If I Cannot Swear in Heaven I Shall Not Stay There

Mark Twain? Albert Bigelow Paine? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There are a set of statements attributed to the famous humorist Mark Twain about allowable behaviors in heaven:

  • If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there.
  • If I cannot drink bourbon in heaven, then I shall not go.
  • If I can’t smoke cigars in heaven, I won’t stay there long.

Did Twain really make any of these remarks?

Quote Investigator: After Mark Twain’s death in 1910 Albert Bigelow Paine who was his friend became his literary executor with access to his papers and notebooks. In 1912 Paine published an important multi-volume biography of Twain.

In 1935 Paine published “Mark Twain’s Notebook” which included observations, ideas, and diary-like material from Twain’s collection of notebooks. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

If all men were rich, all men would be poor.

Let us swear while we may, for in heaven it will not be allowed.

Familiarity breeds contempt. How accurate that is. The reason we hold truth in such respect is because we have so little opportunity to get familiar with it.

If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there.

Twain wrote down notions such as those above in his notebooks because he felt they might be useful later while composing a speech, essay, or story. Paine selected items from the notebooks for the 1935 publication.

QI has not yet found comments about smoking or drinking that match the template of the remark about swearing.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1912 “Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens” included an anecdote from Paine about Twain delivering dictation to his stenographer Josephine Hobby: 2

He usually had a number of clippings or slips among the many books on the bed beside him from which he proposed to dictate each day, but he seldom could find the one most needed. Once, after a feverishly impatient search for a few moments, he invited Miss Hobby to leave the room temporarily, so, as he said, that he might swear. He got up and we began to explore the bed, his profanity increasing amazingly with each moment. It was an enormously large bed, and he began to disparage the size of it.

“One could lose a dog in this bed,” he declared.

Finally I suggested that he turn over the clipping which he had in his hand. He did so, and it proved to be the one he wanted. Its discovery was followed by a period of explosions, only half suppressed as to volume. Then he said:

“There ought to be a room in this house to swear in. It’s dangerous to have to repress an emotion like that.”

A moment later, when Miss Hobby returned, he was serene and happy again.

For many years the actor Hal Holbrook performed as Mark Twain in an acclaimed one-person show. A 1957 newspaper review noted that Holbrook employed the line about heaven: 3

He added, “If I cannot swear in heaven I shall not stay there.”

In remarking to his pastor, “I hope to be cremated,” he said the pastor replied, “Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that!”

The 1972 compilation “Everyone’s Mark Twain” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger included the line. 4

In 1977 a review of a one-person show performed by Lowell Gleason ascribed a variant line that mentioned smoking to Mark Twain: 5

… Twain couldn’t resist presenting the dark side of life with a light turn of phrase: “If I can’t swear and smoke in Heaven, I won’t stay there long.”

In April 1996 a Usenet message in the newsgroup alt.smokers.cigars attributed a version of the remark about cigars to Twain, but the full statement was not enclosed with quotation marks: 6

. . . Twain’s actual quotes in which he stated that if there were no cigars in heaven, then “I shall not go.”

In November 1996 another Usenet message in alt.smokers.cigars credited Twain with the full variant statement: 7

In the words of Mark Twain “If I can not smoke cigars in heaven, Then I shall not go!”

In 2017 a cookbook ascribed a variant about drinking and smoking to Twain: 8

As Mark Twain so wryly put it, “If I cannot drink bourbon and smoke cigars in Heaven then I shall not go.”

In conclusion the 1935 citation provides solid evidence that Mark Twain wrote the quotation about swearing in one of his notebooks. QI has not yet found any strong support for ascribing the other variants to Twain.

Image Notes: Portrait of Mark Twain circa 1907 by A. F. Bradley; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Picture of clouds from geralt at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Connect2Persuade whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1935, Mark Twain’s Notebook by Mark Twain, Edited by Albert Bigelow Paine, Chapter 31: In Vienna, Quote Page 345, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1912, Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine, Volume 4, Chapter 245: In the Day’s Round, Quote Page 1301, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1957 October 9, The Indianapolis Star, Mark Twain Brought Back To Life Through Acting Of Hal Holbrook by Jane Moore Howe, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1972, Everyone’s Mark Twain, Compiled by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Topic: Profanity, Quote Page 496, A. S. Barnes and Company, South Brunswick and New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1977 September 28, The San Bernardino County Sun, What’s Mark Twain doing in a nice place like this? by Rosemary Hite (Sun-Telegram Staff Writer), Quote Page C1, Column 3, San Bernardino, California. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1996 April 2, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.smokers.cigars, From: Chris @carroll.com, Subject: Re: star trek cigars. (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 26, 2018) link
  7. 1996 November 20, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.smokers.cigars, From: Scott James @wnm.net, Subject: Re: Great American Smoke Out. (Google Groups Search; Accessed January 26, 2018) link
  8. 2017, Corn: A Savor the South Cookbook by Tema Flanagan, Section: Corn and Southern Foodways, Unnumbered Page, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill;. North Carolina. (Google Books Preview)