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Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Why and How to Present the Controversial Classic in the High School Classroom. By John Nogowski. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2018. Pp. 179. Paper, 5-7/8″ x 8-3/4″. $35.00. ISBN 978-1-4766-7428-5.
On the May 26, 2019, installment of CBS News Sunday Morning, in a segment called “On the River,” Lee Cowan reported on Tim DeRoche’s The Ballad of Huck and Miguel: A Novel (2018; Redtail Press, with illustrations by Daniel Gonzalez), a rewrite of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Proclaimed “a Huck Finn for today,” the novel was highlighted for its contemporary reimagining of Clemens’s classic. DeRoche explained that he sought to tell a story true to the original novel while making the text relevant to and for the twenty-first century (achieved most immediately by changing the Jim character to an undocumented immigrant and moving action to Los Angeles). In the segment, Cowan offers a context for the new work by discussing the original novel, explaining some of its initial readers “didn’t find it such a charming tale” and declaring “it’s now required reading in most schools.” This recent release and the recent news item show the continued relevance of Huckleberry Finn, but Cowan’s assertion that the book is required reading shows a limited realization about the current state of Mark Twain reading in schools.
In the current world of K-12 education, there are few texts that are literally “required reading in most schools.” Plenty of individual schools require texts for their students, and some works, of course, appear more often than others. However in today’s world, it is no longer the norm to expect that certain books be taught annually across the board at all schools. And despite the label of “Common Core,” students do not necessarily navigate a common curricular path through the contemporary classroom. The Common Core for English/Language Arts standards provides would-be teachers with lists of “exemplar texts,” and the use of these texts varies depending on both teacher preference and text availability. (The list of exemplar texts does promote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer as a text for middle school students, but its sequel does not appear on the equivalent list for secondary student reading.)
The selection of texts in the modern high school classroom is influenced by many factors. In the post-No Child Left Behind classroom, standardized testing remains dominant, and various forms of testing and other school requirements regularly cut time from teaching, making the choice of those literary works that are to be studied critical. However, even after factoring in the available time for a specific work to be taught, teachers then have to consider the availability and condition of copies (never guaranteed in an era with consistently limited resources, even with the move to e-texts in many schools); the curricular unit plans that will be used to teach those texts; the forms of assessment to be administered; and how well received the selection will be by the students, parents, and administration. With all of these factors at play, texts that are perceived as difficult and challenging are often avoided, and those works which evoke controversy are more and more regularly avoided by teachers as they plan their lessons. All of these issues are brought forth in John Nogowski’s Teaching Huckleberry Finn: Why and How to Present the Controversial Classic in the High School Classroom (2018, McFarland). Nogowski recounts his experiences, challenges, and triumphs teaching Huck in a Florida high school (although not necessarily in that order).
Readers who are removed from the high school experience may find some of the account surprising, but Nogowski does a good job painting a thorough version of his experience in a few pages. His book is a quick and appealing read driven and enhanced by his clear passion for his work in the classroom and for his students. Nogowski starts his preface by downplaying his own scholarship, saying it “might not be termed academic mainstream” (1), but this book is clearly meant to be a pedagogical approach to the use of the novel and not an academic treatise. Readers should approach Teaching Huckleberry Finn as a case study in teaching practices. Given that expectation, Nogowski is perhaps overstating the value he sees in teaching Clemens’s novel since those coming to this text likely are already convinced it should be taught. But, as he reveals throughout his work, there is still a need to argue for the teaching of this work with some school stakeholders. Unfortunately, some school administrators see the novel as too controversial a text to be worth the potential challenges. In the final chapter of this book, Nogowski details meeting an administrative roadblock after seven years of teaching Clemens’s novel. Despite his documented success reaching historically struggling students through Mark Twain and finding that students connect with Huck’s “street smarts” and quick thinking (66), Nogowski was blocked from continuing to use Twain’s novel once he was assigned to teach an Advanced Placement course. Apparently, he moved out from under the radar when he drew this teaching assignment, and the administration, which should have been aware of his teaching throughout the years, suddenly became wary of his text selection.
Clearly, Nogowski has both experience and expertise with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, his efforts to solidify his own ethos threaten at times to overstep, as he declares that, despite the fact he cannot and does not call himself a scholar, “I doubt there are many educators in America who have taken Twain’s work […] into the places I have” (2). There are a few moments early in the text which Nogowski seems to try a balancing act, disclaiming his expertise as a scholar while proclaiming his authority as a practical teacher. These attempts threaten to disrupt his purpose because of distractions. Luckily once he gets into the discussion of his actual teaching (which starts as early as the first true chapter), they stop. Having been a sportswriter before entering teaching, Nogowski knows how to write economically and engagingly, and his charming style enhances the overall work. Although one might presume a limited and very specific readership for a book of this type, any reader could pick up this work and both follow and enjoy it.
EDITOR’S NOTE: For the first time, in 2018, we welcomed undergraduates interested in American Literature and Mark Twain to apply for a modified Quarry Farm Fellowship, which included a short stay at Quarry Farm to support a research or writing project. Our first recipients were Mona Beydoun and Samantha DeRosia. Samantha graduated from Eastern Michigan University this past year, while Mona will begin her senior year at EMU in the Fall. The project they are collaborating on involvesBand of Robbers, a 2015 adaptation of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, directed by Aaron and Adam Nee. The Nee Brothers hosted a screening of the film at Elmira 2017: The Eighth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies. With a little help from CMTS, Mona and Samantha were able to arrange an interview with the filmmakers. Below you will find a transcript of that conversation, as well as some commentary from Mona and Samantha about their project and, following the interview, about the experience of being an undergraduate Quarry Farm Fellow. Enjoy!
Samantha DeRosia: In the spring of 2017, I took a travel course on Mark Twain with about 15 other students, which brought me to Elmira and Quarry Farm for the first time. The professor of this course was Dr. Joseph Csicsila, who is a Mark Twain scholar and has been to Quarry Farm as a scholar on multiple occasions. It was during this initial trip, because of the materials that we were reading and viewing and the experiences we were having, that my colleague and I came up with the idea for our paper. It was also during this trip that we learned about the fellowship and the opportunity to stay at Quarry Farm and be able to more intimately study Mark Twain and other scholars’ work on him.
Mona Beydoun:Dr. Csicsila showed us the film Band of Robbers, directed by the Nee brothers at the end of the trip. The immersive experience with Twain I had building up to the film helped me appreciate the intelligent and clever way the Nee brothers dealt with the characters of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The film brought the material into the 21st century while maintaining the Twain experience: a blend of humor, cultural commentary, and a sense of adventure. I found Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to be a sad story with a disturbing ending. The film, however, landed in a very different place. I became interested in the conversation that was happening between novels and film, the conversation about cultural, and perhaps even religious, transcendence. The travel course gave me my first experience with literary analysis outside of the classroom. I was driven to write through my own personal interest, inspired by the experience I had had at Quarry Farm and Elmira College.
Samantha: Being able to speak with the Nee brothers enabled us to ask questions that were specific to their intentions behind the details that we were analyzing in our paper. Getting these answers enabled us to also make more, and deeper, connections within the film and Twain’s workensuring that our paper was not simply making speculations. Our conversation also helped us focus our paper more because we were able to take into considerations what the Nee brothers’ initial intentions were.
Mona: Our interview with the Nee brothers added depth to our understanding of Mark Twain’s work. It became clear very early in our conversation that Adam and Aaron put an incredible amount of thought into their decisions. They understood how essential it is balance their respect for Twain’s work with the need to explore his themes in a modern setting.
The interview took place on July 7, 2018, 8:30 p.m. EST
Mona: Could you start by telling us about your introduction to Mark Twain’s work? How did you first meet Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn, and Tom Sawyer?
Aaron Nee:Through our dad reading it to us. Our earliest memory is as little kids sitting on a shag carpet listening to him read it aloud to us, both Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.
Adam Nee: We were six and nine.
Samantha: When we were watching Band of Robbers, it seemed to us that it is a mash-up of both Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. The plot aligns more with Huck Finn. Out of all of Mark Twain’s work, what specifically compelled you guys to make this movie about the two characters?
Mona: What do you feel makes them worthy of study?
Aaron: That’s two good questions. I think there are several different ways to answer that. The first component of your question: the mash-up of the two books was actually a big part of just figuring out how we were going to make this movie. There was a lot of conversation centered around [the question]: “Is this more of a Tom Sawyer story or more of a Huck Finn story?” Is Tom the lead? Is Huck the lead? Who’s driving this? Whose arc is going to be the most pronounced? Which of these books are we going to draw more elements from or draw the basic plot structure from? Early on, the idea was actually to make it into a TV show, which would be much more drawn out. But when we decided to make it into a movie, then we had to make some really tough choices about how to focus it. In terms of the inspiration of making it, maybe Adam should you about what first triggered the idea to him. As we start digging into it we can maybe go into how we made the choices we did.
Adam: I was acting in New York and I had just moved out there. I was 20 and I auditioned for an Adventures of Huckleberry Finn movie and it was very true to the book. Even the action lines of the script were verbatim Mark Twain writing. So it’s like they had just done a really tight edit of the book and made it into a script. I was a huge fan, we grew up on it, like Aaron said, and I’ve always loved Mark Twain so I was really eager to audition for the movie to play Huckleberry Finn. But I was already 20-years-old and so I was way too old to play this 13-year-old boy. But, I still somehow got the audition. So I went into the audition, everyone else in the lobby is five years younger than me, the director’s kind of looking as me like “Why are we seeing this guy?” I’m doing the audition, and I’m doing this terrible accent. I had this moment when I could see myself in that room and how absurd it felt to be this grown man who was sort of trying to be a teenage boy because of how much I love that material. I walked out of that audition just reflecting on it and the insanity and thinking, “Well that would actually be kind of funny if Huckleberry Finn was a grown up, saying the same things, doing the same stuff.” That was just the beginning it. I’m sure I talked to Aaron about it sometime around then. That was 10 years before we made the movie. Like Aaron said, it percolated over the years so much.
At first I was really excited about telling the Huckleberry Finn and Jim story in a modern way. And then, after digging into both books, I got so excited about Tom Sawyer’s voice as a character because he’s this incredible character who is truly the bad guy of the story, but is played as the hero. He’s the lead of the story but he’s really the antagonist. He’s the one inciting all of the problems that happen to these characters. We talked to a producer about doing it as a TV show and we had written a pilot, which is the first episode of a show. We had written an hour-long version that was more dramatic. We had written a half-hour version that had more of the pawn shop robbery kind of humor. As we were getting into it we hit this point in our careers where we had been developing a lot of shows and a lot of different movies that hadn’t gotten made so we were like we just need to go out and make something and this feels like the right thing to do. So that’s where it became a thing of “What version of this story can we tell in 95 minutes?” What things about these characters can we focus on? And to us I think a big thing became the question of: if you read these books and you imagine 10 years later, 15 years later, these guys and this relationship stays the same, what happens? This is not sustainable for a lifetime. You can’t have someone like Tom Sawyer getting someone like Huckleberry Finn in trouble over and over and over again like he does without it leading to a kid in jail. Real problems are going to come from that [relationship]. So we thought “Oh, this would be interesting if it was a breakup story.” Where you have Tom and Huck have to come to terms with the fact that it’s an abusive relationship in a sense. Huckleberry Finn needs to break up with the abusive friend.
Aaron: One of the numerous answers we have to that question of why tell this story (because there were really so many different reasons that fueled and inspired the idea) is…the thing about childhood fantasy is that it becomes difficult as you’re becoming an adult to figure out what of these things do I get to hold onto and what of them do I have to let go? What of these, if I keep holding onto it is just going to destroy things and what of these things are good and should be cherished? This is such a great piece of material to do that because of who the characters are already and because of the nostalgia we already associate with that material and childhood and childhood fantasies. It was a great way to explore that theme, not because it’s already built into those characters when you start moving them toward adulthood, but because it is an iconic picture of childhood for so many of us as we’re crossing into adulthood. You find out you can’t keep being Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. It raises a lot of interesting and relevant questions.
There’s the Tom Sawyer that’s in the book, there’s the Tom Sawyer that people think they remember being in the book, and there’s the Tom Sawyer that just kind of pervades culture, that doesn’t have any real attachment to the book, that’s just sort of a cultural idea. In that respect he is such a picture of Americana and Americanism. Also, if you look at Twain and Twain’s own political commentary and social commentary, he uses his protagonist to do a lot of poking fun and criticizing rather than using his bad guys. Rather than “Here’s the thing I don’t like, I’m going to make my bad guys do that,” Twain says, “Here’s the thing I don’t like, I’m going to make my good guys do that.” Tom and Huck are still really relevant commentaries on the things that are great about America and the things that are not great about America. The hubris and adventurism and also the optimism and hopefulness and faith. You can see that Huck of acknowledging the problems with Tom but also romanticizes Tom, even though he can see the problems (more so in Huck Finn than in Tom Sawyer). We took that idea and just kept pushing it further and further, coming to adulthood. Whatever Tom represents, whether that’s Americana or childhood, you can be really attached to that but also realize there are some real problems and you can’t hold on to all of these things. Some of these aspects are really dangerous. That conflict that’s going on with him has a wider relevance.
Mona: What aspects of either Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn struck you most when reading about them or watching adaptations of them? I think a piece of that is most people go into the story with preconceived notions of who these characters are and then when you actually meet them, you have to come up with your own understanding of who they are and what they represent.
Adam: That’s one of the great things about Huckleberry Finn in general. He’s presented as the troublemaker. He’s the one that everyone is afraid of. And he’s set up as someone who is to be avoided. And Tom is set up as a good kid. One of the great things about Huck is he is the conscience of the material, especially in his book. His perspective can evolve while Tom Sawyer is more stuck in his ways. That’s what really strikes me with Huckleberry Finn. Aaron was talking about the reception of these characters. Huck is the one that is treated like the outsider troublemaker and he is the one who is the most heroic. He’s also so sensitive. He feels stuff and he wrestles with stuff and his conscience is weighing on him. That make it easy to love him and go on a journey on him.
That’s why we decided to have the story be told from Huckleberry Finn’s perspective. Which makes it feel like it’s more Adventures of Huckleberry Finn than Adventures of Tom. The reason we did that is because Huck is the one who has the heart, truly. He’s the heart of the story.
Samantha: What’s your interpretation of the ending of Mark Twain’s ending to Huckleberry Finn? What statements do you think the novel is making about society or the human condition?
Mona: The last 10 chapters of the novel feel different from the rest of the novel. Your play on that ending is very interesting.
Adam: We thought about it a lot when we were making it. Even as kids we were always frustrated with the fact that Huckleberry Finn learns all of these lessons and then on the Phelps Farm he is just going along with Tom Sawyer again totally at the expense of Jim. It felt like we had to, in making this in current times and making them adults, Huck has to stand up to Tom and say: “No. We have used this guy for our benefit. We have screwed him over. We need to stand up for him and do what’s right.” Even though what’s right in our movie is absurd. They take him out of a police cruiser and hold up police officers. That such an interesting question though. It’s something that we thought about a lot and always bothered me as a kid. You go on this whole journey with Huck and see him learn and change and grow as a person and you get to the end of the book and he just starts doing what Tom tells him to do. Even though you know he knows that this is a bad idea. They could just open the door and let him out and instead they’re doing all this crazy pirate stuff. That’s why in the movie we made it Huck’s idea to rescue Jorge and not Tom’s.
Aaron: Huck wants to rescue him but we do have Tom come up with the crazy plan. We made that decision that we’re taking this approach of bringing characters with these traits up to their tipping point. We knew we wanted to explore the idea of making them adults but then we started thinking about the implications. What we liked about that was that it does bring it to this make or break point where you can get away with a personality flaw as a kid but you can’t as an adult. Things like Tom getting shot, we made it life threatening and maybe even leave it open, maybe Tom didn’t make it. Also, we wanted to acknowledge at the end that Tom was like a religion to Huck. Even if you say, “I’m not so sure I believe in those things I believed in as a kid,” as he’s walking down this road you hear him reflecting on Tom and you realize he still can’t let Tom go. He still needs Tom to be the best. He still needs to believe that Tom is doing great in prison. There’s that side of us, even when you think you’ve broken free, you still need to believe it’s true. You need that Tom Sawyer out there and to think that that guy is always going to be okay.
Mona: Where you trying to make any larger social comments by including the character of Jorge the gardener as an undocumented Mexican immigrant?
Aaron: We went around and around and around about how we were going to handle Jim. One of the things that we were feeling early on was anything we tried to say was a parallel to slavery feels like it’s minimizing slavery and it’s convoluting the message. Trying to make slavery analogies would be really problematic. Jim was a character that everyone could just run all over and sweep him up into the consequences of an adventure and remain ignorant to what this is doing to this person. We also saw that in the fact that we were turning this into a story about becoming adults and coming into manhood, it would service the telling of the story to have someone who is a counterpoint to manhood.
You’ve got Tom’s idea of manhood which is holding a gun and being a cop and being powerful and getting the money. We wanted to turn Jorge into this character who first can be swept up into adventure without them having much regard to the implications of what they were doing to this person. Second, someone who can be a picture of actual manhood. Somebody who is making sacrifices to take care of the people that he loves. Stepping back and looking at society, we thought about who would be that character: a guy who doesn’t speak English. It’s really easy to not even regard that as another person in the room. The guy who is your gardener who you know that he’s around and you know that he’s doing things but you have no idea who his family is or where he lives. When we started writing that script I don’t know that illegal immigration was quite the hot button that it is now.
Adam: He’s treated like a second class citizen and that’s the thing where we could do something. Obviously it’s not the same as being a slave. But our society is okay with disrespecting illegal immigrants. It’s culturally acceptable. We have this true American character in Tom Sawyer who just shits all over Jorge with no concern for the effects of it until Huck learns a lesson. It’s really Huck who learns the lesson.
He wasn’t always an illegal immigrant. We played with different versions of the Jim character and it’s hard when you really start thinking about that character and not telling the story from their perspective. You could make this movie five different ways and I’d definitely want to do a version where Jorge is the lead of the movie and Tom and Huck are the bad dudes. He’s the true hero.
Mona: The character of Jorge is one thing that I thought really brought Twain’s work into our time. We don’t have enslaved people anymore. But illegal immigrants are used.
Aaron: Simultaneously used and abused and then villainized. You get this person to do all of this shit that you don’t want to do and you don’t want to pay them for and you want to call them the villain that’s destroying our country and taking jobs away or whatever.
In addition to thinking about where to put this character in society we also thought that there was enough separation since slavery – we didn’t think audiences would think we were trying to say: “Here’s modern slavery.” I think that would have been a mistake to try and find modern slavery. Instead it’s: “Here’s where society has a marginalized class that we abuse and villainize in the same breath.”
Samantha: We watched the film shortly after reading the novel and we found that the ending was almost the opposite the ending of the novel. Was that intentional on your part?
Adam: Yea, definitely. Going back to what we were saying before about that frustration that Huck doesn’t learn a lesson in Huckleberry Finn. Now as an adult, having been in and out of jail, knowing he has to break up with Tom, he has to learn a lesson in this version of the story. And we had that freedom since it’s not a 100 percent verbatim portrayal. We definitely wanted to have a different ending.
Aaron: We kept Tom open. We weren’t specific in the same way that we feel like Twain isn’t super specific. [Twain doesn’t say] “Tom is an analogy for this thing.” We tried to let him be something that you could plant different ideas in. Whatever those ideas are – whether it’s American humorism and adventurism or rampant masculinity or abusive blowhard or it’s naive fantasies of piracy or egomaniacal everything’s-about-you – that you want to grab and place in Tom, we felt like it was appropriate in retelling the story as adults to take it to that point where it’s time to not be okay with that anymore. Mark Twain had a Huck who was conflicted about it but then went along saying that was the way it is. I think it’s time broadly in society to say we’re not okay with that anymore. We have to make a break from these things. We had to take Huck up to that point as he is becoming a man and an adult. He is faced with the question of “Am I going to keep going along with this?” and he says “No.”
Mona: We were watching the movie and there was the scene in the grass which is really intimate scene. Then there’s the final scene where you have Huck walking away down a winding road toward the mountains. When I saw that final scene that’s when I said we need to write a paper about this.
Aaron: In that final scene in post-production we cleaned up some stuff that was in the background. We wanted it to feel like he’s in the middle of nowhere and that wasn’t actually true. But one of the things that we kept was this little flickering light that becomes apparent as the camera moves. We wanted to end on this image that invokes the idea: he’s setting off now, you can’t see where he’s going, and maybe he’s not going anywhere. Maybe this guy is going to die on the road or he’s going to go back to the way he was. But, leave that little flickering light out there that leaves this picture that shows that we think there’s something out there. We think that if you keep going there is something out there. We’re hopeful that he’s going to reach that light.
Mona: Twain’s ending to the novel: a lot of people say it’s this really beautiful image of white and black coming together. Some scholars say it’s a triumphant story about people coming together and overcoming slavery [and improving] race relations. We read it. We thought it was so negative. It has this pessimistic ending and it doesn’t seem hopeful about humanity. What are your opinions about Huck’s ability to transcend community. When we read the novel it didn’t feel like he was able to transcend community. He’s just sucked right back in. Just for context, by community transcendence we mean going above and beyond the community’s beliefs and ideologies.
Aaron: Our feeling was that there was a more cynical ending. There was more cynicism in Twain than there was hopefulness coming through. We wanted to push it toward this idea that if there is going to be any hope, Huck has to change. He can’t remain this static character. Like you said, he isn’t transcending. You can feel him having this inclinations toward that but his final actions don’t transcend.
Adam: In the book it really feels like it’s a time period thing too. Huck has the best intentions, but is still the product of his time. He can’t overcome the racism of his society. He still goes with the flow, unfortunately. In our movie, our Huck does too. I think that he might realize that he did something horrible to Jorge. but he still did it.
Mona: It’s sad because he connects with Jorge because he speaks Spanish but then he takes advantage of Jorge because he speaks Spanish.
Adam: His redemption is also very American. This could be pointed at as a negative toward us because it’s the way we made the movie. But, his redemption with Jorge is very American because he says, “I’m going to give him a pot of money and that’ll solve the problems I made for him, the horrors I put him through, and also, the fact that he can never go back to America because he commited a crime.”
Aaron: I hope it comes through in the movie that we were feeling in the end that what we’ve got is kind of a naive fantasy. Huck is still being naive in believing that the pot of gold for Jorge is going to fix things. He’s trying to cleanse his conscience. His ongoing fantasies about Tom, that Tom is still going to be okay and Tom is still going to triumph. We made a smaller version of the not quite growing up. We tried to push it past what the book does, but then made a nod toward realizing that it’s really hard to do. It’s really hard to just let that stuff go and change and move forward and go off to an unknown new place.
Adam: We see it in society so much, even with the Civil Rights Movement. You see how long it takes for things to really change. It takes half a century. You say well this is where we are now and I certainly hope we are further a half century from now. Things take so long to change and it would be reductive for Twain or us to have a character who learns a lesson and no longer has any of the same negative instincts.
Samantha: We talked earlier about how in the movie Tom is represented as a toxic villainous character, rather than Huck. We want to know more about your understanding of this character and his connection to and influence on Huck.
Aaron: One thing is that we weren’t necessarily trying to plumb what Mark Twain’s intention with the character was, but instead just look at him. Our opinion is that’s toxic and that’s dangerous. Not 100 percent. We weren’t trying to say Tom is nothing but bad. There’s great things about Tom and one of our goals was to understand why Huck would need Tom. Why would Huck latch onto Tom? What is Tom providing that Huck needs? We wanted to have those good counterpoints present. We didn’t have to search for that. It’s there, it’s in the book. He’s fun, he’s funny, and he’s hopeful. He brings a kind of energy that can be very helpful. But he goes too far and is too detached from consequences. He has this blindness when it comes to what it does to the people around him. He just thinks about how his actions serve him and get him what he needs. Taking those aspects, we found ourselves realizing that this character can’t be anything but the antagonist.
Adam: I think that’s part of the charm of Tom, and perhaps people that you would consider a bad person. They would never imagine that they’d be thought of as the bad guy in the story. Tom believes he’s the hero. I think Twain’s Tom does and I think our Tom does. He thinks he’s the hero of the story and he just doesn’t see the consequences of his actions.
Aaron: With Tom, as a child, you can look at him and imagine a version where as he gets older he’s going to start to mature. We took the character and said, well, imagine he didn’t become more aware of the people around him and see what you end up with. I think you can draw any number of real world parallels between when you have an action that is innocent in one context but then you let it keep going and you can see the ramifications of that.
Mona: Do you think about Tom as a symbol for St. Petersburg and the community?
Aaron: We tried to not get latched into any one thing. I think it’s most effective in Twain’s reading that people can draw so many readings. It’s important to making our work last. If our work is so rigidly about let’s say St. Petersburg, than only people from St. Petersburg will appreciate it. The fact that he allows it to expand out and say that’s about my church or my country or the frat that I’m in. You can plug all sorts of different versions of that into it and you wouldn’t be abusing the material because it’s made itself open to many types of social ills that can arise.
There are things about Tom that we saw as really negative. But we tried with all of the characters, even Injun Joe, not to say this is our evil character. When you do that, your characters real suddenly become two-dimensional. They’re not very interesting or real because that’s not how we encounter these things in life. If you make a story where people have good intentions but they have things they’re blind to and they have their passions that are overriding their good intentions, then you have a really complex story that actually has social relevance because that’s more like the real things we struggle with. We were putting into Huck how easy it is to become that person that realizes, “Oh, I’m the one that’s creating all these troubles.” We wanted people to see in the movie “Oh no, I see myself in that.” Both of us saw the entire project as a little bit of a self-criticism.
Mona: The last thing we wanted to talk about was your interpretation of Huck. He’s so sympathetic and the audience falls in love with him.
Aaron: In one respect, you like him right off the bat because culturally we have an affinity for the underdog. I think I can speak for both Adam and I as storytellers. We became really invested in having a character in the sympathetic situation of realizing something that is meaningful to him is also bad for him. We wanted to show how hard it is to break away, to learn to keep the good things and let go of the bad things. For us that’s such a sympathetic dilemma. He became an easy character to care for and go along on that journey with.
Adam: Like I said before, I’ve always loved Huckleberry Finn. He’s probably my favorite literary character and I think it comes down to the fact that even though he suffers from some unfortunate character flaws, he is also adventurous and funny and kind and reflective and just a good character. He has so many different levels where he can be good and he can be bad. In so many ways Mark Twain started our career because we borrowed his amazing work and his amazing characters to make a movie we call our own. But in so many ways it’s Twain’s. We have an incredible debt to Twain’s character development that we could make our own.
Samantha: This was really insightful. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mona: Your answers were so thoughtful and so detailed.
Samantha: Being awarded with this modified fellowship gave me not only the specific resources that are only available at Quarry Farm, but it also gave me time, which was much needed. I believe that one of the purposes, and advantages, of this stay is to have the opportunity to sit down and write without any distractions. There is a reason why Mark Twain came to Quarry Farm in the summer to write, and that idea is reflected when scholars come to produce research and write about him. The atmosphere of the seclusion and also just taking the time to relax and experience the gorgeous view from the porch and the grounds are an opportunity that was not wasted on me during my time in Elmira. Having this specific time set aside to get work done was also very helpful because of the fact that I am working with another colleague to write this paper. Due to our different availabilities and locations, it is hard to set aside a chunk of time that large that enables us to work cohesively through our ideas.
During my time at Quarry Farm, I chose to stay in the Crane room, which, from one of the windows in the room, happens to have the same view as the one from the porch. It also has wonderful natural lighting, which definitely lends itself to the feeling of Quarry Farm being a summer house. Luckily, when I came in the first week of May, the weather had just begun to reflect spring, and I was told that the previous week it had been snowing. This meant that I was able to take advantage of eating meals and reading, and generally just spending as much time as possible outside on the front porch. I was also able to take walks around the grounds and up to where Twain’s study was originally located. Each of these experiences helped me understand what it might have been like for Mark Twain during his summer trips to the house. Our experience of the house itself was definitely authentic to the time period as well, due to the old fashioned light fixtures, and all of the furniture that was actually from Twain’s time period.
Even though I experienced Elmira in 2017 through my travel course, staying at Quarry Farm itself lends a completely different view of Elmira. This is also due to the fact that previously I was only given information and knowledge based on a classroom setting. Studying Mark Twain on my own terms, and within my own areas of interest, enabled me to provide more enthusiasm, but also a better and more complete understanding of what my time at Quarry Farm will mean, not only in my work but also in myself as a scholar. There are no other experiences quite like Quarry Farm in the fact that it has not been converted into a museum. It is an amazing experience to be able to live in a place that housed an author like Mark Twain and helped him produce work that students are still studying today.
Mona: The Michael J. Kiskis Collection was one of my favorite aspects of Quarry Farm. The all-inclusive nature of the study space allowed for total concentration. Scholars can go into the space and simply work without distractions. The Mark Twain Center has stocked the area with everything a scholar might need, allowing him or her to make the work the focus. Long stretches of reading books and taking notes were broken up by lunches and dinners on the porch, walks through the wooded area behind the house, and visits to campus.
Sitting on the porch and thinking is perhaps just as productive as using the study space upstairs. Twain has described the beauty of the view from the Quarry Farm porch, the winding river and the blue hills. Relaxing on the porch and taking in the scene allowed me to think and contemplate without the pressure of writing. I often spent time sitting in the rocking chairs simpling reflecting on the work I had completed and my next steps. Traveling with my co-author was helpful because the porch gave us perspective as it served as a third space. While the porch is a part of Quarry Farm and the Mark Twain experience, it is outside of the high-stakes space of a designated work area.
I appreciated the amount of care that goes into making Quarry Farm a high-quality spot for scholarship. Steve, the caretaker, met us when we arrived after an eight-hour drive from Michigan. The house was well-maintained, and he was always a text or phone call away when we needed help. We also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Joseph Lemak, the Director of the Center for Mark Twain Studies, and Dr. Matt Seybold, Elmira’s resident Americanist. Dr. Lemak was kind enough to give us tours of the Mark Twain exhibit in Cowles Hall and the Mark Twain study. My co-author and I had an insightful and fun lunch with Dr. Lemak and Dr. Seybold. We also had the opportunity to see the inside of the barn behind the house. Dr. Lemak and Nathaniel Ball, the Archivist and Curator at Elmira College, showed us around and talked to us about some changes they’d like to make. It is clear that everyone involved with the Center is constantly thinking about how they can improve.
It is this attitude that will keep Quarry Farm and The Center for Mark Twain studies relevant. Twain’s work will continue to be relevant to American culture for the foreseeable future. His themes of race, socioeconomic status, class, and power dynamics continue to be issues we grapple with today. It is up to organizations like the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira to give the public access to Twain’s literature and work. Programs like the “The Trouble Begins” lecture series allows for widespread engagement with the scholarship on Twain’s work. Academia is often kept at a distance from the public. It is clear that The Center for Mark Twain Studies and the Quarry Farm experience is focused on encouraging scholarship that keeps Twain’s work current and relevant to modern lives. Staying at Quarry Farm encouraged me to think about access and social relevance in literature.
Editor’s Note:CMTS is proud to partner with the Mark Twain Forum, which has long been a leading venue for reviews of new publications in Mark Twain Studies. Visit their extensive archive. Follow the link at the bottom of the page to read the complete review. A portion of Amazon purchases made via links from Mark Twain Forum Book Reviews is donated to the Mark Twain Project.
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.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We were saddened to learn this past weekend of the passing of Lawrence I. Berkove, a former Quarry Farm Fellow, Trouble Begins lecturer, and frequent guest of Elmira College and Friend of CMTS. With permission from the Mark Twain Journal, we are pleased to reprint this essay, written for the occasion of Prof. Berkove being named a Legacy Scholar in 2014 by his former student, colleague, and longtime collaborator, Joe Csicsila. They co-lectured as part of the 2010 Trouble Begins series, which you can hear here. In our Trouble Begins archives, you will also find Berkove’s lectures from 1993 and 1999.
My earliest memory of Larry Berkove as a student of his in the late 1980s is something he said to me once during a conversation in his office between classes. I had asked him how he selected the writers he had worked on over the course of his career, or something to that effect. He told me that he usually just watched which way everybody else was going and then would turn and go off in the other direction. I was probably looking for something a little more concrete that day, but I realized later that it was in fact a perfect depiction of his scholarly sensibility. Anyone who knows Larry and his work can appreciate, I think, just how spot-on that image of him quietly wandering off all by himself actually is. He is not, of course, a person who would self-describe as a nonconformist or a rebel, because for him it has nothing at all to do with the idea of simply being different. Rather, Larry has always held to the belief that critical trends have a tendency to leave some very good writers behind. Obscurity or neglect has never worried Larry when he happened upon something he thought was skillfully written. He has consistently trusted in his ability to distinguish good writing from bad, and that has fueled his pursuit of authors for whom many would never have risked the safety of the crowd.
He was born Lawrence Ivan Berkove in Rochester, NewYork, in January 1930. His father, Harry, had dreamed of becoming a doctor but the Depression put an end to those ambitions, at least temporarily. Larry’s mother, Sally, would later run across an ad for a podiatry school in Chicago and urged her husband to apply. The couple then moved their family to the south side of Chicago in 1936 where Larry’s father worked at a downtown department store during the day and attended classes at night. Sally also helped support the family as a bookkeeper until Harry graduated and would begin his long and successful career as a podiatrist.
As a young student in the Chicago Public School System, Larry developed an interest in agronomy, which quickly grew into a passion for ecology. After graduating from high school in 1947, Larry enrolled at Montana State University to study forestry. But he quickly discovered that conservation was not exactly the field he had imagined, so after his first year he returned to the Midwest and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier, at the time a two-year college. When Larry matriculated south to the main campus at Champagne to complete his undergraduate studies he had yet to settle on another field of study. Still unsure standing in line the first day of registration, fate intervened and Larry declared himself an English major. That moment had been the first time that he had ever seriously considered pursuing a degree in English.
He enjoyed the curriculum at Illinois and did well, but studying English in the late 1940s at an American university meant studying British writers almost exclusively. (Illinois at the time did offer one class on an American author: Henry James.) Looking to continue his studies at the graduate level, Larry applied to the University of Minnesota, because it was the most affordable school in the Big 10, and was accepted. Unbeknownst to him, however, he was entering one of the country’s finest programs in American literature. In 1951, the faculty at Minnesota featured such academic luminaries as Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, Theodore Hornberger, and Alan Tate. Larry would have his first exposure to Mark Twain studying under Marx, an experience of profound consequence that would ultimately shape the mainlines of his thinking about Twain as an artist. His time at Minnesota also laid the foundations for a lifetime of studying American writers.
In 1953, Larry enlisted in the U.S. Army and spent 16 months serving the country during the Korean War. Back from overseas and still on active duty, Larry began applying to Ph.D. programs. After his discharge he entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1956. He studied under eighteenth-century British scholars Arthur Scouten and Maurice Johnson and Americanist Charles Boewe. Theodore Hornberger joined the faculty at Pennsylvania in 1960, and it was under him that Larry would write a dissertation on Ambrose Bierce. Early on in that process, Hornberger advised Larry to try combing through nineteenth-century newspaper archives to see if Bierce’s collected stories differed from their original versions. That suggestion would prove transformational. What Larry subsequently discovered was a rich source of material, some of it long-forgotten, not only by Bierce but numerous other authors that he would work on for much of the rest of his career. After graduating from Pennsylvania in 1962, he lectured briefly at schools in Chicago and Colorado. In 1964, he took an assistant professor position at the University of Michigan-Dearborn where he would teach for the next forty years.
As Larry embarked on his career as a scholar in the mid 1960s, he would briefly put aside his research on Bierce, so it would seem, to deal first with ideas about Mark Twain that he had been formulating since his time at Minnesota more than a decade before. Studying under Leo Marx had been an enormously fruitful experience, but Larry had gradually come to question his former mentor’s conclusions about Twain and Huckleberry Finn. But this, of course, was more than simply one student challenging a former professor’s teaching. Marx’s reading of Huckleberry Finn had become arguably the prevailing orthodoxy in Twain studies in the 1950s and 60s, largely the result of his widely influential essay, “Mr. Eliot, Mr. Trilling, and Huckleberry Finn” published in 1953. In that piece, Marx argued that Twain’s masterpiece ultimately disappoints as an affirmation of freedom and thus endures as a fatally flawed novel. Focusing on the last ten chapters of the book, the so-called “evasion” episode, Marx asserts that Twain, having lost his nerve, failed in his apparent purpose to carry through to completion the bold and mature conception of freedom he had steadily promoted earlier in the book.
Larry had worked on parts of his interpretation for some time, but not until after a conversation with a colleague at Michigan who taught American history did all the pieces finally fall into place. Their discussion about the “free man of color” or “f.m.c.” in nineteenth-century American culture struck Larry immediately as the key to making sense of the end of Twain’s novel. In 1967 Larry delivered a paper, his first as an academic, titled “The Poor Players of Huckleberry Finn“ and the following spring he published an expanded version of the presentation in The Papers of theMichigan Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters. Importantly, Larry’s argument was the first to read the novel’s evasion episode as pointed social criticism. Moreover, Larry asserted that far from setting out to promote a conception of freedom in Huckleberry Finn, Twain actually presents freedom as an impossibility. None of the book’s characters in the final analysis are truly free, whether considered from a social, legal, or even cosmic perspective, Larry asserts, especially Jim who is, literally speaking, an f.m.c. as the novel comes to a close: a legal status far different from “free.” Twain demonstrates throughout Huckleberry Finn that human beings are allowed to yearn for freedom, to struggle for it, and even believe that they have achieved it, but it is an illusion. As such, Larry points out, the last ten chapters of the novel do not burlesque its themes, as Marx and others argued, but instead they perfect them. Although numerous scholars have since arrived at similar conclusions independently, Larry was the first to get there. Vic Doyno called “The Poor Players of Huckleberry Finn” groundbreaking in his landmark book Writing Huck Finn (1991).
Larry’s insights regarding the ending of Huckleberry Finn initiated nearly a half-century ago what is today considered to be a fairly established way to read Twain’s masterpiece. Larry spent much of the 1960s and 1970s pursuing lines of inquiry with Bierce he had opened while writing his dissertation. When Larry first began to work on Bierce under Hornberger at the University of Pennsylvania, Bierce studies, with a few notable exceptions, had languished for much of the twentieth century as a field marked by impressionistic, amateurish scholarship. Critics generally interpreted Bierce’s work as gratuitously bitter or misanthropic or even worse, as simply imitative of earlier writers such as Edgar Allan Poe. As a result, the portrait of Bierce that had emerged by the early 1960s was merely that of an eccentric personality and a literary dabbler who had written a few memorable stories. Larry’s work on Bierce set out to correct the scholarly record by showing him to be an author of considerable depth and power. Like Jonathan Swift, Bierce was a master satirist and ironist, Larry contended, who was eminently sensitive to human pain and suffering. Bierce loathed cruelty, incompetence, and injustice and consistently expressed compassion for innocent victims throughout his impressive body of work.
In 1981, Larry edited a collection of Bierce’s newspaper columns, Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism, 1898-1901, the first major presentation of new Bierce material since 1912, that re-established Bierce’s reputation as a highly distinguished and profoundly perceptive turn-of-the-century social critic. What these columns reveal, as Bierce takes on such subjects as the Spanish-American War, the Filipino Insurrection, the Boxer Rebellion, the Boer War, American expansionism, and freedom of speech, is, as Larry puts it, a master of language and logic and a man of supreme integrity who felt the truth was always worth fighting for no matter the personal cost. In 2002, Larry developed the material he had first presented in his dissertation into a comprehensive analysis of Bierce’s fiction titled A Prescription for Adversity: The Moral Art of Ambrose Bierce. In the end, Larry views Bierce’s journalism and fiction as ultimately informed by a single unified vision of morality taut between tragedy and Stoicism. Bierce believed that humanity was fatally pitted against overwhelming forces (Nature, other human beings, one’s own self) and that despite the seeming futility of it all, humanity should nevertheless place itself completely in the service of truth and justice. In addition to these two volumes, Larry produced nearly a dozen other articles and books on Bierce during the course of his career and is today recognized as among the two or three most prominent Bierce scholars of the last fifty years.
As Larry poured over nineteenth-century periodicals like the San FranciscoExaminer in search of material by Bierce, he had developed the habit of also reading other parts of those newspapers and magazines in an effort to broaden his understanding of the age. Occasionally during those years he noticed articles and stories by a Nevada writer named Dan De Quille. Believing them to be fairly well written, he started a file and began collecting anything by De Qullie he happened to run across. By the early 1980s, Larry had amassed enough quality writing by De Quille to convince himself that he was working with a bona fide literary talent. In 1984, he gave his first paper on De Quille at a meeting of the Western Literature Association titled “The Literary Journalism of Dan De Quille.” Over the next three decades, Larry would go on to write and edit more than thirty papers, articles, and books on Dan De Quille, including six volumes of the author’s fiction and prose, single-handedly resurrecting the critical reputation of not just a significant American literary artist but also arguably the best informed writer of the nineteenth-century Old Western social milieu.
Larry’s work on De Quille would lead to other meaningful research discoveries for him in the 1980s and 1990s. Larry, for example, would drive to Iowa to meet De Quille’s great-grandson in the mid 1980s to learn more about the life of the forgotten Nevada writer. During that first visit, the great-grandson unexpectedly produced a trove of previously unknown letters written to De Quille by none other than Mark Twain. De Quille and Twain had worked together in the early 1860s as newspaper writers for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. During those years in Nevada the two developed a close friendship, even rooming together for a short time. De Quille and Twain corresponded with each other occasionally in the years after Twain returned east. Twain would offer advice to De Quille the latter put together his 1876 history of the Comstock Lode, The Big Bonanza. But Larry discovered that literary inspiration actually moved in both directions between the two writers in the 1870s. Larry’s research established, for instance, that De Quille’s work fundamentally influenced not just portions of Twain’s Roughting It (1872) but also quite possibly the very conception itself and subsequent composition of “Old Times on the Mississippi,” as serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1875.
Curious about other Nevada influences on Twain, Larry widened his scope beyond De Quille in the late 1980s and began looking for other literary figures associated with the Comstock region. What he discovered was an entire school of writers, long forgotten, who together constituted one of the most vigorous and innovative literary movements in nineteenth-century American literary history. They were known as the Sagebrush School (1862-1909), a label given to them by nineteenth-century historian Ella Sterling Cummins Mighels, and in their own time they were regarded as some of the country’s finest writers. The movement included Twain and De Quille, of course, but also Rollin Daggett, Joseph Goodman, and Sam Davis as well as a dozen or so lesser-known authors. What these individuals shared and what would come to be regarded as the defining characteristics of the Sagebrush School itself were an intense ethical sensibility, a searing wit, and a deep affection for the literary hoax. Thesewere the most principled, moral men of the Old West, aggressively exposing corruption, particularly among the cultural elites, and regularly taking up for the common folk and oppressed.
The movement was also marked by revolutionary artistry. Daggett and Goodman’s co-authored 1872 play The Psychoscope (which Larry recovered and edited for publication in 2006), to take one example, represents likely the earliest known example of American realistic drama with its raw language, portrayal of prostitutes, and frank depictions of Western brothels. As such, *The Psychoscope *was easily a generation ahead of its time. One scene from the play, in particular, presents four prostitutes entertaining a good-natured but hopelessly naive young man whom they get drunk, then drug, rob, and have dumped into the street. Over the last twenty-five years, Larry has presented numerous papers and published more than a dozen articles and notes in his effort to recover the work of the Sagebrush School of writers. In 2006, Larry published The SagebrushAnthology: Literature from the Silver Age of the Old West. This collection is profound contribution to American literary history, to be sure, but it also represents the culmination of a life’s work and arguably
the crowning achievement of Larry’s career.
In addition to his early work on Huckleberry Finn, Larry has also made a number of significant contributions throughout his career to Mark Twain studies, particularly with regard to Roughing It (1872) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). In 1984, he published the first of his four essays on Connecticut Yankee, which taken together assert fundamentally that Connecticut Yankee is close if not equal to Huckleberry Finn in depth, power, and artistry. Larry’s considerable research on Roughing It, a book which he views as possessing all the features of a unified novel and exhibiting far more complexity than is typically acknowledged by scholars, has, as one might expect, intersected continuously over the last twenty-five years with his work on the writers Sagebrush School. In 2010, Larry brought together the entirety of his fifty years of thinking about Twain and his body of work in a book-length study, titled HereticalFictions: Religion in the Literature of Mark Twain.
Larry’s scholarship over the years has treated a wide spectrum of writers, among them Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Emily Dickinson, Joel Chandler Harris, Henry James, Octave Thanet, Kate Chopin, Edward Bellamy, Frank Norris, Edith Wharton, E. A. Robinson, Willa Cather, and Loren Eiseley. In the early 1990s, Larry added Jack London his long list of research interests. Inspired by a 1980s revival in London studies, Larry’s work has uncovered the degree to which London’s writing, especially the later fiction, reflected the influence of Darwin, Spencer, and Jung. In just a little more than twenty years, Larry has made an outstanding contribution to London studies, publishing a book and no fewer than nine journal articles and chapters in collected editions.
It seems a little mundane, perhaps, to close by saying that Larry Berkove has put together an enviable academic career. But that’s what it’s been. Entirely enviable. In all kinds of ways. Most of us, of course, would be eager to claim a body of work that includes 19 books, 71 articles, 26 chapters, 47 notes, 21 reviews, and 139 conference presentations. And that is to say nothing of the Fulbright and National Endowment for the Humanities awards or all of the international guest lectureships or the numerous presidencies and vice-presidencies his peers have elected him to or the dozens of other honors, big and small, Larry has received over the last fifty years. As a former student and then a colleague and friend, I can offer up another credential, one that doesn’t appear on Larry’s vita: the absolute joy with which he has gone about his work. I’ve seen it up close now for nearly thirty years. Larry has a fondness for saying that they just don’t pay us enough as teachers to not enjoy what we do. More than the publications or the honors, this is what I have always admired most about him, the delight that informs everything he does as a scholar. Larry Berkove, as he will tell you himself, has had a lot of fun in his career, and it is his love of the profession, at least in my book, that will stand in the end as his most lasting legacy.
Joe Csicsila is a Professor of English at Eastern Michigan University and author of numerous works on American Literature and Mark Twain Studies.
Mark Twain is frequently treated as a precursor to the New Journalists who rose to prominence in midcentury America, writers like Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe, who died yesterday. Like many of them, Twain began his career as a conventional reporter (insofar as there was any such convention in the 1860s) and developed a habit of inserting himself into his stories, so much so that his carefully constructed persona – cynical, self-assured, and, at times, comically inept – became as integral to his accounts as the places, persons, and events he was assigned to cover.
Wolfe, who coined the term New Journalism and is generally treated as one of the genre’s foremost innovators, began wearing white three-piece suits when he joined the New York Herald Tribune in 1962, a practice he would continue for the rest of his life. He claimed it was not an intentional homage to Twain, that they simply shared a fondness for a particular brand of southern elegance, but Wolfe clearly recognized that he was inviting comparisons with Twain, and this did not bother him.
Wolfe was hardly alone amongst the New Journalists in making frequent and loaded references to Twain’s life and work. They all shared Twain’s tendency to blur the line between journalistic liberty and outright fabulism. But Wolfe, perhaps because he spent so many years living in Twain’s aesthetic shadow, was particularly prone to inventing anecdotes about his idol.
At a lecture sponsored by the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford in 2003, he repeatedly refers to Twain’s “holy trinity” of “God, money, and the spirit of money, which is known as stocks.” Wolfe was perhaps merely misremembering the deeply satirical lines from Twain’s “Revised Catechism” – “Money is God. Gold and greenbacks and stock – father, son, and the ghost of the same – three persons in one: these are the true and only God, might and supreme” – which he proclaims should be spoken in honor of the prophet, Boss Tweed, and a series of Gilded Age capitalist saints, including Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Cornelius Vanderbilt.
Wolfe can perhaps be forgiven for treating Twain’s celebration of “the holy spirit of golden money” (something else Twain never said) as sincere, given that it supports his larger theme of admiration for Twain’s ambitiousness and his commitment to what Wolfe calls “the Aristophanic oath”: “First, entertain.” To entertain, Wolfe defines as “to make a person pass the time pleasantly with no physical effort whatsoever.” He implores the audience to look up this definition in Webster’s Dictionary. (I have consulted over a dozen editions and found no such phrase.)
Wolfe goes on to quote Twain as having said, “There is nothing that assures your spiritual standing more securely than the sanctified odor of cash.” While one can certainly imagine circumstances in which Twain might have expressed such a sentiment, the admirable phrase – “the sanctified odor of cash” – not only appears nowhere in Twain’s sizable corpus, but, so far as I can tell, has never appeared anywhere in print. It is a small tragedy that by misattributing these words to Twain, Wolfe was prevented from publishing them himself.
England gawked. Europe gawked. The whole globe gawked, even India. It has been recorded that Twain once returned from India and said to a friend, eyes wide, mandibles agape, soul in a state of utterly sincere self-awe: “In India, they know only three things about America…Wall Street…the Statue of Liberty…and Mark Twain!”
Where this “has been recorded” eludes me. Richard Zacks recently dedicated nearly a hundred pages to Twain’s tour of India in Chasing The Last Laugh (2016). Numerous other scholars, notably Seema Sharma and Keshav Mutalik, have written at length on the subject without unearthing this charming and, in Zacks case, highly relevant anecdote. What Zacks says, to the contrary, is that “India didn’t discover Twain; Twain discovered India.” The author performed to several sold-out crowds of primarily British colonists and sold a small stock of books on the back of his tour, but was moderately disappointed to find that “the various Indian-language papers would largely ignore him” and “almost no one would recognize him in the streets.”
The largely invented account Wolfe forwarded of his idol is revealing. Wolfe is so seduced by Twain’s place as “the most famous American writer of all time,” he is induced to further exaggerate that fame. What Wolfe likes most about Twain is his sales. In his 2003 talk, Wolfe compliments Twain on Huckleberry Finn, not for its pathbreaking novelistic techniques or its progressive politics, but because the author recognizes, decades before marketing teams would, that sequels sell!
In essays like “Stalking The Billion-Footed Beast” (1989) and “The Three Stooges” (2000), Wolfe decried what he perceived as an abandonment of populist realism by his most critically-acclaimed contemporaries, including John Irving, Philip Roth, and John Updike. In the latter essay, he expressly mocked the poor sales of these literati.
Wolfe’s appropriation of the white suit – representative of Twain’s precocious talent for personal branding – reveals the nature of Wolfe’s appreciation for Twain. He is not envious of Twain’s incisive social commentary, his innovative wit, or his proto-metafictionist techniques, though Wolfe does emulate these traits, but rather, in awe that “Twain had actually lived, in the flesh, as that heroic figure every American writer…dreams of being: Big Spender from the East.”
The renowned excoriations of the opulence and ostentation in Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) apparently do not apply equally to Twain (or Wolfe). In every commentary he makes about Twain, he refers to the author’s gaudy Hartford home, “a Victorian palace whose many turrets were over the top, even for the Gilded Age.” Wolfe, who struggles to accurately recount the plot of Twain’s most-famous and influential novel, has perfect recall for numerous details about the woodworking, the furnishings, and the servants in the Clemens massive mansion. He gleefully imagines what it would be like to have “this heavenly vision of worldly success be the first thing he saw every day when he awoke.”
One is reminded of a line from The American Claimant (1892):
“I’m opposed to millionaires, but it would be dangerous to offer me the position…I would leave the funeral of my dearest enemy to go and assume its burdens and responsibilities.”
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Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn. By Peter G. Beidler. University of Missouri Press, 2018. Pp. 179. Hardcover $40.00. ISBN 978-0-8262-2138-4.
“It’s lovely to live on a raft” says Huck just a few paragraphs into chapter 19 of Mark Twain’s masterpiece. But what kind of raft is it lovely to live on, and does it even matter what kind of raft Huck lived on? Of course, everyone who has read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn knows that the raft that transported Huck and Jim into literary immortality was a tiny affair consisting of a few short logs tied together with barely enough room to hold the two of them. Proof of this can be found on the covers of many modern paperback editions of the book. But looking at more covers it becomes obvious that their tiny raft was made of logs with a plank deck on top, and a wigwam. Of course, anyone who has studied the one dozen illustrations in the first edition of the book (found in chapters 12, 15, 16, 20, 21, 24, 29, and 40) knows that their raft was in fact made of planks and had a wigwam and a long steering oar, but nowhere in the book does an illustration depict the entire raft, so even a careful study of E. W. Kemble’s drawings does not tell the whole story. Finally, anyone who has read the text carefully, knows that Huck gives a fuller description of their raft, declaring that it measured twelve feet by fifteen or sixteen feet, and that it was made of pine planks that had broken off of a much larger lumber raft, and that it sat a good six or seven inches out of the water, and had one long oar. They also know that Jim had to fashion a second steering oar to control their not-so-tiny raft, make a raised platform of dirt upon which to build a fire, and build a wigwam large enough to accommodate that fire. They also know that the raft later had room for the Duke and the King. These astute readers think they know more than those readers who misplaced their trust in those modern paperback covers, but even astute readers don’t know the half of it.
In Rafts & Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn, Peter Beidler knows the other half of it and a good deal more, and attacks a topic most Twainians might think could be vanquished in one short journal article. Beidler comes at this topic from every flank, armed to the teeth with meticulous research and 60 informative illustrations, and wins the battle in less than 200 pages. Beidler leaves no plank unturned, so to speak, and investigates things like whether the pine planks were seasoned or green (fresh) and how much they weighed per cubic foot, how and where lumber rafts were constructed (Wisconsin) and how they were steered (with sweeps), what Twain knew or did not know about lumber rafts and other rivercraft, and a myriad of other historical facts wisely separated from river lore, and convincingly concludes that Huck and Jim’s raft was a “crib”–a twelve by sixteen foot section of a lumber raft (which usually consisted of six such cribs held together by “yokes” dropped on top of “grub stakes”)–made entirely of fresh pine planks. Early on (page 35), he calculates that if six or seven inches of those planks were above the waterline, then another eighteen inches of planks were below the waterline giving the raft its buoyancy, and that this 12x16x2 foot raft was made of 384 cubic feet of green pine that weighed thirty-six pounds per cubic foot, bringing the weight of their raft to 13,824 pounds–nearly seven tons!–not counting the pad of dirt for the building of fires, the wigwam, Huck, Jim, various supplies, and two rapscallion guests for a portion of the journey.
Just about now, even the most astute reader must be rethinking everything they thought they knew about that flimsy little raft and its precious human cargo. And what the heck is a grub stake and how do you yoke one–or two–or, damn it, how many grub stakes do you have to yoke anyhow? And what exactly does a yoke look like? And what made their raft a crib? And how does Beidler know that lumber rafts were made of green wood? And, while we’re at it, just what the heck is a lumber raft, and what “pints” does Beidler see about a lumber raft that make it any better’n any other raft? And now that readers know the dimensions and origins of the raft, why should they care to know more? The astute reader might even begin to wonder why it is significant that Huck uses a canoe, the slave traders a skiff, and the Duke and the King arrive in style on a yawl posing as the English brothers of Peter Wilks.
The good news is that Beidler provides clear explanations augmented by contemporary drawings and photographs as well as modern diagrams that answer these questions. By the end of this book, every reader will know if there is any difference between a flat, a flatboat, a woodboat, a wood-flat, or a broadhorn (spoiler alert: nope). The reader will also know what a sweep is, and what to do with one (well, you don’t sweep with it), and how to use it with a headblock (no football or wrestling is involved either). The reader will know the difference between a rapids-piece, a skiff, a yawl, a scow, and a string. He’ll know a Mississippi raft from a Wisconsin raft, and how you make one out of several of the others. He’ll be able to distinguish a drift canoe from driftwood, and a witch from a thwart. He’ll know how to reconfigure a lumber raft to run a rapids, and what can go wrong, and how such a mishap yielded the raft that is central to Huck and Jim’s story. Huck and Jim knew these things, so it behooves the reader to know them too. As Beidler says “We might wish that Huck had explained some of his nautical terms more fully, but we can scarcely fault Twain for not anticipating that readers a century and more after he wrote his book would not be aware of the meanings of some of his terms. Surely it is our job as readers and as researchers to figure out what Huck means when he talks . . . . [T]o assume that we can always accurately guess from the context what Huck means . . . is to miss the boat” (117-118).
Virtually everyone has been wrong about Huck and Jim’s raft. To understand where it was built, how it was built, why it was built, what it looked like, what its original purpose was, and how it happened to be adrift on the Mississippi River, I found myself reading about the history of river commerce and the logging and lumber industries at the middle of the nineteenth century. And I found myself building a scale model ot Huck and Jim’s little raft. What I discovered led to my writing Rafts and Other Rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn(University of Missouri Press, 2018).
There were essentially two kinds of Mississippi River rafts in Mark Twain’s day: log rafts and lumber rafts. Neither was designed to carry people or freight from one place to another, though they sometimes were appropriated for such purposes. Rather, both these kinds of rafts were built to move large quantities of wood — the rafts themselves — cheaply to a downstream market where the rafts would be dismantled.
A log raft was a low-tech binding together of floating saw logs cut off to a specific length — usually twelve or sixteen feet — and with the branches removed. The logs were arranged not in layers but side by side, so the raft that it made could float high in the water without getting hung up on rocks or sand bars on their journey downstream. The logs were usually held together by saplings tied tightly across the floating logs with ropes. The log raft was guided by two or more raftsmen using poles or long oars called “sweeps.” Log rafts were floated downstream to a sawmill on the riverbank. At the sawmill the log rafts were dismantled so the individual logs could be run through the mill and cut into lumber.
That lumber was then used to build an entirely different kind of raft: a carefully constructed and precisely measured floating stack of lumber called a “crib.” The cribs were then launched and, eventually attached to other cribs, floated down the river to markets like St. Louis and New Orleans.
Most readers and illustrators of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have assumed that Huck and Jim’s raft was a log raft with a single layer of boards nailed to the logs to provide a smooth upper surface. It was no such thing.
Huck describes their raft in chapter 9 in these terms: “One night we catched a little section of a lumber raft—nice pine planks. It was twelve foot wide and about fifteen or sixteen foot long, and the top stood above the water six or seven inches.” To understand what Huck was describing I built a scale model of the “little section of a lumber raft” that Huck and Jim called home. My friend Bill Curr, a professional photographer, photographed the model.
After the logs were cut into planks, some of the planks were perforated with three precisely placed two-inch holes, one at each end and one in the center. Into each of the three holes in the three sixteen-foot-long foundation planks were driven four-foot long saplings known as “grub stakes”—so-called because they were “grubbed” out of the ground with some of the root structure attached. The three long foundation planks were then placed on the ground with the grub stakes sticking up. The crib-builders then placed down over the grub stakes three of the shorter, twelve-foot-long planks. These shorter planks had also been pre-drilled with three precisely located two-inch holes. Those six planks penetrated by nine grub stakes, provided the basic structure for the crib (see Figure 1).
Then the crib was carefully stacked in alternating sixteen- and twelve-foot cris-crossed layers, to a total thickness of two feet. If the planks were sawed one-inch thick, it took twenty-four cris-cross layers to make a crib. If the planks were sawed two-inches thick, it took only twelve of these layers to make a crib.
When the twelve or twenty-four layers were completed, a special tool hooked onto the top of the grub stake and simultaneously pulled it up and pushed the top plank down. Then a special wedge was driven into the side of the exposed part of the grub stake to hold the stack of lumber tight. The grub stakes were flared out at the bottom so that they could be pulled tight against the bottom of the foundation plank without being pulled through the bottom hole. It was important that they could not be pulled through when they were tightened from the top. Because the layers were crossed, like layers of plywood, the lumber raft was amazingly strong and could withstand the bump and grind of collision on the journey downstream (see Figure 2).
The grub stakes typically stuck out at least a full foot above the top surface of the raft. There they served other important functions. In addition to holding the crib together, the grub stakes served as oar-locks or pivot-pegs for the long oars or “sweeps” that raftsmen could use to nudge the raft short distances to the right or left as it floated downstream with the current. The sweeps were located at opposite ends of the crib, each operated by a man who used it to keep the raft in the swiftest current or to move the raft to the bank to be tied up for the night (see Figure 3).
Still another purpose of the protruding grub stakes was to provide the means of joining the individual lumber cribs together into larger composite rafts known as “rapids pieces.” A rapids piece was typically seven cribs joined together end to end. This string of individual cribs was steered by a raftsman man using a sweep at the front of the first one and another and another raftsman at the rear of the last one. The two men could thus steer seven cribs at once. The seven cribs in the rapids piece were held together by pre-drilled planks that were fit down over the protruding grub stakes of adjacent cribs. These rapids pieces were ideal for running the narrow and wild upper Wisconsin River waters. Just by lifting off the joining planks the rapids piece could be taken apart and separated into its individual cribs to be moved around or over an obstruction, then joined again together below it.
As the narrow and shallow reaches of the upper Wisconsin River widened and deepened in the lower reaches and then widened and deepened even more when the Wisconsin joined the Mississippi, the rapids pieces could, using those same protruding grub stakes, be connected end-to-end and side-by-side to other rapids pieces to form huge lumber rafts like the kind Huck swims to in chapter 16: “a monstrous long raft that was as long going by as a procession.” That huge raft would have been made up of many cribs like Huck and Jim’s. When it got to market, the connecting planks were lifted so the cribs could be sold individually to builders who needed the lumber.
Huck and Jim’s “little section of a lumber raft,” then, was one of these cribs that had been separated from a rapids piece or from a monstrous long lumber raft like the one Huck visits. How did it get separated? Because Huck does not know we do not know. All are told is that it drifted past Jackson’s Island during a June rise. We we can probably assume either that it had been separated during a wild descent of a Wisconsin rapids or that it had been purchased by a builder above St. Petersburg who had failed to secure it properly before the rise, thus allowing it to drift off before he could dismantle it and use the lumber.
For much more on the rafts and other rivercraft in Huckleberry Finn, read my book!
Peter G. Beidler is the Lucy G. Moses Distinguished Professor of English, Emeritus, at Lehigh University and has authored or edited numerous books on American Literature, Chaucer, and pedagogy.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Last week, Jocelyn Chadwick responded to the recent removal of “sensitive texts,” including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, from the curriculum in Duluth Public Schools by asking “When will WE listen?” This week, Dr. Chadwick and John E. Grassie, co-authors of Teaching Literature in the Context of Literacy Instruction, share with us the voices of some of the students who they have been listening to as they tour U.S. classrooms.
In so many ways and for so many reasons, we practitioners of English language arts find ourselves not only explaining what we do and how we do it but also be asked to explicate in detail just how our discipline, K-16, provides a lifelong foundation for children — cradle to grave. The time has indeed come for us to review, reflect upon, and define what we do, and why what we do IS critical to daily living, college, and career. We must provide these answers in words and from voices that parents, the community, local, state and federal leaders and policymakers can understand, as Jim says, “by de back.”
To make the argument reliable and powerful, no voices can be as explicatory and definitive as our students’. This video provides some of the compacted insight of students from around the country, who explain why they should be allowed to read sensitive, uncomfortable texts. We work with these teachers and students, and so many more. Listening to students, empowering them to rethink, reanalyze, and reevaluate these cherished texts. Through the distinct experiences of this generation of students old texts relevant are made newly relevant.
Jocelyn A. Chadwick is a life-long English teacher and scholar. She is currently President of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and is a form Professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she still lectures occasionally. She has worked with Ken Burns and PBS (WGBH, WNET), and is currently a consultant with NBC News Education and NBC Learn. She was panel member for the series Celebrating America’s Authors, and an invited guest at the White House. Among her published works are The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Adventure of Huckleberry Finn, Common Core: Paradigmatic Shifts, and numerous articles on education and Mark Twain. She is currently working on a new book, entitled Writing for Life: Using Literature to Teach Writing.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Duluth Public School District in Minnesota recently decided to drop two novels from their curriculum, Adventures 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 Education, is 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 Finn. She 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.”
“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 ourMemory?
Although I generally like Chris Rock as a comedian, one of his jokes has always rubbed me the wrong way.
Rock told the joke back in 1999 as part of the Kennedy Center’s program honoring Richard Pryor as the first recipient of its first Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. According to the Chicago Tribune’s account:
Chris Rock wondered what would have happened if Mark Twain had ever met Richard Pryor.
“(Pryor would) probably say, `I really enjoy your work,’” Rock surmised. “And what would Mark Twain say to Richard Pryor? He’d probably say, `N—–, pick up my bag.’”
It’s not surprising that the report goes on to note that the joke was met by “an underwhelming mix of nervous laughs and low-key applause.” It isn’t that Rock’s joke wasn’t funny and more than just a little biting (which, on one level, makes it a fitting tribute to Pryor). The problem with the joke is that based on what we know about Twain’s racial attitudes, Rock’s punchline is entirely false (a trait that Pryor’s truth-telling humor certainly lacks).
Twain is no doubt something of a mixed bag when it comes to race, as demonstrated by ongoing controversies surrounding his classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Shelley Fisher Fishkin points out in Was Huck Black? Mark Twain and African-American Voices that while Twain “recognized the intellectual or artistic aspirations” of a number of young African-American men and “provided financial aid to these individuals in all these endeavors,” he nonetheless “retained a lifelong affection for the minstrel shows he recalled from his Missouri childhood.”
There’s no evidence, however, that this fondness for the gross racial caricatures of minstrel shows in any way resulted in the ugly racist behavior Rock’s joke suggests. In fact, the example of Warner T. McGuinn, one of the men Twain financially assisted, indicates the opposite is true.
In the 1980s, Fishkin authenticated a letter that Twain sent to the dean of Yale’s Law School offering to help pay boarding for McGuinn, who was the school’s first black student. Interestingly, Twain wrote the letter in 1885, the same year that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published. In it, he confesses:
“I do not believe I would very cheerfully help a white student who would ask a benevolence of a stranger, but I do not feel so about the other color. We have ground the manhood out of them, & the shame is ours, not theirs; & we should pay for it.”
Fishkin told the New York Timesthat “Twain’s brutally succinct comment on racism in the letter is a rare non-ironic statement of the personal anguish Twain felt regarding the destructive legacy of slavery.”
Unfortunately, Twain would not live to see the far-reaching impact his generosity had on dismantling that baneful legacy. McGuinn graduated from Yale and went on to become a lawyer in Baltimore, where he helped found a branch of the NAACP, was elected to the city council, and won a major civil rights victory in federal court.
Perhaps most significantly, McGuinn acted as patron and mentor to a young African-American attorney named Thurgood Marshall, who would argue the case, Brown v. Board of Education, that overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” in the United States and later became the first African-American Supreme Court justice.
As Juan Williams recounts in his biography of Marshall, McGuinn refused to hire Marshall into his own small firm in 1933, insisting that Marshall would learn faster by being his own boss. He told him,
“I have carefully watched your progress in law school. It is unbelievably good. And you want to let me have your beautiful, great brain, and I am not going to accept it. You’re going to practice by yourself and get your brains kicked out.”
McGuinn did supply Marshall with offices, secretarial staff, clients (particularly when they had especially difficult cases), and ample advice. Marshall recalled that “He was the only one who helped me,” offering his insights into the procedures, personalities, and peculiarities of the Baltimore court system, and making sure Marshall never went out of business, even though, as McGuinn had predicted, he lost much more often than he won. In 1936, McGuinn’s son, Robert, collaborated with Marshall in his first investigation into the condition of segregated schools.
One can reasonably speculate that without McGuinn’s assistance, Marshall may not have survived as an African-American attorney in Depression America, and that if McGuinn had not encountered Twain at a railroad station in Connecticut many years earlier, he might not have succeeded in becoming an attorney himself.
Based on the impact this serendipitous encounter would have on history, I think it’s safe to say that it didn’t begin with Twain gruffly snapping a racist epithet at the young law student and ordering him to carry his bags.