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The Personal and Literary Life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens” by Albert Bigelow Paine did contain some previously unpublished theological material written by Twain.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.
- 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) ↩