Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven is a satire of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward’s The Gates Ajar, which was published in 1868 and became widely popular at the time. In that religious novel, the protagonist-narrator, Mary Cabot, discusses her ideas of the afterlife with her widowed aunt, shortly after the main character’s brother has been killed. The author had lost her mother, stepmother, and fiancé in short order, during the American Civil War, and wrote the book as a sort of coping mechanism, and also as a way to reach out to women readers in similar situations. She claimed that the book was divinely inspired (“The angel said unto me, ‘Write!’ and I wrote”), and its positive views of heaven, one wherein families and friends would be reunited (a newish concept, not based in the true vision of heaven, as explained in the Bible) would later inspire other writers, such as Emily Dickinson.
Although Twain began writing the book sometime around 1868, it was not published for the first time until 1907, just a few years before he died. It was the last of Twain’s works that would be published in his lifetime and it clearly reflects Twain’s disillusionment with the promise of heaven and a “happily ever after.” Twain, like Ward, suffered great losses in his life. His wife and his daughters all died in relatively quick succession, and Twain struggled in his later years with depression and anger. Although always a satirist, the themes in his stories became much darker, more biting and anti-religious, as his own sadness and heartache grew.
Captain Stormfield, though comic and seemingly light in tone, clearly demonstrates Twain’s darker outlook on life and the afterlife (or lack thereof). The main character is Captain Elias Stormfield, who is traveling on a ship through space, chasing comets and other vessels from distant planets. He becomes lost along the way and ends up at the gates of heaven. But, as it turns out, he’s at the wrong entrance (which is realized only after much discussion with the gatekeepers, who must evaluate maps for days on end before they can locate our tiny, miniscule, germ of a planet, Earth) and must be transported to the correct gates before he can be admitted to the afterlife.
The bottom line is this: Twain uses humor to poke fun at how very silly are our beliefs in heaven. The evolution of this “new heaven” came about during and after the American Civil War, when so many people were in need of comfort; they found this comfort in the belief that loved ones would be seen again in heaven. This new heaven is the one we, most of us, think about today – so that evolution clearly held true, though Twain mocked it from the start. Twain seems to be calling out these fantasies as exactly that: fantasies. He had no illusions of being able to meet his wife and daughter in heaven again, and that stark view of life and the afterlife certainly affected his writing and his temperament.
But it is not just the vision of heaven he mocks, but also the way we perceive greatness in the here and now. Nearly everyone is present in heaven, from Napoleon to Socrates, King Henry VIII to Shakespeare. But, as Stormfield’s guide, Sandy McWilliams, explains – those great and influential figures from history, be it the epic poet, Homer, or the prophet Mohammed, if lined up end-to-end, might still come up at the rear, behind average, everyday folks who were capable of so much but were never afforded the opportunity to be great. Earth’s heaven is also geographically similar to the physical earth, but when a new arrival goes looking for someone to talk to in his home region, say England, he might soon discover that the majority of souls wandering that region do not speak English at all, because the history of that land is so ancient, and our perceptions of it always so “now” – so self-centered.
Captain Stormfield learns soon enough that heaven is not what he expected it to be. Although he does don a halo and wings, and sits on a cloud playing a harp, he soon realizes that to do this forever would be madness. How boring would it be to sit in one place for all eternity, strutting strings and smiling at people?
In this short story, Twain asks us to re-evaluate our conceptions of celebrity, fame, and power, to keep our tiny little planet and our tiny little lives in perspective – to, in effect, check our egos at the door.
Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School+
Interest: Humor, Satire, Atheism, American Literature, History.
“Well, when I had been dead about thirty years I begun to get a little anxious.”
“Inside of fifteen minutes I was a mile on my way towards the cloud- banks and about a million people along with me. Most of us tried to fly, but some got crippled and nobody made a success of it. So we concluded to walk, for the present, till we had had some wing practice.”
“It’s the sensiblest heaven I’ve heard of yet, Sam, though it’s about as different from the one I was brought up on as a live princess is different from her own wax figger.”
“You have got the same mixed-up idea about these things that everybody has down there. I had it once, but I got over it. Down there they talk of the heavenly King–and that is right–but then they go right on speaking as if this was a republic and everybody was on a dead level with everybody else, and privileged to fling his arms around anybody he comes across, and be hail-fellow-well-met with all the elect, from the highest down. How tangled up and absurd that is! How are you going to have a republic under a king?”