Mark Twain? Clara Clemens? Justin Kaplan? Harlan Ellison? Darrell Schweitzer? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: Famous author Mark Twain was grief-stricken when his daughter Susy died at age 24. The following expression of bitter despair has been ascribed to him:
If there is a God, he is a malign thug.
Oddly, no one has presented a good citation, and I have become skeptical of this attribution. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: QI has been unable to find this precise statement in the writings, dictations, or speeches of Mark Twain. It does not appear on the Twain Quotes website edited by Barbara Schmidt, 1 nor does it appear in the large compilation “Mark Twain at Your Fingertips” edited by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger. 2 Further, it does not appear in the specialized volume “The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood” edited by Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough. 3
QI conjectures that this statement was incorrectly derived from the 1966 book “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography” by Justin Kaplan. The distinctive phrase “malign thug” occurred when Kaplan was attempting to depict the thoughts of Mark Twain. Kaplan was not directly quoting Twain. Details are given further below.
Twain’s thoughts about religion were complex, contradictory, and heterodox. He did not want some of his controversial opinions to be published until many years after his death which occurred in 1910. Yet, the 1912 book “Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens” by Albert Bigelow Paine did contain some previously unpublished theological material written by Twain. Paine estimated that the following text was written in the early 1880s: 4
I do not believe in special providences. I believe that the universe is governed by strict and immutable laws. If one man’s family is swept away by a pestilence and another man’s spared it is only the law working: God is not interfering in that small matter, either against the one man or in favor of the other.
This conception of an aloof God-like being does not really fit the notion of a “malign thug”. Yet, Twain did use the adjectives “malign” and “malignant” when describing the Biblical deity during dictations recorded later in his life in 1906. See the passages from “The Bible According to Mark Twain” presented further below.
Below are additional selected citations.
In 1931 the second daughter of Twain, Clara Clemens, published “My Father, Mark Twain”. She included a section about the death of Susy who was her sister and the first daughter of Twain. Clara presented heart-wrenching dialog between Twain and his wife Livy, the mother of Clara and Susy. In these extreme circumstances when Livy spoke positively about God, Twain reacted with unhappiness: 5
You want me to believe it is a judicious, a charitable God that runs this world. Why, I could run it better myself.
Livy expressed sadness that the two were not present when Susy became ill and died. Twain could not hide his animosity toward God:
Yes, God would not give us that little solace, not even to you. I should not mention myself—I deserve all I get. But you! What has He done to you? Punished you on the rack for living the life of a ministering angel, a faultless mother. I hate Him for that.
Clara Clemens recognized her father’s internal conflicts when she described the end of her parent’s conversation:
Then suddenly, the storm subsiding, Father would pat Mother on the head and say in the softest tone: “Don’t mind anything I say, Livy. Whatever happens, you know I love you.”
In 1966 Justin Kaplan published “Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography”, and he included a section about Twain’s reaction to the death of his daughter Susy. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 6
He had long ago undermined Livy’s religious faith, another thing he could claim guilt for. Now, when she looked for comfort in orthodox notions of a just or purposeful deity, he told her that the universe was governed by some sort of malign thug. He raged on and on, but when his storm subsided he stroked her hair and said softly, “Don’t mind anything I say, Livy. Whatever happens, you know I love you.”
Kaplan did not place quotation marks around the statement containing the phrase “malign thug” because he was not directly quoting Twain. Kaplan was presenting his own conception of Twain’s thoughts. The note section at the end of the biography pointed to “My Father, Mark Twain” by Clara Clemens to support Kaplan’s discussion. The quotation containing “I love you” did appear in Clara’s book as noted previously. Yet, the phrase “malign thug” did not occur anywhere within Clara’s book.
In 1968 prominent science fiction and fantasy author Harlan Ellison published a piece in the “Los Angeles Free Press”. He ascribed a version of the saying under analysis to Twain: 7
Mark Twain it was, when once asked why such awful things went on in the world, confided with sincerity to the woman who had inquired, that it was because the universe is run by God and God (so saith Clemens), “Is a malign thug.”
QI hypothesizes that Ellison read Kaplan’s words or heard about them indirectly, and he incorrectly placed quotation marks around the phrase “Is a malign thug”.
In 1969 “The Psychoanalytic Review” reprinted the section of Kaplan’s biography of Twain that included the passage given previously. Thus, the phrase “malign thug” achieved further circulation. 8
In 1972 Harlan Ellison published the short story anthology “Again, Dangerous Visions”, and he was proud to feature two stories by Bernard Wolfe. The prefatory statement by Ellison about the Wolfe’s tales included a reference to Mark Twain: 9
. . . they are here because they were so ordained for publication by a Gracious God who takes time off from being (as Mark Twain called him) “a malign thug” every once in a million years.
In 1977 Ellison wrote an essay for “The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction”, and he again mentioned the saying: 10
When I rewrote the Book of Genesis from the viewpoint of the Snake, in “The Deathbird,” in 1973, and suggested (as had dear sweet old Mark Twain) that if you really thought the universe was ruled by God, and you looked around at the state of the universe, you would be forced to the conclusion that God is a malign thug. . .
In 1990 editor and critic Darrell Schweitzer writing in the magazine “Aboriginal Science Fiction” attributed the saying to Twain although he did not use quotation marks: 11
Salman Rushdie never even went as far as Mark Twain, who suggested over and over again that God was not only a Bad Parent but a Malign Thug.
Twain wanted some of his thoughts to be withheld from the general public for a long period. He gave instructions to delay publication of his full autobiography for 100 years after his death. The first volume finally appeared in 2010. Yet, some provocative material made it into print before the century mark. The 1995 book “The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood” included an appendix presenting 1906 dictations made by Twain for his autobiography. Twain described the tale of Adam and Eve as “so malign and so childish” because Adam’s initial knowledge of ethics and death must necessarily have been limited and rudimentary: 12
That beginning must have been invented in a pirate’s nursery, it is so malign and so childish. To Adam is forbidden the fruit of a certain tree—and he is gravely informed that if he disobeys he shall die. How could that be expected to impress Adam?
Twain expressed skepticism about the afterlife based on the behavior of the deities of humankind: 13
Is it logical to expect of gods whose unceasing and unchanging pastime is the malignant persecution of innocent men and animals, that they are going to provide an eternity of bliss, presently, for these very same creatures?
In 2012 “Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics” edited by Dale McGowan suggested that the quotation under examination occurred in Twain’s book “Following the Equator”; however, the quotation is absent: 14
Twain’s own religious doubt was revealed only obliquely in works published during his lifetime. Though his late-life agnosticism was occasionally evident in his work (“If there is a God,” he wrote in Following the Equator, “he is a malign thug”) . . .
In conclusion, the phrase “malign thug” was employed in 1966 by Justin Kaplan to depict Mark Twain’s viewpoint concerning God. Harlan Ellison began to popularize the phrase in 1968 by placing it between quotation marks and assigning it to Twain.
Mark Twain did sharply castigate the God revealed in the Bible, and he did use the words “malign” and “malignant” in his criticisms; however, QI has found no evidence that he employed the phrase “malign thug”. In addition, the uncensored words of Twain on theology appeared only after the 1960s, i.e., after the supposed quotation was in circulation.
Image Notes: Human figure looking at a glowing light from kellepics at Pixabay. The image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to David Williams whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Dennis Lien and Richard Bleiler for verifying the 1968 citation, and thanks to Lien for verifying the 1977 citation. Further thanks to mailing list discussants Beth Twomey and Mike Hindin. Additional thanks to T. F. Mills who suggested examining “The Bible According to Mark Twain” because it contained pertinent descriptive passages with the word “malignant”.)
- Website: TwainQuotes.com, Editor: Barbara Schmidt, Description: Mark Twain quotations, articles, and related resources. (Searched February 19, 2019) link ↩
- 1948, Mark Twain at Your Fingertips by Caroline Thomas Harnsberger, Cloud, Inc., Beechhurst Press, Inc., New York. (Verified with search) ↩
- 1995, The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood, Edited by Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough, (Quotation is absent), University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1912, Mark Twain: A Biography: The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine, Volume 4, Chapter 295: Mark Twain’s Religion, Quote Page 1583, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1931, My Father, Mark Twain by Clara Clemens, Chapter 13: Back to England, Quote Page 179 and 180, Harper and Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1966, Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain: A Biography by Justin Kaplan, Chapter 16: “Never quite sane in the night”, Quote Page 338, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1968 October 4, Los Angeles Free Press, Volume 5, Issue 220-Part Two, Harlan Ellison, Quote Page 17, Los Angeles, California, (Scan from “Voices: An Open Access Collection of an Alternative Press”; Source Library: Archives and Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut; thanks to Dennis Lien and Richard Bleiler) link ↩
- 1969, The Psychoanalytic Review, Volume 56, Number 1, On Mark Twain: “Never Quite Sane in the Night” by Justin Kaplan, (From Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, by Justin Kaplan. Copyright 1968 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted from Pocket Book Edition, Ch. 16, pp. 396-412), Start Page 113, Quote Page 116, Published by National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories, Edited by Harlan Ellison, Introduction by Harlan Ellison to Bernard Wolfe’s Monitored Dreams and Strategic Cremations, Start Page 308, Quote Page 308, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy) ↩
- 1977 July, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Volume 53, Number 1, You Don’t Know Me, I Don’t Know You by Harlan Ellison, Start Page 49, Quote Page 49, Mercury Press Inc., New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1990 July-August, Aboriginal Science Fiction, Books: Shock Value by Darrell Schweitzer, (Book Review of “Only Begotten Daughter” by James Morrow), Star Page 6, Quote Page 7, Column 1, Absolute Entertainment Inc., Woburn, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1995, The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood, Edited by Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough, Appendix 8: Selected Passages on God and the Bible from, Autobiographical Dictations of June 1906, Date: June 19, 1906, Quote Page 319, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1995, The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood, Edited by Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough, Appendix 8: Selected Passages on God and the Bible from Autobiographical Dictations of June 1906, Date: June 25, 1906, Quote Page 329, University of Georgia Press, Athens, Georgia. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2012, Voices of Unbelief: Documents from Atheists and Agnostics, Edited by Dale McGowan, Chapter 34: Twain Laughing, Twain Raging, Quote Page 193, Greenwood, An Imprint of ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, California. (Google Books Preview) ↩