The Center for Mark Twain Studies, in association with the Elmira College Office of Continuing Education & Graduate Studies and the Greater Souther Tier Teacher Center, will once again host a two-day institute for primary and secondary school educators this July. As in the past, participants will, for a relatively small fee, subsidized by our partner organizations, get to spend time intensively studying the life and works of Mark Twain in the historic environs of Elmira College and Quarry Farm.
This year, in addition to myself (Assistant Professor of American Literature & Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and resident scholar at the Center for Mark Twain Studies), the institute will be led by Jocelyn Chadwick. Dr. Chadwick recently finished a term as President of the National Council For Teachers of English, during which she paid particular attention to how 21st-century students responded to sensitive texts, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition to her many years as a secondary-school teacher and an education professor, currently at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Dr. Chadwick has a lengthy track record of scholarship on Mark Twain’s works in U.S. classrooms, notably her book, The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn, as well as numerous articles (for instance, in this special section of English Journalfrom 2017) and presentations.
In March of 2018, Dr. Chadwick used MarkTwainStudies.com as a vehicle for her response to a decision by Duluth Public Schools to drop Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculums. This remains one of the most popular pages on our site, as is the follow-up, in which she shared excerpts from interviews with teachers and students which she had conducted during her nationwide travels for NCTE. In these posts and her ongoing work, Dr. Chadwick focuses on the importance of reframing these texts for this generation of readers, as well as putting Mark Twain into conversation with other writers and utilizing additional primary sources which both situate students in the historical contexts of the novels and put those novels in conversation with contemporary culture.
During this year’s institute, “Mark Twain & Generation Z,” Dr. Chadwick is eager to both share the perspective she has gained from visiting classrooms around the country and engage with the unique perspectives of faculty from our region.
As has always been the case, participants in the Summer Institute will receive a certificate, but for the first time in 2019, Institute attendees will also have the option of enrolling in an abbreviated course, offered during the Fall 2019 term, at Elmira College. The course will meet once a week, on Wednesday evenings, for six weeks. Teachers who attend both the Summer Institute and take the course will earn 3.0 credits towards their Masters in Education at Elmira College.
This course will include more sustained discussions of texts introduced during the institute and pedagogical approaches to them. Participants will also have the opportunity to follow-up with Dr. Chadwick via video-conferencing and engage with other Twain scholars in residence at the Center for Mark Twain Studies during the Fall of 2019.
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?
My name is Mac Morrison, I am an undergraduate student at Tulane University. I’ve loved Mark Twain’s books since I was a very small child, and I’d like to gain a deeper understanding of the man and his work. In most academic fields there seem to be a short list of works by modern scholars that are considered canonical within the field, and I was just wondering if you might be able to recommend some titles that fit that description that might be a good introduction to Mark Twain studies for someone who doesn’t have a clue where to start. If such titles exist. Honestly I was pleasantly surprised to find that a center for Mark Twain studies exists at all. In any case, I hope this email finds you well, whoever you are.
Best regards from a huge Mark Twain fan,
Mac asks an excellent question and is kind enough to let me respond to it in an open forum, where it may be read by others who share his curiosity.
The “primer” which follows focuses on secondary sources – works by biographers, historians, and other scholars – rather than primary sources – those written by Twain and his contemporaries. For the latter, I would recommend the Mark Twain Project – which has produced dozens of excellent editions of Twain’s published and private writings, many available online – as well as the Oxford Mark Twain, a 29-volume collection of Twain’s published works with excellent paratextual materials.
I am also excluding reference works and periodicals, notably Alan Gribben’s Mark Twain’s Library, Kent Rasmussen’s Mark Twain A to Z, David Fear’s Mark Twain Day By Day, the Mark Twain Journal, and the Mark Twain Annual, all of which are invaluable resources for Twain scholars and are likely available at your university library. You may also want to check our our digital resources and resources for teachers pages.
I would invite other Twain scholars to comment upon the following list, or even submit their own. Canons are sticky wickets. There are hundreds of volumes of Twain scholarship. It’s hard to know where to begin. Part of the CMTS mission is to provide support for young Twaniacs like Mac. But, of course, any attempt to organize that enormous body of critical works reflects the peculiar preferences of the author.
So, with those caveats, I offer you my dozen “desert island” works of Twain scholarship:
Mark Twain: A Life (2005) by Ron Powers
There are many Twain biographies and as many controversies surrounding them, starting with the authorized Mark Twain: A Biography (1912) by Albert Bigelow Paine. Justin Kaplan’s Mr. Clemens & Mark Twain(1966) won a Pulitzer and a National Book Award. Next month the corpus will get even bigger, with the publication of the first volume of Gary Scharnhorst’s The Life of Mark Twain. All have their strengths and weaknesses. But, if I had to choose just one, I would opt for Powers’s, which offers a great combination of accuracy and approachability.
The Mark Twain Circle of America’s award for scholarship is named for Budd, with good reason. Budd captures the range of Twain’s political and social commentary, rescuing from it an intricacy and a coherence which few other scholars have managed to express.
The Jim Dilemma: Reading Race in Huckleberry Finn (1998) by Jocelyn Chadwick
Twain’s positions on race are too often reduced to one book and even one word in said book, but the relationship between Jim and Huck deserves its central place in Twain Studies, which also cannot elude the controversy produced by this novel in the intervening centuries. Many have written on this subject, and written well. Chadwick offers a undiluted survey, as well as her own fresh perspective.
Fishkin has made several substantial contributions to Twain scholarship, including editing the Oxford edition mentioned above, but I would speculate that her unconventional mix of professional and personal narrative in Lighting Out provides as holistic a view of Twain Studies as can by found in a single work.
Twain’s capacity for reflecting and capitalizing on the peculiar circumstances of the Gilded Age is a theme in many of these works. Michelson captures Twain’s mastery of emerging mass media. Judith Y. Lee’s Twain’s Brand (2012) is also excellent in this respect.
Twain developed deep connections to numerous places in the U.S. and abroad. This collection explores the impact of many of those locales on Twain’s ethos. I am, naturally, partial to the essay on Elmira by my predecessor, Michael Kiskis.
Remember what I said about personal preferences? There are definitely more popular studies of Twain’s humor – for instance James M. Cox’s Mark Twain: The Fate of Humor(1966) – but Schmitz’s interweaving of Twain’s Mississippi writings with Gertrude Stein, Herman Melville, and Krazy Kat left an indelible impression on me.
Mark Twain and Human Nature (2007) by Tom Quirk
Quirk traces the development of Twain’s attitude towards mankind over the course of his entire career. The linear narrative which interweaves biographical detail and private writings with insightful readings of all the major works, as well as Quirk’s humble and humorous narrative voice, makes this another strong candidate to start your journey in Twain Studies.