Harper’s Bazar asked a number of authors to write on the topic “The Turning Point of My Life.” I believe Twain’s response was his last published piece (Feb. 1910) during his lifetime. It was not quite the last thing he wrote – that was the almost unreadable “The Death of Jean” (Christmas 1909), a howl of pain on the sudden death of his youngest daughter.
A month ago I was writing bubbling and hilarious articles for magazines yet to appear, and now I am writing – this.
So, back to the bubbles. “Turning Point” does include, briefly, an account of Twain’s career – how I became a writer – but it is just one more data point in his decade-long argument about determinism. All events, all endeavors, are the result of circumstance and temperament, itself pre-determined by who knows what. We do what we do because we are the way we are, moving within a vast chain of events outside our control. Twain became a writer because Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon – it’s a long, long chain – and because Adam ate the apple and because Sam Clemens had the measles when he was twelve.
The whole village was interested, and anxious, and sent for news of me every day; and not only once a day, but several times. Everybody believed I would die; but on the fourteenth day a change came for the worse and they were disappointed. (932)
And there were other steps, similarly unplanned, that made Twain a printer, or a riverboat pilot, or a silver miner, or a humor writer.
Leaving the Rubicon incident away back where it belongs, I can say with truth that the reason I am in the literary profession is because I had the measles when I was twelve-years-old. (935)
“Turning Point” is the friendly, public face of Twain’s fatalism, laid out in tedious detail in the What Is Man? pamphlet (1906), a Platonic dialogue in which the Old Man browbeats the Young Man into scientistic, psychologistic determinism, man as not a higher animal, but a middlin’ animal, somewhere below the ants.
As is normal in a Platonic dialogue, the victim sticks to the examples, rather than going after the premises, in this case taking a long time to realize that he is trapped in a logically closed system where examples are useless, even when the Old Man openly admits this to the case. Having once sought the Truth, and having believed that he has found it,
[t]he rest of my days will be spent in patching and painting and puttying and caulking my priceless possession, and in looking the other way when an imploring argument or damaging fact approaches. (781)
Refreshing! Determinism is Twain’s solution, to his own psychological satisfaction, to the problem of evil. His late life obsession with Satan and Bible stories is part of his writing on theodicy. Twain does not seem to want God and creation to be evil, so he prefers to abolish free will. It’s all out of our hands. The great problem with this strain of Twain’s writing is that he mostly seems to be arguing with idiots, like the Young Man in his dialogue. Sunday school fundamentalists who do not understand their own arguments. I see why these people are frustrating; still, maybe it would be better to give up arguing with strangers on Facebook, so to speak.
On the other hand, who does this with more spirit and laughs than Twain? He ends “Turning Point” with an alternative world, in which the first man is Martin Luther and woman Joan of Arc, “equipped with temperaments not made of butter, but of asbestos,” who resist Satan, and God.
There would have been results! Indeed yes. The apple would be intact to-day: there would be no human race; there would be no you; there would be no me. And the old, old creation-dawn scheme of ultimately launching me into the literary guild would have been defeated. (938)
Twain ends his career – this is the end of the piece – by abolishing himself. This is how the Library of America Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, & Essays 1891-1910 ends. It is a bold move, and cosmically funny.