The Claymation film The Adventures of Mark Twain features a clip excerpted from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven, in which the titular riverboat pilot finds himself before the wrong set of pearly gates. Having passed away from causes unknown, he decides to race a comet (which is being run smartly by a crew, much like a riverboat) and finds himself off course. Landing at the first gate of Heaven he finds, he is eventually let in only to discover that it wasn't his Heaven:
“I begin to see that a man’s got to be in his own Heaven to be happy.”That portion of the story was only the beginning, however. Appropriately, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven was the last of Twain's works to be published in his lifetime. Like his other stories of that vintage, several of which were selected for The Adventures of Mark Twain, this story is another of the author's meditations on the absurdity of life and the incongruences of religion in respects to the problem of scale. For Twain, "the vertigo of the infinite" is a very real thing. Though the contemporaneous Catholic apologist G.K. Chesterton saw the vertigo of the infinite as "a babyish and hysterical sentiment," it was nevertheless inescapable for the American satirist whose blessing and curse was a keen eye towards human failing. If humanity seemed small and absurd to him, a mere man, how much more must it seem so in light of infinity and eternity?
“Perfectly correct,” says he. “Did you imagine the same heaven would suit all sorts of men?”
“Well, I had that idea—but I see the foolishness of it. Which way am I to go to get to my district?”
He called the under clerk that had examined the map, and he gave me general directions. I thanked him and started; but he says—
“Wait a minute; it is millions of leagues from here. Go outside and stand on that red wishing-carpet; shut your eyes, hold your breath, and wish yourself there.”
“I’m much obliged,” says I; “why didn’t you dart me through when I first arrived?”
“We have a good deal to think of here; it was your place to think of it and ask for it. Good-by; we probably sha’n’t see you in this region for a thousand centuries or so.”
“In that case, o revoor,” says I.
I hopped onto the carpet and held my breath and shut my eyes and wished I was in the booking-office of my own section. The very next instant a voice I knew sung out in a business kind of a way—
“A harp and a hymn-book, pair of wings and a halo, size 13, for Cap’n Eli Stormfield, of San Francisco!—make him out a clean bill of health, and let him in.”
Twain's sense of proportion manifests in several ways throughout Captain Stormfield as he takes many images of Heaven and applies them literally. It only begins with the recognition that there are billions of worlds that many be inhabited by billions of sentient species, each of which would require a Heaven suited to them. Even individual people would not be pleased with a wholesale idea of Heaven. To be happy, Heaven must be tailored. When Stormfield enters the right district, he learns to appreciate the breadth of Earth's Heaven. It is a mirror image of Earth in many respects, except for size. It must be considerably inflated in order to accommodate all people who ever lived (for everyone gets to go to Twain's Heaven). Consequently, people tend to gravitate into their own districts to be amongst people whose sentiments are comparable to their own. A resident of San Francisco finds little comfort in Heaven's reflection of California, which boats a 99% Native American population.
The biggest names in Heaven are, of course, the Saints and Patriarchs. Unfortunately there is only one Moses for billions and billions of souls, and after a few millennia he's heard it all. Therefore, the Greats of Faith are as distant as celebrities on Earth, and they essentially draw straws for who is stuck having to make a perfunctory public appearance whenever there's a new shipment of arrivals. Some Earthly celebrities show up as well, but Twain's Heaven is also a place of justice where everyone lives according to how they ought to have lived on Earth, doing whatever would have given them the greatest happiness. As a result, kings are reduced to booksellers and grocers are renowned as great generals. The greatest poets of all time never wrote a word while they were alive.
Relative to other books of the type, Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven blessedly lacks the meanness with which an elderly Twain often approached the subject. It's easy to accept it as a remonstrance not to take figurative images too seriously. Whatever Heaven may be, it won't be all harps and halos.