Editor’s Re:Marks (Introduction to the 2020 Mark Twain Annual)

When I started this column in May 2020, I focused solely on the COVID-10 pandemic (over 120,000 US deaths and 450,000 worldwide at that time), the need for institutions of integrity such as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control, and the connection of institutions of integrity to the four major Twain centers that support (and guide) us in our scholarly work. But then, on May 25, 2020, George Floyd was murdered.

Tragically, as the protests proclaim and history confirms, George Floyd’s murder was not an isolated incident but rather one that reflects a systemic oppression and violence against people of color, particularly Black people. In response, like other organizing bodies in academia, the Mark Twain Circle, which publishes The Mark Twain Annual, has issued a statement of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, listing some of the Black men and women who have died at the hands of the police to remind us of “our constant duty to struggle against injustice.” The Circle as well as The Mark Twain Annual join the national and global conversation about racism and systemic violence toward our Black and Brown citizens. In light of their tragic reality, trying now to discuss this issue of the Annual seems unimportant, insignificant, just “less than.” Still, one of the ways Twain scholars join that global conversation is through our ongoing scholarship that grapples with the complex issues of race, racism (institutional and individual), and racial violence presented in the work of Mark Twain. To that end, in its seventeen-year history, the Annual has produced numerous critical articles that identify and define those complexities, thus framing and promoting discussions about race and racism that Twain’s works provoke us to investigate.

To a lesser extent, the Annual has also published pedagogical pieces that explore how issues of racial identity and racial injustice can be addressed in the classroom. Typically, the Annual places pedagogical essays after critical articles (only Volumes 5 [2007] and 6 [2008] have opened with pedagogical pieces). Of our past pedagogical essays, only four authors (Michael Kiskis and Jocelyn Chadwick, 2003; Regina Faden, 2008; and Alyssa Alexander, 2013) directly focus on issues of race, but their commentary resonates in even more powerful ways now. I was specifically struck by the following claim from Michael Kiskis’s essay, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Again!): Teaching for Social Justice or Sam Clemens’ Children’s Crusade.” Kiskis states that both critics and teachers “fail to understand (or choose to ignore) that at the heart of literary work, especially work concerned with justice, is emotional recognition. They seek to restrain (and even try to negate) the emotion that exists at the heart of readers’ (students’) responses to the novel” (65). He presciently calls for us, as teachers, to “not dismiss conscience or send it into exile” but rather to “prize the emotion it can spark in us and in our students” (75). In short, although our scholarship may influence a few, our teaching influences many. Thus, it seems fitting to begin this issue with two such articles that specifically promote the emotional recognition that Kiskis champions and once again address the difficult racial issues that surface in teaching Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and other Twain texts that challenge the racial assumptions of US culture.

In our opening essay, Jarrod Roark offers one path to class and race awareness, developed during his teaching of Huck more than fifty times. He explains how he uses the history of the racial dividing line of Kansas City, Missouri, a line that his high school straddles, to help his “students relate boundaries in Mark Twain’s novels to the racial boundaries still pervasive in our society.” Jean Filetti follows with an essay that envisions classrooms as “brave spaces” wherein students do not ignore their own assumptions and biases about the binary divisions that Huck and Jim bring to Jackson’s Island, but rather examine them. As such, the classroom becomes “a formative space, like Jackson’s Island, that lays the groundwork for movement beyond the ‘troubling legacy’ of racism.” (For more classroom ideas, I again direct you to the Mark Twain’s Circle’s website— beautifully redesigned by James W. Leonard and Drea Fournier—which will be adding examples on how to teach race through the works of Mark Twain.)

Following Roark and Filetti, Susan Harris delivers an illuminating and compelling personal essay that traces her history with theory and its connection to her numerous book publications. Not only does the essay reflect Harris’s vast critical knowledge; it also reflects her own “personal recognition” that her scholarship could reach and affect a larger audience than just those in the field. Thus, in her most recent book, Mark Twain, the World, and Me: Following the EquatorThen and Now (reviewed in this issue), she becomes a character in a narrative that compares and contrasts her experiences with Twain’s on her travels in Australia, New Zealand, India, and South Africa. Her essay explicitly highlights her uses of literary theory, but it also implies ideas that, given our current fragile world, community and institutions of integrity are particularly important. Throughout her career, Harris relied on institutions such as libraries and archives across the globe to produce her books (e.g., Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America; Harvard’s Widener Library; Gladstone Library at St. Deiniol’s in Hawarden, Wales; and, of course, the Mark Twain Papers) as well as the community of scholars in organizations like the Mark Twain Circle.

Recently, political scientist Yuval Levin has argued that Americans have lost faith in their institutions—that Congress, contemporary journalism, and higher education are no longer “formative,” guiding us, but rather “perfor- mative,” functioning pejoratively as platforms for individuals “to be seen and heard in the larger society” (34). Given Levin’s ideal definition of institutions as “the durable forms of common life” (18), Twain scholars and enthusiasts turn to four such institutions that help form the common life of our academic work: the Mark Twain Papers in Berkeley, California; the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies in Elmira, New York; the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, Missouri; and the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. Ironically, Mark Twain thought little of institutions, viewing them as “mere clothing” that “can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect the body from Winter, disease, and death” (113). Clearly, he’s right when we look at the institutions that have failed us—those in which we have lost faith. However, such is not the case with the four Twain centers (all of which Twain would no doubt approve). In fact, the seven critical articles that follow Harris’s essay, have been guided and formed by these centers either directly or indirectly.

Authors Blake Bronson-Bartlett, Christopher Ohge, and Nathaniel Williams each relied directly on manuscripts housed at the Mark Twain Papers for their fine arguments. And Bruce Michelson’s guide for reckoning with the three-volume Autobiography makes clear the extensive work that the editors at the Papers undertook to publish it. Interspersed among these authors, we present Matt Seybold’s highly entertaining exposition of the Twain-Funston feud, revealing once again Twain’s currency in our contemporary world (Matt serves as editor-in-chief of MarkTwainStudies.org, the website for the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies); M. M. Dawley’s new reading of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn viewed through the lens of Twain’s satire of the Bible; and Nathaniel Cadle’s convincing reassessment of Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc as more than anomaly within his oeuvre, but rather as a “direct and purposeful engagement with the conventions of romance.”

To conclude, Mark Twain understood the communal value of his published writing—not as wine for the few, but water for the many. Second only to his humor, the emotional recognition that his writing engenders, achieved through painful depictions of cruel injustices, contributes to his enduring appeal. For example, he recounts his vivid memory of once seeing a dozen Black men and women chained to one another and lying in a group on the pavement and pain- fully exclaims: “Those were the saddest faces I have ever seen” (88). He then concludes that this occurrence could not have been “a common sight or this picture would not have taken so strong and lasting a hold upon me” (88). That situation and his deeply felt reaction to it—particularly his ignorance at what was not uncommon at the time—seem eerily similar to the overwhelming dis- gust Americans felt by witnessing George Floyd’s death. Such deaths are common occurrences, now being seen. So now, as American citizens, we seek to reconstitute the institutions that are sworn to protect and serve us (all of us), and we turn to institutions that can help guide us through a pandemic. And as scholars we turn to our Twain-related community and institutions to explore a man who no doubt would have written on these most disturbing times, beginning with May 25, 2020, the day George Floyd was murdered by police in the time of the pandemic.

The Mark Twain Annual wishes to thank Larry Howe for his recent two-year tenure as the Mark Twain Circle president. I encourage you to read Larry’s thoughtful essay, “Black Lives Matter at Quarry Farm.” And we welcome Susan K. Harris, who has succeeded him as our current president.

Finally, we congratulate Nathaniel Williams on his first issue as our book review editor and call attention to a new book review feature, “Brief Reviews.” This new section succinctly reviews books or essay collections with Twain-related material that are not exclusively focused on Twain but still relevant to our understanding of his work.

Ben Click is Professor of English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Director of the Writing & Speaking Center, Director of the Twain Lecture Series on American Humor Culture, and the editor of The Mark Twain Annual. With Larry Howe and Jim Caron, he published Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon in Critical Contexts. He has published and given numerous lectures and scholarly papers on Mark Twain, published articles and book chapters on the teaching of writing and writing assessment. His current research explores the rhetorical effects of silence in the works of Mark Twain as well as examining humor as a rhetorical strategy in environmental writing, a genre that is sometimes seen as taking itself too seriously.