A Lecture on Twain’s Early Views On Sino-American Relations Concludes the Park Church Summer Lecture Series

The 2019 Park Church Lecture Series, hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, continues on Wednesday, August 21 in the historic and cultural landmark, The Park Church, 208 W. Gray Street, Elmira.  The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

Sunny Yang will give a lecture entitled “Where the ‘Wild West’ Ends and China Begins: Rethinking the Geography of Mark Twain and Bret Harte’s Ah Sin


Playbill for the Washington, D.C. run of Ah Sin at the National Theatre, May 1877

Yang will discuss how, in the fall of 1876, Mark Twain and Bret Harte embarked on a disastrous collaboration that would culminate in the frontier melodrama known as Ah Sin. Named after its Chinese laundryman character, who was taken from Harte’s 1870 poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” the play is widely acknowledged as a literary and financial failure that contributed to the demise of Twain and Harte’s friendship. Yet despite its dubious artistic merit, Ah Sin has captured some critical attention because of the central role played by its titular Chinese character. Scholars have debated the play’s intervention into nineteenth-century American stereotypes about the Chinese and have exclusively interpreted the work in the context of domestic debates over Chinese immigration and legal testimony. This talk takes a different approach by analyzing Ah Sin through the lens of nineteenth-century commentary on Sino-American relations, focusing in particular on the U.S. foreign policy of extraterritoriality in China. Resituating the play in this transnational legal context offers fresh insights into Twain’s anti-imperialism at this moment in his career, while also suggesting new avenues for interpreting representations of Chinese immigrants and Chinese American politics in nineteenth-century American writing.

Sunny Yang is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston, where she specializes in American and multi-ethnic American literature of the long nineteenth century. Her research explores the imperial contexts of U.S. racial formation and cultural production with an emphasis on the intersections of law and literature. She received her PhD in English with a certificate in Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently completing her first book project, Fictions of Territoriality, with the support of fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the American Association of University Women.

About The Park Church

Founded in 1846 by a group of abolitionists, The Park Church has been a strong presence in Elmira’s history and some members of its congregation were close friends and family members to Mark Twain.  Known for its striking architectural features, The Park Church contained Elmira’s first public library and has a long history of charitable service to the Elmira community.  Currently, it is an “Open and Affirming Congregation,” welcoming all people to worship and participate in its communal life, regardless of ethnic origin, race, class, age, ability, gender, or sexual orientation.

About the Center for Mark Twain Studies

The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies was founded in January 1983 with the gift of Quarry Farm to Elmira College by Jervis Langdon, the great-grand-nephew of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The Center offers distinctive programs to foster and support Mark Twain scholarship and to strengthen the teaching of Mark Twain at all academic levels. The Center serves the Elmira College community and regional, national, and international students and scholars of Mark Twain.

“Buy It, Laugh, & Grow Fat”: The 1869 Reviews of Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad

At the Center for Mark Twain Studies we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s first book. Sales of The Innocents Abroad began on August 10, 1869 and soon thereafter reviews started appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country. The critical response was overwhelmingly positive. Twain was already a well-known writer and lecturer who many journalists regarded as one of their own. This affinity, as well as the aggressive and innovative marketing strategies of the American Publishing Company, may have help secure good press for the book. Many editors expressed their appreciation at being sent gratis copies and many of the same papers which reviewed it also had advertising contracts with the publisher and/or local book agents. That said, the work was clearly capable of living up to the effusion. Many editors chose simply to reprint excerpts from the text.

Below I have collected a series of blurbs from the first wave of reviews which appeared during the remaining months of 1869. This is not a comprehensive collection, but the selections I have made, I hope, demonstrate something of the critical consensus that developed around what many characterized as a groundbreaking travel narrative. I have tried to include excerpts from both metropolitan and small-town papers, and from various regions of the country.

“The propriety of filling a book of six hundred odd pages with mere jokes may be questioned. But it is not questionable that, if this be granted, ‘Mark Twain’ has produced a very laughable and enterprising book. No American book of travels, except Ross Browne’s ‘Yusef,’ is written with the same humorous spirit, and certainly none contains so much genuine fun…The book does not profess to instruct, and it does not. It aims to entertain, and it does. There is a genuine American tone about it which is refreshing to see after the snobberies of some other American travellers.” – Buffalo Morning Express (August 18, 1869)

“Certainly, Mark Twain succeeds is dispelling many of the old traditions which travelers have so long inflicted upon a confiding and long-suffering public. He has gone over the ground with a genuine Yankee spirit; determining to see everything that is to be seen, to see it thoroughly and like a man of sense. To go into ecstasies over but few things, and to speak the plain, unvarnished truth under all circumstances. And this truth is told to us in such a winsome form that we cannot but listen to it with agreeable sensations. Throughout runs an undercurrent of genuine native humor. Not what we are so apt to accept as such, and which is principally remarkable for its vulgarity and insipidity, but a real, crisp, tangible wit, that speaks in every line of the vitality, the vigorous honesty of the man, and of how fully he is imbued with all the better of the national characteristics.” – New York Express (August 20, 1869)

“If any one, troubled with hifaluten notions, contemplates a trip to the old world, he had better read this book before he makes the trip. It will greatly improve his self-respect and make him appear better than if he went and put on the unnecessary airs that many do.” – Rutland Daily Herald (August 23, 1869)

“Mr. Clemens has an abominable irreverence for tradition and authority, – which sometimes unfortunately degenerates into an offensive irreverence for things which other men hold sacred, – and makes not the slightest hesitation at expressing his opinions in the very plainest possible language, no matter how unorthodox they may be. There is nothing he fears to laugh at, and though some people may wish that he had been a little more tender of the romance of travel, it is certainly refreshing to find a tourist who does not care what other tourists have said before him.” – The New York Tribune (August 27, 1869)

“Unlike the majority of American humorists, Mark Twain never indulges in bad spelling and worse grammar, which vulgarities most frequently comprise the joke. He uses nothing but good Anglo-Saxon, and when the readers laugh, as they will many time over and over, merriment arises solely from the subject written of, not from the manner in which it is written, and is therefore all the more enjoyable. ‘The Innocents Abroad’ is undoubtedly an oasis in the desert of works on foreign travel with which we are deluged at the present day. We have read it throughout with great pleasure, and if Mark Twain will do no worse in future efforts at bookmaking we’ll always heartily welcome him to our desk.” – New York Herald (August 31, 1869)

“The volume abounds in pleasant incident, racy description, and incongruous scenes, which, depicted by the pen of one who has so keen a perception of the ridiculous and so bold a purpose to expose it, gives a book unusually readable, and with burlesque enough in it to satisfy the veriest lover of the grotesque in Christendom.” – St. Louis Globe Democrat (September 6, 1869)

“Mark Twain always interesting, in this book has outrivaled himself. It is instructive, humorous, racy, full of quaint expressions that make you laugh unexpectedly, and before you are quite ready; critical, sometimes caustic, but always good natured; never prosy or wearisome. You begin the book and do not want to leave it till the last line is reached. Mark never describes a place or sees a sight as others do. His is intensely original; and for us there is where the charm lies.” – New Jersey Standard (September 24, 1869)

“There is no writer of the present day who can begin with Mark Twain in weaving into a story fact and fiction, philosophy and humor, so as to excite the risibles beyond control, and at the same time without violating the rules of good taste, in either the orthography or syntax of our language. Mark is a trump, and his book is a gem of the first water. – Buy it – laugh and grow fat.” – Wyndette Commercial Gazette (September 25, 1869)

“We must truthfully say that we had no idea so much humor, wit, geniality, fine description and good sense, could be contained within the covers of any one book…Our sides ache, and we lay aside the book to rest, and to advise our friends and readers, one and all, to buy the book at the first opportunity, and read it through.” – Monmouth Inquirer (September 30, 1869)

“Criticism of the work is almost impossible; as sufficient gravity of countenance for the purpose can hardly be maintained over the volume. To think of, or look at it, is to smile, but to read it is to overwhelm all criticism with uncontrollable laughter.” – Public Weekly Opinion (October 5, 1869)

“The standard shams of travel which everybody sees through suffer possibly more than they ought, but not so much as they might; and on readily forgives the harsh treatment of them in consideration of the novel piece of justice done on such a traveller as suffers under the pseudonym of Grimes. It is impossible also that the quality of the humor should not sometimes be strained in the course of so long a narrative; but the wonder is rather in the fact that it is strained so seldom.” – William Dean Howells, Atlantic Monthly (December, 1869)

Over 75 Past Lectures Added to the “Trouble Begins Archive”

Over 75 downloadable lectures have been added to the “Trouble BeginsArchives. Most of these lectures come from the years 1986 to 1999.

Louis. J. Budd at Quarry Farm

In 1985, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies inaugurated The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series. The title comes from a handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco.  The lectures are now held in the Spring, Summer, and Fall of each year, in the barn at Quarry Farm, Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus, or the Historic Park Church in downtown Elmira.  All lectures are free and open to the public. We will continue to work our way back and make these lectures to everyone.  Please stay tuned for more.  All the downloadable lectures and copies of “The Trouble Begins Programs” can be found in The Trouble Begins Archives.

Some highlights include:

  • Victor Doyno, “Mark Twain’s Family Life at Quarry Farm” (July 27, 1988 – Hamilton Hall – Elmira College Campus)
  • Hamlin Hill, “Late Mark Twain: Fro Bad Philosophy to Worse Literature” (July 24, 1989 – Quarry Farm Barn)
  • Alan Gribben, “Huckleberry Finn’s Missing Twin” (April 11, 1990 – Quarry Farm)
  • Howard Baetzhold, “The ‘Autobiography of Eve’: Mark Twain’s First Attempt to Tell Eve’s Story” (October 2, 1991 – Quarry Farm)
  • Michael Kiskis, “‘A Complete and Purposed Jumble: The Problem with Mark Twain’s Autobiography” (October 28, 1992 – Quarry Farm)
  • Lawrence I. Berkove, “The Ethical Records of Twain and his Circle of Old West Journalists” (March 24, 1993 – Quarry Farm)
  • Laura E. Skandera-Trombley, “Mark Twain’s Elmira Revisited: Through a Woman’s Eye”
  • Shelley Fisher Fishkin, “Mark Twain and African-American Voices” (September 12, 1995 – Quarry Farm)
  • Louis J. Budd, “Mark Twain’s Visual Humor” (June 5, 1995 – Quarry Farm)
  • Susan K. Harris, “Love Texts: The Role of Books in the Courtship of Olivia Langdon and Mark Twain” (November 13, 1996 – Quarry Farm)
  • Kerry Driscoll, “‘Eating Indians for Breakfast’: Racial Ambivalence and American Identity in The Innocents Abroad” (October 21, 1998 – Quarry Farm)
  • Chad Rohman, “‘Yours Truly, Mark Twain’: Reconsidering the Intellectual and Epistemological Dimensions of an Ironic and Elusive Mind” (May 6, 1998 – Quarry Farm)

2019 Park Church Summer Lectures Start Wednesday

Elmira, New York – The 2019 Park Church Lecture Series, hosted by the Center for Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College, begins Wednesday, August 7 in the historic and cultural landmark, The Park Church, 208 W. Gray Street, Elmira.  The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

Poster from a February 8, 1873 lecture on Hawai’i

The first lecture, “’Views of Mark Twain’: Antics and Annexation in Twain’s New York Tribune Letters on Hawai’i,” will be presented by Todd Nathan Thompson, Indiana University of Pennsylvania.  The December 1872 death of Hawaiian monarch Kamehameha V spurred renewed interest among US citizens and politicians alike in the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands. To satisfy the public’s increased curiosity about Hawai’i, in January 1873 the New York Daily Tribune sought testimony in the form of two letters from a well-known expert on the islands: Mark Twain. Twain had gained nationwide fame based on his correspondence from the Hawai’i to the Sacramento Union in 1866 and especially from his popular comic lecture, often titled “Or Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands,” which he delivered across the US and abroad between 1866-1873. In my talk I will examine how Twain’s humorous writings and lectures about Hawai’i led American editors and readers to view him as a serious authority on the islands. I will also perform contextualized readings of reprinted excerpts of his letters to the Tribune in other newspapers and magazines and consider what these editorial choices reveal about the American reading public’s views of Twain and of Hawai’i in the early 1870s.

A professor of English, Thompson is also treasurer-secretary of the American Humor Studies Association. Thompson is author of The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). His work on political satire and pre-1900 American literature has also appeared in Scholarly EditingEarly American LiteratureESQNineteenth-Century ProseJournal of American CultureTeaching American Literature, and elsewhere. He currently is at work on a book project entitled Savage Laughter: Nineteenth-Century American Humor and the Pacific, 1840-1880.

Professor Thompson is a 2019 Quarry Farm Fellow. Professor Thompson gave a lecture for CMTS’ 2018 Spring “Trouble Begins” Lecture Series. His lecture can be accessed here:

  • Todd Nathan Thompson, “An American Cannibal at Home: Comic Diplomacy in Mark Twain’s Hawai’i” (May 23, 2018 – Cowles Hall – Elmira College Campus) Lecture Images

About The Park Church

Founded in 1846 by a group of abolitionists, The Park Church has been a strong presence in Elmira’s history and some members of its congregation were close friends and family members to Mark Twain.  Known for its striking architectural features, The Park Church contained Elmira’s first public library and has a long history of charitable service to the Elmira community.  Currently, it is an “Open and Affirming Congregation,” welcoming all people to worship and participate in its communal life, regardless of ethnic origin, race, class, age, ability, gender, or sexual orientation.

About the Center for Mark Twain Studies

The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies was founded in January 1983 with the gift of Quarry Farm to Elmira College by Jervis Langdon, Jr., the great-grand-nephew of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The Center offers distinctive programs to foster and support Mark Twain scholarship and to strengthen the teaching of Mark Twain at all academic levels. The Center serves the Elmira College community and regional, national, and international students and scholars of Mark Twain.

The Mugwump Bump: Mark Twain, Independent Politics, & The Election of 1884

Although it’s been almost a century since Mark Twain’s death, his staying power as an American icon endures. 

There are many reasons for his iconic status: his stories (especially those that keep getting banned), his aphorisms (some of which he actually said), and his knack for relentless self-promotion that pioneered today’s viral marketing. At the heart of his continued cultural relevance, however, is Twain’s uncanny ability to tap the deep and volatile fault lines that emerged in America after the Civil War and that have continued to fracture (some at an exponential rate) well into the present.

The San Andreas Fault of these national fissures, of course, is race relations in America. But there are plenty of other ruptures extending from Twain’s era into our own: social upheaval wrought by new technologies, tensions between capitalism and socialism, and political factionalism.

Recently, while reading Kay Moser’s article “Mark Twain—Mugwump” (Mark Twain Journal, 1982), I was struck by how his political views still speak to us today, especially with the Democratic debates beginning tonight and another presidential election looming on the horizon. In her article, Moser delves into how Twain’s involvement in the 1884 presidential election “led to a showdown between his personal, strongly held convictions and the political conformity that was demanded of him by his literary friends and the Nook Farm residents.”

Up until the 1884 election, Twain had staunchly supported (and actively campaigned for) Republican presidential candidates. A speech he gave in favor of James Garfield in 1880, in fact, was remembered in Hartford “as the greatest effort of his life,” according to Albert Bigelow Paine. Twain’s friend and fellow Garfield campaigner, William Dean Howells, read the speech twice and wrote “that he could not put it out of his mind.” However, four years later the presidential election would place Twain at political odds with Howells and with many friends in Hartford.

The rift was provoked by Twain’s disdain for the Republican nominee in 1884, James G. Blaine, who, despite a reputation for corruption, had “very devoted followers within the party who would not believe any of the charges brought against him,” as Moser puts it. In protest, Twain and other reform-minded Republicans left the party to form what became known as the Mugwumps. 

Derived from an anglicized version of the Algonquian word “mugquomp,” or “important person, kingpin,” the term was originally intended as an insult, implying that members of the group thought they were too good for the messy realities of party politics. Embracing the slight as a badge of their political independence, however, Twain and the Mugwumps put their support behind the Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland. Although he had his personal moral failings (such as fathering a baby out of wedlock with his mistress), the Mugwumps considered the Governor of New York and foe of Tammany Hall corruption a man of integrity (as a politician, at least).

It may be tempting to draw specific parallels between the elections of 1884 and 2020; there are certainly instances where history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme (as one of those aphorisms misattributed to Twain asserts). I’m more interested, however, in Twain’s thoughts on the importance of political independence rooted in personal conscience—wisdom that might benefit contentious factions across the spectrum today.   

As Moser notes, Twain resisted the stultifying influence of political and religious orthodoxy throughout his life. “Loyalty to petrified opinions,” he observed, “never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world-and never will.” In the growing chasm today between people vehemently identifying with one party affiliation against another, Twain’s following insight seems particularly pertinent:

“No party holds the privilege of dictating to me how I shall vote. If loyalty to party is a form of patriotism, I am no patriot. If there is any valuable difference between a monarchist and an American, it lies in the theory that the American can decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn’t. I claim that difference. I am the only person in the sixty millions that is privileged to dictate my patriotism.”

from “The Writings of Mark Twain” by Albert Bigelow Paine

For Twain, one’s ever-evolving conscience, not adherence to rigid ideology, should determine how one votes and ultimately identifies as an American:

“I believe you said something about the country and the party. Certainly allegiance to these is well, but certainly a man’s first duty is to his own conscience and honor; the party and country come second to that, and never first.”

Moser concludes that Twain “insists that the true patriot is the Mugwump, the independent, the man who is not afraid of change when his conscience dictates it. And such men, Twain asserts, come from an illustrious ancestry:

‘…in the whole history of the race of men no single great and high and beneficent thing was ever done for the souls and bodies, the hearts and the brains, of the children of the world, but a Mugwump started it and Mugwumps carried it to victory. And their names are the stateliest in history: Washington, Garrison, Galileo, Luther, Christ.’”

That sentiment may be a bit over-the-top by today’s standards, but perhaps today’s standards could benefit from a little Mugwump bump.

New American Studies Prize Named for Mark Twain Scholar, Shelley Fisher Fishkin

The American Studies Association is inaugurating a new prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies. The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize is named in honor of the contributions Fishkin has made to developing the field of Transnational American Studies.

Fishkin Receives John S. Tuckey Prize in 2017

Fishkin is among the most well-known and highly-regarded scholars in Mark Twain Studies. She edited the 29-volume Oxford Mark Twain and has published two influential books, Was Huck Black? (1993) and Lighting Out For The Territory (1996), as well as numerous articles. In 2017, she received the John S. Tuckey Award for achievements in Twain scholarship from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

Fishkin has also devoted considerable time and energy to building international networks for Twain criticism, including Global Huck, a digital archive of translations of Adventure of Huckleberry Finn currently in development. Fishkin was a founding editor of The Journal of Transnational American Studies, launched in 2009. She has been instrumental in mentoring emerging Twain scholars and publicizing groundbreaking Twain scholarship.

Tsuyoshi Ishihara, author of Mark Twain in Japan (2005), writes, “Thanks are due first to Prof. Shelley Fisher Fishkin, the great Twain scholar and Americanist, for her encouragement, suggestions, care, and patience. Her encyclopedic knowledge and sparkling insights were vital in developing this project.”

Selina Lai-Henderson, author of Mark Twain in China (2015), calls Fishkin an “intellectual giant…whose vision, breadth of knowledge, and dedication have made many of my dreams become possible.”

The Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize for International Scholarship in Transnational American Studies will be awarded annually to a scholar based at institutions outside the United States who have published excellent original research in the past three years. More information and submission guidelines are available from the American Studies Association.

Congratulations to Dr. Fishkin from the Center for Mark Twain Studies.

The Mad Monk & Not-So-Distant Mirror of Mark Twain (A Quarry Farm Fellow Testimonial)

EDITOR’S NOTE: We occasionally feature testimonials from recent Quarry Farm Fellows, which combine conversational illustrations of their research and writing process with personal reflections on their experiences as Twain scholars, teachers, and fellows. Applications for Quarry Farm Fellowships are due each Winter. Find more information here.

Though you might not get the message from a campus stroll on a nice day, colleges really are the offspring of monasteries and convents, and profs still have an element of Mad Monk. Something inside us wants, needs, to hole up now and then, to let go of the cadences of ordinary life, to hunker down solo and unrelentingly indulge some vexatious curiosity or creative urge. For humanities types, our lairs and refuges are often makeshift and temporary: bland office unsafe from hallway buzz, a library back-room table where you can spread out for a few hours; or in a coffee-house, a sullen corner as far as possible from the Norah Jones and the Bon Iver. Eventually, however, you’ll get chased out, or spotted by friends who come over and tug you back into the everyday. 

Bruce Michelson is Emeritus Professor at University of Illinois, author of Printer’s Devil (2006) and Mark Twain on The Loose (1995), and winner of the 2018 Charlie Award from the American Humor Studies Association and the 2013 Louis Budd Award from the Mark Twain Circle of America.

For Mark Twain people, what a Quarry Farm residence supplies is better than just about any other sequestered all-out saturation we know how to contrive. Because on this visit I was in the house for only four nights, I can’t report massive progress on current projects, beyond several salutary jolts to my thinking and the heady delight of having, right there, a nearly-exhaustive, wisely-curated collection of published books about Samuel Clemens, his legacy, and his times. In that environment, new twists in your meditations about such matters can be nurtured, and any resource you might have forgotten about or missed completely is right there and ready.

Beyond all that, there’s the welter of important impressions that many residents at Quarry Farm have written about.  These are more diffuse, of course, and harder to summarize without lapsing into sentiment – but wow, do they matter.  One project in the foreground for me is called “Mark Twain Past and Present,” meant to be a book-length inquiry into what “Mark Twain” has signified in American culture through the past hundred years, and also how his story and legacy are transforming now, and likely to molt farther, as we continue to infuse that story with our own blood, to see in it what we need to know, as we try to carry this array of texts and archives and legends and collective memories into a tumultuous future.   

There’s so much underway in our moment for which Mark Twain provides a not-so-distant mirror: the meaning of travel; writing and the illusion of intimacy; the transformation of “writer” into “artist”; the nature of celebrity in America and the erosion or obliteration of private life. Because these are chapters I am soldering together, you can understand readily why these quiet and solitary days at Quarry Farm, where so much happened, where Sam and his family negotiated so many of these enigmas, do so much to bring clarity and exhilaration.

Mark Twain Forum Reviews: Teaching Huckleberry Finn by John Nogowski

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. 

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.

…continue reading Hugh Davis’s review on Mark Twain Forum.

Copyright © 2019 Mark Twain Forum

This review may not be published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.

CMTS Announces the 2019 “Park Church Summer Lectures” Series Line-Up

The 2019 “Park Church Summer Lectures” are presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies and The Park Church. The series will feature three lectures. All the lectures will begin at 7:00 p.m. and will be located at The Park Church (208 W. Grey Street, Elmira, NY). All of these lectures are open to the public at no cost.

Wednesday, August 7 at The Park Church (7:00 p.m.)

“Views of Mark Twain”: Antics and Annexation in Twain’s New York Tribune Letters on Hawai’i”

Todd Nathan Thompson, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Poster from a February 8, 1873 lecture on Hawai’i

The December 1872 death of Hawaiian monarch Kamehameha V spurred renewed interest among US citizens and politicians alike in the annexation of the Hawaiian islands. To satisfy the public’s increased curiosity about Hawai’i, in January 1873 the New York Daily Tribune sought testimony in the form of two letters from a well-known expert on the islands: Mark Twain. Twain had gained nationwide fame based on his correspondence from the Hawai’i to the Sacramento Union in 1866 and especially from his popular comic lecture, often titled “Or Fellow Savages of the Sandwich Islands,” which he delivered across the US and abroad between 1866-1873. In my talk I will examine how Twain’s humorous writings and lectures about Hawai’i led American editors and readers to view him as a serious authority on the islands. I will also perform contextualized readings of reprinted excerpts of his letters to the Tribune in other newspapers and magazines and consider what these editorial choices reveal about the American reading public’s views of Twain and of Hawai’i in the early 1870s.

Todd Nathan Thompson is Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He is also Treasurer-Secretary of the American Humor Studies Association. Todd is author of The National Joker: Abraham Lincoln and the Politics of Satire (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015). His work on political satire and pre-1900 American literature has also appeared in Scholarly Editing, Early American Literature, ESQ, Nineteenth-Century Prose, Journal of American Culture, Teaching American Literature, and elsewhere. He currently is at work on a book project entitled Savage Laughter: Nineteenth-Century American Humor and the Pacific, 1840-1880.


Wednesday, August 14 at The Park Church (7:00 p.m.)

“The Dread of Filth in Twain: Cultures of Mysophobia in Post-Pasteurian Medicine and 3,000 Years among the Microbes

Don James McLaughlin, University of Tulsa

Manuscript page from 3,000 Years among the Microbes,
Thomas J. Dodd Research Center, University of Connecticut

This talk examines Mark Twain’s unfinished manuscript 3,000 Years among the Microbes, written in Dublin, New Hampshire in 1905. More precisely, I provide a historical backdrop for the manuscript by putting it in dialogue with two major shifts in medical thought at the end of the nineteenth century: (1) the rise of microbiology, introducing a new discourse for articulating the relationship of bacteria and viruses to infectious disease, established largely by Louis Pasteur’s successes in vaccination; and (2) the emergence of an international psychiatric discourse revolving around mysophobia, meaning a dread of filth and contamination. Written from the perspective of a cholera germ named Huck who has infected a tramp named Blitzowski, 3,000 Years meditates on both discourses, exploring microbiology’s ramifications for human understandings of life, agency, and subjectivity, while also pursuing a mysophobic aesthetic: a state of readerly repugnance generated by the landscape of infection and bodily functions Huck and his microbe friends inhabit. I use 3,000 Years to argue that we cannot understand the rise of mysophobia (as either a diagnosis or an aesthetic) without also understanding its historical relationship to the landscape of invisible infectious agents introduced to human consciousness through the birth of microbiology as a science.

Don James McLaughlin is assistant professor of nineteenth-century American literature at the University of Tulsa and the 2018-2019 Hench post-dissertation fellow at the American Antiquarian Society. His work has been published in American Literature and the New Republic and is forthcoming in Literature and Medicine and J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists


Wednesday, August 14 at The Park Church (7:00 p.m.)

“Where the ‘Wild West’ Ends and China Begins: Rethinking the Geography of Mark Twain and Bret Harte’s Ah Sin

Sunny Yang, University of Houston

Playbill for the Washington, D.C. run of Ah Sin at the National Theatre, May 1877

In the fall of 1876, Mark Twain and Bret Harte embarked on a disastrous collaboration that would culminate in the frontier melodrama known as Ah Sin. Named after its Chinese laundryman character, who was taken from Harte’s 1870 poem “Plain Language from Truthful James,” the play is widely acknowledged as a literary and financial failure that contributed to the demise of Twain and Harte’s friendship. Yet despite its dubious artistic merit, Ah Sin has captured some critical attention because of the central role played by its titular Chinese character. Scholars have debated the play’s intervention into nineteenth-century American stereotypes about the Chinese and have exclusively interpreted the work in the context of domestic debates over Chinese immigration and legal testimony. This talk takes a different approach by analyzing Ah Sin through the lens of nineteenth-century commentary on Sino-American relations, focusing in particular on the U.S. foreign policy of extraterritoriality in China. Resituating the play in this transnational legal context offers fresh insights into Twain’s anti-imperialism at this moment in his career, while also suggesting new avenues for interpreting representations of Chinese immigrants and Chinese American politics in nineteenth-century American writing.

Sunny Yang is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston, where she specializes in American and multiethnic American literature of the long nineteenth century. Her research explores the imperial contexts of U.S. racial formation and cultural production with an emphasis on the intersections of law and literature. She received her PhD in English with a certificate in Africana Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and is currently completing her first book project, Fictions of Territoriality, with the support of fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the American Association of University Women.


About the Center for Mark Twain Studies
The Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies was founded in January 1983 with the gift of Quarry Farm to Elmira College by Jervis Langdon, the great-grand-nephew of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. The Center offers distinctive programs to foster and support Mark Twain scholarship and to strengthen the teaching of Mark Twain at all academic levels. The Center serves the Elmira College community and regional, national, and international students and scholars of Mark Twain.

About The Park Church
Founded in 1846 by a group of abolitionists, The Park Church has been a strong presence in Elmira’s history and some members of its congregation were close friends and family members to Mark Twain.  Known for its striking architectural features, The Park Church contained Elmira’s first public library and has a long history of charitable service to the Elmira community.  Currently, it is an “Open and Affirming Congregation,” welcoming all people to worship and participate in its communal life, regardless of ethnic origin, race, class, age, ability, gender, or sexual orientation.

Twain For Teachers: “The N-Word In The Classroom” (C19 Podcast)

Teachers at all levels may be intrigued by this recent episode of the C19 podcast featuring (and produced by) Koritha Mitchell of Ohio State University. The episode is not exclusively about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mitchell considers a range of texts by authors from various historical periods and with various racial identities. But Twain’s novel is prominent and she also alludes to the NewSouth edition of the novel which replaced the n-word with slave. Mitchell says, “The Huck Finn example is important because C19 scholars likely believe its more directly related to their work than the aforementioned books by [Randall] Kennedy and [Jabari] Asim. But what makes it even more important is that people working on the 19th century also seem to view the debate in terms of whether Twain is being censored, rather than considering how they might hold themselves to a higher standard as teachers and scholars.”

Central to Dr. Mitchell’s pedagogical perspective is her classroom covenant, portions of which she discusses in detail. This document, along with further commentary, can be viewed in full at her website: KorithaMitchell.com

You can subscribe to the C19 podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud, and other popular platforms. Check out other projects from C19: The Society of 19th-Century Americanists at their website: C19Society.org