Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Splittin’ The Raft by Scott Kaiser

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Splittin’ the Raft. By Scott Kaiser. CreateSpace, 2017. Pp. 110. Paperback. $11.99. ISBN 978-1-981954162.

The genre of plays is one of the least-explored offshoots of Twain’s legacy, perhaps with good reason. He did have one unqualified success in the format, “Colonel Sellers,” based on characters from The Gilded Age (1873), co-authored with Charles Dudley Warner. It had a run of over ten years and earned Twain more in royalties than Tom Sawyer or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, enticing Twain to make at least two more attempts to repeat its success. The first, Ah Sin (1877), co-written with Bret Harte, had a run lasting a month, and Is He Dead? (1898), titled after the repeated joke line in The Innocents Abroad (Twain likely “borrowed” the line from Artemus Ward), was unpublished until 2003. There are also snippets of other plays in Mark Twain’s Satires and Burlesques (University of California Press, 1967), suggesting that, whether for lucre or “littery” reasons, Twain had as much difficulty relinquishing a self-perception of a writer adept at all literary forms as he did giving up any presumptions regarding his investing prowess.

There have been many sound film versions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, dating from a 1931 version starring Jackie Coogan, largely devoid of any hints of Twain’s crafted clash between a “sound heart and a deformed conscience.” More notable is the 1985 musical, Big River, with songs and music by Roger Miller, a surprisingly entertaining, insightful and serious treatment of Twain’s work. In a more literary vein, Jon Clinch’s Finn (2007), shows what an imaginative writer is capable of when he tackles some of the same themes of racism and violence, with a completely different focus, in this case, Pap Finn. As Twain scholar R. Kent Rasmussen noted in his Mark Twain Forum review of Finn in 2007, “Huckleberry Finn is the sacred scroll of the Mark Twain world, and true believers do not take kindly to seeing their scriptures tampered with.” Scott Kaiser, in his play, Splittin’ the Raft, dares to tamper with scripture in what he describes as an “entertaining whirligig of a play,” which “melds Mark Twain’s humor, Frederick Douglass’ brilliant language, traditional spirituals and provocative ideas about race relations in America . . .”

This distilled two-act version of the Huck Finn saga features scenes from Huck’s tribulations under Widow Douglas, Pap’s abuse and Huck’s escape, meeting Jim on Jackson’s Island, the rattlesnake incident, the Huck-in-drag meeting with Mr. Loftus, an introduction to the King and Duke, the “All right then, I’ll go to Hell” declaration, meeting Jim and Tom Sawyer at Phelps’s farm and the convoluted “freeing” of Jim. Even in this truncated version, this is a lot to tackle in a 110-page play which takes about two hours to perform. WorldCat database entries indicate at least one film production of the play was made in 2005 running 116 minutes.

Omitted are many of the book’s episodes such as the Shepherdson-Grangerford feud, the mob confrontation with Colonel Sherburn and the attempted swindle of the Wilks family. The unique twist in Kaiser’s play is the appearance of historical spokesperson, Frederick Douglass, an African American abolitionist and a personal friend of Mark Twain who “tries to set the record straight” about Mark Twain’s masterpiece. Kaiser attempts to do this by scripting portions of Douglass’s own published works into the play as asides and short lectures to the audience. The book features no bibliography but Douglass scholars will likely recognize these passages such as this one from an 1852 speech on the subject of religion and slavery:

I have to inform you that the religion of the southern states, at this time, is not only indifferent to the wrongs of slavery, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. Many of its most eloquent Divines have taught that man may, properly, be a slave; that the relation of master and slave is ordained of God; that to send back an escaped bondman to his master is clearly the duty of all the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ; and this horrible blasphemy is palmed off upon the world for Christianity (17).

Douglass’s frequent interjections are certainly relevant and informative with respect to slavery and racism, but this technique, which at first glance seems ingenious–a grafting together of two famous writers–quickly becomes ponderous in the reading of the script. If a reader stitched all of the Frederick Douglass asides together, one would have a brief lecture on the history of American slavery. However, what appears to be most lacking is a dramatic depiction of slavery that allows the audience to extract its own emotionally-laden conclusions that are more likely to endure.

…continue reading Martin Zehr’s review on the Mark Twain Forum.

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When Will WE Listen? Mark Twain Through the Lenses of Generation Z

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Duluth Public School District in Minnesota recently decided to drop two novels from their curriculumAdventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird. Jocelyn Chadwick, current President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and a former Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Educationis both an expert on secondary education in the U.S. and an acclaimed scholar of Mark Twain, having authored The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry FinnShe takes this opportunity to discuss the importance of these controversial texts to contemporary students. 

“I use the word nigger, and I don’t think much about it. So, I want to read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for myself so that I can understand the history around the word and think about it again for myself.” – Student, Capitol Preparatory Magnet School (2017)

That we as adult citizens of the United States of America yet find ourselves seemingly inextricably enmeshed in the morass that is racism continues to be disturbing. Of course, parents and we who educate children, especially English language arts teachers, are not only cognizant of troubling social issues, including racism and America’s dark history, but also other isms and the accompanying violence that are increasingly prevalent. Both Minnesota’s Michael Cary and Stephan Witherspoon articulated these concerns most recently within the context of students’ reading two texts: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird:

“The feedback that we’ve received is that it makes many students feel uncomfortable,” said Michael Cary, director of curriculum and instruction for the district. “Conversations about race are an important topic, and we want to make sure we address those conversations in a way that works well for all of our students.”

and

“Our kids don’t need to read the ‘N’ word in school,” Witherspoon said. “They deal with that every day out in the community and in their life. Racism still exists in a very big way.”

At present, because of the social and political and economic upheavals our children have and continue to experience, our English language arts classes — PreK-16 — are the places and spaces where our children can explore, question, analyze, and evaluate serious issues, troubling moments, and sensitive topics, particularly, the issue of RACE.

Interestingly, some who would censor such texts as Huck Finn and Mockingbird often overlook what lies at the core of just how such texts foment conversations and thoughts which have populated our children’s’ minds. Difference and/or the issue of Other permeate students’ minds and experiences; ethnicity including race, comprises a portion but decidedly not the whole of challenges and concerns our children encounter and confront every single day as they head out to school, to community activities, to play, to interact on social media, even to interact with family members.

As a life-long educator and Mark Twain scholar who remains in schools across our country from elementary to college, my question always is, Where are the students’ voices? I agree with Mr. Cary and Mr. Witherspoon that our nation’s children have been surrounded by the dis-comfortable discourse they encounter online, on television, in their communities, and on the streets of America. All too often, our nation’s children see, watch, hear, read, sometimes sing to and/or dance to songs with the history-laden and blood-soaked word nigger, or some variant iteration of it.

Rather than our hiding away and pushing down exploration, analysis, research, and open-discussion, our nation’s English language arts classrooms are safe spaces that do not, as Freire says “deposit” information into students’ minds; rather, today, our ELA classrooms and educators create sustained learning and exploratory opportunities for our students—instructional opportunities where students’ voices and perspectives are encouraged and honed for both daily living and college and career. The literature our students experience from fairy and folk tales to sobering fiction and nonfiction — all allow them to peer deeply into life’s troubles, challenges, discomforts, decisions and consequences, encountering noble and ignoble individuals and actions, but from a safe distance. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird are no different from “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Beloved, Othello, Merchant of Venice or Douglass’ Monthly, to cite a very few formative and critical texts. All are sensitive, all controversial, all totally reflective of the world then and now: verisimilitude. And all contain some form of sensitive, historical usage.

Just what are the consequences of our not fighting on behalf of our children to keep these texts in front of our children? For me the answer to my ever-present query emerges with an interesting juxtaposition between Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain. I frequently reference these two speeches:

Frederick Douglass’ 1852 speech to the citizens of Rochester, NY “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and Mark Twain’s 1907 speech to The American Society in London on “The Day We Celebrate.” I frequently recommend this pairing to teachers and also share myself with students because Douglass and Twain, without conscious intent, literally recreate a rhetorical call and response, using compelling, written prose. Douglass states his ire and the irony of his being asked to address the import fellow Abolitionists (most of whom are white) place on celebrating a national holiday that neither champions him nor his kind. He concludes the sobering and blistering speech with his call:

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. Oh! Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, the earthquake. . . . The conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be denounced.

55 years after Douglass’ speech, Mark Twain would galvanize an audience with his response:

. . . The Fourth of July, and the one which you are celebrating now, born, in Philadelphia on the 4th of July, 1776—that is English too. It is not American. . . . We have, however, one Fourth of July which is absolutely our own and that is the great proclamation issued forty years ago by that great American . . . Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s proclamation, which not only set the black slave free, but set the white man free also. The owner was set free from the burden and offence, that sad condition of things where he was in so many instances a master and owner of slaves he did not want to be. That proclamation set them all free.

Provided even these short excerpts, our students today through their unique lenses hear, see, and reflect quite differently from students of the 20th century: not just equality but equity; not just equity and equality, but both set within an ethical and universal context.

We now exist in an environ where those who should know better regularly give verbal life to such limiting and, yes, racist ideas that if one is not of the specific color, then one cannot write about a different race or ethnicity. Just what does such a stance express to our children of the 21st century? Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Pauline Hopkins, Henry James, Harper Lee, Mark Twain, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Jacqueline Woodson, Jimmy Santiago Baca—and so many, many more have shown us this position is one devoid not only substance but also and more importantly, such positions lack Equity, Equality, Ethics. Though many of our children may indeed be challenged and constricted by economic class, gender, sexual orientation, educational attainment, religious practice, as well as other social and personal contexts — regardless of ethnicity and because of it — our consciously limiting access to and for them through the literature experienced in ELA classes is faulty logic and incredibly dangerous.

Students today across our country view works like Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird quite differently than did we, than did our parents, or even our grandparents. Students today view these works as informative because they find themselves ensconced in the 24/7 turmoil Mr. Cary and Witherspoon cite, across racial lines. The classroom, especially the ELA classroom, provides a safe distance through which our nation’s children — all of them — can inquire, examine, and make meaning through their lenses — not ours.

The one and primary caveat about which we ELA educators must remain ever-vigilant: the imperative of better preparing educators who feel they are not wholly prepared for such instruction. We who can help must help. We must help because these books and others like them are important. We dare not censor history, not even its language, for when we do, we sanitize it and our children’s Memory fades forever. How can they learn and move forward into their future without sustaining and always holding onto their and our Memory?

“That Friendless Child’s Noise Would Make You Glad”: Unremembered Slaves on Frederick Douglass Day

As a follow-up to a post I wrote earlier this year on Mark Twain’s friendship with Frederick Douglass (who is from Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where I live), I wanted to share the following excerpt from Chris Polk’s article in the Sunday edition of my local paper, The Star Democrat:

It was a day for Talbot County’s native son.

Frederick Douglass, the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more has a day named for him every year in his native Talbot County.

Saturday, Sept. 23, in Easton, there was a parade and welcome ceremony on the courthouse green, near the statue of Douglass that was erected six years ago.

The courthouse green happens to be near the place where Douglass had been jailed briefly in 1836 for talking to a young slave about escaping, the jail being on the north side of the courthouse.

From his jail cell, perhaps Douglass could have seen where the ceremony was held.

Because I was busy researching Twain’s early years in Hannibal for a book I’m writing, I wasn’t able to attend the ceremony this weekend. Coincidentally, however, part of my research included reading Twain’s account in his autobiography of another Eastern Shore native that serves as something of a counterpoint to Douglass’s legacy.

We had a little slave boy whom we had hired from someone, there in Hannibal. He was from the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and had been brought away from his family and his friends halfway across the American continent and sold. He was a cheery spirit, innocent and gentle, and the noisiest creature that ever was, perhaps. All day long he was singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing—it was maddening, devastating, unendurable. At last, one day, I lost all my temper and went raging to my mother, and said Sandy had been singing for the past hour without a single break, and I couldn’t stand it and wouldn’t she please shut him up. The tears came into her eyes and her lip trembled and she said something like this:

“Poor thing, when he sings, it shows that he is not remembering, and that comforts me; but when he is still, I am afraid he is thinking, and I cannot bear it. He will never see his mother again; if he can sing, I must not hinder it, but be thankful for it. If you were older, you would understand me; then that friendless child’s noise would make you glad.”

(from Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 1. Also quoted on the Huck Finn Freedom Center’s “Jim’s Journey” website).

Twain goes on to say that Sandy was the inspiration for one of the boys in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer whom Tom tries to con into painting the fence; however, he doesn’t recall the name he gave Sandy’s character in the book. According to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings (eds. Kevin Mac Donnell and R. Kent Rasmussen), Sandy “appears as Jim, ‘the small colored boy’” whom Tom ironically envies for his “freedom to fetch water while he must whitewash the fence.”

Although Twain recalls that during his childhood “all the negroes were friends of ours”, he also acknowledges that he and children like Sandy “were comrades, and yet not comrades; color and condition interposed a subtle line which both parties were conscious of, and which rendered complete fusion impossible.”

And that’s about all the background on Sandy’s story I’ve been able to find.

As I read the local newspaper’s inspiring account about Frederick Douglass, “the legendary former slave, abolitionist author, statesman and more,” who went from jail cell in Talbot County to revered American icon, I couldn’t help but wonder whatever happened to Sandy? Did he (along with William Faulkner’s Dilsey) “endure”?

Or did Sandy’s ““singing, whistling, yelling, whooping, laughing” grow still, as Twain’s mother dreaded, dissolving into memories of “his family and his friends halfway across the American continent”, memories that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man lamented “were all such a part of that other life that’s dead that I can’t remember them all. (Time was as I was, but neither that time nor that ‘I’ are anymore.)”

If anyone knows the rest of Sandy’s story, I’d love to hear it—and celebrate it or mourn it appropriately.

An Amazing Job: Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, & President…Garfield

In marking the beginning of Black History Month the other day, President Donald Trump commended Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”

Quibbles over the President’s use of the present tense aside, most would agree that Douglass did in fact accomplish something amazing in escaping slavery to become a leading abolitionist and visionary social reformer/statesman during a turbulent time in our nation’s history, and whose powerful, soul-stirring eloquence still speaks to us today.

Because I live in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Douglass was born into slavery almost 200 years ago (and where a statue now honors him in front of the courthouse), I am probably a little more familiar with the life of this iconic figure than a lot of people. While the mountainous volumes written about Douglass (beginning with his three autobiographies) may seem daunting to anyone interested in learning more about his inspiring life, a quick insight into the man’s character can be found in the friendship he shared with Mark Twain.

Sean Kirst, in his article on using this friendship to place the racial complexities in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in context, succinctly summarized Douglass’ deep ties with Twain:

Twain’s eventual father-in-law, Jervis Langdon of Elmira, was a passionate abolitionist who played a major role in Douglass’ escape. Twain, raised in slaveholding Missouri, grew up immersed in the virulent racism of the world around him. Yet he was a thinking man, and…his attitudes changed as he traveled the nation. By 1869, as editor of a Buffalo newspaper, he was writing editorials that attacked a lynching in Tennessee.

At about the same time, Twain had his first chance to meet Douglass, a handshake that soon evolved into a friendship.

Despite their different backgrounds, the two men shared impressive literary and oratorical talents, and a mutual respect for the challenges of their craft. According to Kirst’s article, Douglass, a prolific author in in his own right, attended a reading of Huckleberry Finn in Washington, D.C.. Both were popular speakers who frequented the same circles on the lecture circuit, as this blurb from the Washington Post in 1879 indicates:

Mark Twain, Fred Douglass, and Mizzer Chandler are all on the bills for speeches in New York, and negotiations are pending with Carl Schurz to complete the quartette. There is nothing in Mark Twain’s humor more ludicrous than this combination. When these four innocents go abroad together, Mr. Evarts solemnly following in their wake, John Sherman bringing up the rear, and all supported by the moral power of the administration, it will be a spectacle not easily duplicated.

Twain thought quite highly of “Fred Douglass”, as demonstrated in the unsolicited letter he wrote to President-elect Garfield in 1881 asking that he reappoint Douglass to the office of Marshal of the District of Columbia:

A simple citizen may express a desire, with all propriety, in the matter of recommendation to office, and so I beg permission to hope that you will retain Mr. Douglass in his present office of Marshal of the District of Columbia, if such course will not class with your own preferences or with the expediencies and interests of your Administration. I offer this petition with peculiar pleasure and strong desire, because I so honor this man’s high and blemishless character, and so admire his brave, long crusade for the liberties and elevation of his race.

He is a personal friend of mine, but that is nothing to the point; his history would move me to say these things without that, and I feel them, too.

Albert Bigelow Paine includes Douglass’ appreciative response in his Biography:

I think if a man is mean enough to want an office he ought to be noble enough to ask for it, and use all honorable means of getting it. I mean to ask, and I will use your letter as a part of my petition. It will put the President-elect in a good humor, in any case, and that is very important.

With great respect,

Gratefully yours,

FREDERICK DOUGLASS

Although Garfield ended up appointing one of his friends to the post, he did make Douglass the recorder of deeds for D.C., a high-paying position at the time. Given his accomplishments and towering reputation, Douglass probably would have been nominated for the position without Twain’s recommendation. But the letter Twain wrote in support of his friend remains a fitting testament to why Douglass’ “high and blemishless character” so richly deserves to be recognized more and more as time goes by.

Dwayne Eutsey is a freelance writer, editor, independent scholar, former Quarry Farm Fellow, and contributor to Mark Twain Journal