings, halo and harp along the wayside, because they are just clumsy burdens. Singing in the clouds on high turns out to be a dreary enterprise and he’s happy to be quit of it. “Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body can contrive.”

Thus we get a dose of an ever-renewed Twainian trope: that people’s beliefs are often founded on airy phantoms, often ones that prop up their own good regard for themselves. Not only is Earth not the center of the universe, the universe is unfathomably broad, and man’s strivings are just a little car backfire, quickly forgotten. But Stormfield adjusts soon enough when he realizes you can take up whatever interests you in heaven, and busy yourself with that. For example, in heaven, Henry IV keeps a religious bookstand. Stormfield discovers that “Happiness ain’t a thing in itself; it’s only a contrast with something that ain’t pleasant.”

We don’t get to see a supreme deity in heaven, but we do discover some amusing facts about some of our cherished figures. For instance, people like Moses and Adam turn out to be peripheral players. Heaven reveals that certain individuals on earth who were unheralded in their day were actually monumental authorities. A tailor from Tennessee named Billings was an unsung poet in his lifetime, but in eternity, acknowledged to be better than Shakespeare and Homer. But there were vastly more celebrated poets from remote planets named Saa, Bo and Soof. We also find that most people in heaven are brown, another surprise to Stormfield.

Twain clearly took wry pleasure in knocking people and things off pedestals that he saw had dubious foundations. In the book, Jupiter is a mustard seed compared to the titanic Planet Goobra. Napoleon and Washington are the humble staff for a bricklayer from Boston who was actually the greatest military mind. Our cherished beliefs are twitted as dogma or folderol, but the bite in Stormfield is wry, rather than acerbic, the case in some of Twain’s later works, such as What Is Man?

Stormfield is a nice counterpoint to Twain’s Letters From the Earth, which was published posthumously by Twain’s estate, when the world was perhaps more prepared for some its hot-pepper views on religion and hypocrisy.

Here’s Satan speaking about man from one of the letters:

“Man is a marvelous curiosity. When he is at his very, very best he is a sort of low grade nickel-plated angel; at his worst he is unspeakable, unimaginable; and first and last and all the time he is a sarcasm.”

And here is God’s view of that same sarcasm:

“He took a pride in man; man was his finest invention; man was his pet, after the housefly . . . .”

I wonder if Twain dashed off Stormfield in a few days, or if, like with many of his works, he tinkered with it, dropped it for a while, took it up again. It’s said he worked on and off of Huck Finn for seven years, amid other projects. He wrote with such abandon on myriad subjects, many which might be considered “lost.” I read a book called Twain’s Feast a while back, containing a lot of his writings on food. He lavishes angel-winged admiration on American dishes and contemptuous skewering on insipid counterparts found elsewhere. His hilarious railings against spineless European coffee and his expoundings on the glories of a stout cup of good American coffee do make one wonder what happened between Twain’s time and our parents’ days with the Folgers.

Twain was uniquely suited to comment on the breadth of American food, for he palavered with the powerful in the boardrooms of the Eastern Seaboard, grubbed among the grubs in the grubbiest makeshift mining towns in dead-dry Nevada, and of course moved through the shoals and the high waters of foodstuffs up and down the mighty Mississippi, both in his boyhood and as a steamboat pilot.

In reading of the table tastes of a famous person you can consider how layered a life is, how layered all our lives are. Twain could be, in turn, a kitten-loving sentimentalist, a flinger of flaming arrows against the establishment, a provocateur who spoke truth to power, and yet one who cultivated the company of barons of industry. A man of spectacular fame, yet of multiple spectacular failures and deeply public sorrows. He was moody, irascible and delightful. I return to his writings again and again for the insights into people and their follies, the crisp, ever-quotable turns of phrase, and the out-and-out hilarity of his characters. He was a genius, and his onion had many skins.

It’s fitting that the first part of Stormfield details his racing with a comet. Here’s Twain on his own celestial comings and goings:

“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’”

Indeed, he was prescient: he went out the day after Halley’s whipped its cosmic tail over his head. His only surviving child, Clara, placed next to his grave a monument that was 12 feet long, or two fathoms deep — the depth at which it’s safe for an average steamboat to pass. Many folks already know that “Mark Twain” is a riverboat expression for that depth sounding, and from which Samuel Clemens chose his famed pen name.

Of course, the man was much deeper than 12 feet. Twain had that long, meteoric career that embodied prodigious output over extended time. At 16, he was contributing articles and humorous sketches to his brother’s newspaper, where he was a typesetter. He then set about scribbling for more than 50 years, putting together an astonishing body of work as remarkable for its eclecticism as for the razor of its wit. To call the man a mere humorist is to say that Einstein was rather clever. (Of course, in Stormfield’s heaven, we’d probably find that Einstein is now a grocery clerk. A fine minor physicist, but couldn’t hold a candle to Uumloop from Urtang.)

It didn’t occur to me at first, in re-reading Stormfield, to make any connections, however tenuous, between my neighbor James and Captain Stormfield, or perhaps even Twain himself. But in rumination, I’m pleased to think of James in that captain’s celestial boat. James had an easy presence and an imperturbable way about him — I think he would think comet racing was as good of pursuit as any, and would have met it with his modest smile.

It’s unclear to me if James even believed in heaven. I never asked him, or May, his wife, if they were Christian, though if so that may have been another incentive to flee the Communists. Perhaps he was a Buddhist — he had a reserved, enigmatic smile that had both slyness and acceptance in it. Years ago, I took a class in sitting Zen meditation taught by a Chinese-American, Sensei Kwong, who had a similar trickster’s smile.

Sensei Kwong would be about the same age now as James was at his death. Though he seemed a mild man, I was intimidated by the monk’s potent presence. Over the course of the semester there were several challenges in my meditation practice that required a semi-formal audience with Sensei Kwong. He never spoke at length about how to work out the problems, but he ended every audience with a cool though friendly smile.

I’ve thought about those face-to-face interviews many times since, particularly the compulsory one at semester’s end, where students sat on a cushion a few feet away from the sensei, staring into his eyes in silence. It was excruciating to me: I couldn’t maintain my psychic balance, and after a minute, perhaps two at most, began sweating and babbling some inanities to the monk. He merely smiled at the end.

The last time I read Stormfield, I thought about James, and then about that meditation class, more than 30 years ago, high in the hills in Sonoma County, California. I mixed up the faces and smiles of James and the monk — I don’t have a good recollection of my own face from that time. I never had the occasion to talk about literature with the Zen teacher, but something about his smile told me he might have liked Twain.

It pleases me to think that my neighbor James, the professor from Taiwan, left behind that slim volume of Twain’s, and that it’s now moved into my hands. James, with whom I had random discussions about things in the neighborhood and other forgotten trivialities. But now, an unexpected neighborly connection where my long-dead favorite author makes the link between neighbors live on. I do hope that whatever version of heaven James moved to doesn’t have a lot of off-key singing.

An Idea (by Ingenious Piece)

Everything Begins With An Idea