The Journey Motif: Poetry & Mark Twain, Part One
EDITORS NOTE: Dr. Chadwick has, since 2019, been co-director of our Summer Teachers Institute. While the STI was canceled in 2021 due to the ongoing pandemic, Drs. Chadwick and Seybold have continued to distribute resources and corresponding with former (and future!) STI participants. See, for instance, “And That Has Made All The Difference: Scaffolding Mark Twain’s Poetry.” What follows is a more extensive series of exemplars for teaching Mark Twain’s poetry in association with Common Core texts.
Why is this integration and scaffolding important? Whenever we can illustrate to our students that the past does indeed reflect and inform their present we must do so. Never before have curricula and the rationale for what we teach come under such scrutiny as right now.
We must be prepared to explain calmly and definitely explain “why” and to “what end” we are teaching the fiction and nonfiction that we teach. Parents are demanding it. Parallel to this surveillance is the assertion that texts and writers from the past have no relevance to students today, that they cannot identify with perspectives from the past.
That said, we must be able to illustrate confidently our rationale and process. Mark Twain is one of those “irrelevant” writers. In conjunction with some of the popular and controversial Twain texts, our “tapping” into his other, less familiar works serves several purposes:
- to make more instructional use of the depth and breadth of his work
- to expose students to a wider variety of genres
- to expose GenZ students to a person who was self-consciously using his unique life experiences to speak to future generations
I: The Journey Motif: Just What Is It?:
In many of the texts we teach, whether in English Language Arts, History, or other Humanities classes, the journey motif is a very familiar component. Characters often embark on a physical journey, but also “journey” emotionally, psychologically, and imaginatively. Nonfiction, too, includes the journey motif. Richard Wright’s travelogue, Black Power, explores not only his search for American and African heritages, but also integrates common social threads. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, is another example, as are Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” Jimmy Santiago Baca’s “Dust-Bowl Memory” and “Immigrants in Our Own Land,” Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and a variety of Mark Twain’s novels and travelogues. Even many of Twain’s speeches mobilize the journey motif.
The journey motif potentially serves as a pathway of experience and enlightenment for both the characters and the readers who partake of the journey.
This year we’re examining the journey motif through the lens of an unexpected genre—Mark Twain’s poetry. Unless the poem is an epic, such as Derek Walcott’s Omeros, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, we don’t think of the poem-genre as containing journey motifs. And, Mark Twain’s poetry is absolutely not epic.
However, some of the poems Mark Twain wrote not only fit well into this genre but bring perspectives that resonate with our GenZ students in their “here and now.”
So many of the texts by Twain that the world continues to read emanate from his personal relationships—family and friends. Colleagues and even chance encounters affected his writing.
Family meant so much to him, especially his wife and children. So much has been written about the deep and abiding love and devotion between Sam Clemens and Olivia Langdon. Their combined devotion to and love of their children. Their deepening despair at the losses of Langdon and Susy. And, of course, Clemens’ black-hole of despair upon the loss of the love of his life—his spirit—Livy.
He does “channel” some of this personal tragedy and challenges into his poetry, allowing readers—and our students today—to peer into a past iteration of the American family, comparing and contrasting it with their present.
Expanding this familial influence are others who brought other experiences and voices to Mark Twain: George Griffin, John Lewis, Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, Mary Ann Cord, and Warner T. McGuinn, for example—just to cite a few. In addition to these individuals who directly influenced Sam’s/Mark’s life were statesmen, social activists, scientists, other writers and editors, philosophers, thinkers, and suffragists: Walt Whitman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Darwin, Percy Shelley, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ulysses S. Grant, again, to cite a very few.
These individuals and many others would comprise Clemens’ primary sources of perspective, insight, and process—a writing process of weighing, evaluating, and rethinking his own situation. Succinctly, Mark Twain’s personal encounters with individual people all over the world would forever affect his writing, including his poetry.
Concomitant with Twain’s personal encounters through his life’s journey were his cultural experiences. Culture includes, as we know, more than ethnicity. Ethnicity, most assuredly represents a central core of culture, of course. With ethnicity are geographical location, religion, experiences, beliefs, and, yes, gender and age.
His novels and short stories take readers on many journeys: past, present, even glimpses into humanity’s possible future. Readers experience different cultures and times and peoples.
His poems, too, make this impact upon readers.
The following exemplar explores the journey motif in “The Aged Pilot Man” and “To Jennie.”
Though it did not appear in print until 1935, many years after Sam Clemens’s death, “To Jennie” is the expression of a young man, just 20 years old, to a peer for whom he holds affection. Clemens may have had more romantic inclinations towards “Jennie,” whose full name was Ann Virginia Ruffner and in whose book he scrawled this brief verse. But both she and he had ambitions beyond the homes of their youth and prioritized those ambitions over each other’s company.
The poem thus alludes to the increasing mobility of Americans during the second half of the 19th century, made possible by transportation technology, primarily the steam engine. While very few Americans in Twain’s generation ventured as far as he did from his childhood home, he was on a vanguard of the dramatically changing norms for interstate travel and migration in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Bonds with local community and extended family which had once been presumed to be lifelong are now regarded as far more ephemeral. Many GenZ students anticipate making multiple relocations for education and professional opportunities when they aren’t much old than Twain was when he penned “To Jennie.”
Not long after he and Jennie separated, Sam Clemens headed south on the Mississippi River. Though he never reached his intended destination, the journey rekindled a childhood dream, to be part of that transformation of transportation technology, to become a steamboat pilot. He would succeed in this ambition and spend several years on the river, as detailed in Life On The Mississippi, while he was still a young man. He did not take on the poetic identity of “The Aged Pilot Man” until more than a decade after he had quit the steamboat trade. Thus, the poem has layers of nostalgia, often ironized. Numerous critics have identified this as a parody of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” while Eric Roorda says “the piece seems more like a shotgun blast fired at the whole storied genre of sea poetry.”
The poem relies on a youthful narrator to relate a challenging, frightening, and even philosophical moment in time. It captures the dangers of modern, industrialized travel, as well as the awe. In so doing, Twain alludes vaguely to the death of his younger brother in a steamboat explosion. Henry Clemens had followed Sam into the steamboat trade, and Sam held himself responsible for this family tragedy.
The poem also contains period vocabulary worth which GenZ students would likely be unfamiliar; which provides an opportunity for discussion of how language evolves through time.
Line 10. “Snub up your boat . . .” 17th c usage—now obsolete; to take up sharply or severely; to order about in sharp fashion
Line 24. “. . . whip-boy” A now archaic 19th c term used to describe an economically poor child who was to accompany a more fortunate child through adulthood to serve, as well as to receive any punishment the more privileged child might actually deserve.
Line 27. “. . . Raging mules” Mules were indeed used to pull canal boats. They were cheaper than horses and loved longer.By mid-20th c, the mules were not longer used.
Line 65. “Avast. . . .” 17th c: hold fast; hold; stop
Line 100. “ . . . shoaling” 16th c: shallow
- Curricular Connections:
- A Life Like Mine: How Children Live Around the World
- Pretty Salma: A Little Red Riding Hood Story from Africa
- Susan B. Anthony: Fighter fro Freedom and Equality
- A Picture Book of Rosa Parks
- My Librarian Is a Camel: How Books Are Brought to Children Around the World
- Exploring Countries Around the World
- The People Could Fly Picture Book
- Esperanza Rising
- Letters to a Young Poet
- “Immigrant Farm Workers, the Hidden Part of New York’s Local Food Movement”
- The Joy Luck Club
- “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
These titles represent a very small portion of the texts teachers use with students, PreK-12, across the country. The idea here is to illustrate how we can scaffold and integrate Mark Twain’s poetry into the texts throughout the academic year.
- Interactive Activities:
The following interactive strategies can be used by elementary, middle, and high school educators and students. Each poem represents a suggested grade band, but as we know, everything is adaptable.
A: “To Jennie”
Because of COVID, our students are ever-aware of the tenuousness of life and relationships. “To Jennie” is a poem that expresses Clemens’ grief at the loss of a friend.
Loss of life, we should note, is not the only kind of loss our students experience that affects them personally and emotionally: loss of friendship, of security and safety, of health, or a beloved pet, for example. Grief and loss occur in many iterations and students deal with their grief and loss differently. For Samuel Clemens, writing functioned not only as a vehicle to express and craft fiction and nonfiction but also as a means to express the “inexpressible.” In this instance, Clemens expresses the depth and impact of his loss in letters and then the poem.
This activity is applicable and scaleable for both elementary through high school. Using assigned curricular text(s), include “To Jennie” as a further example of how a real person, an author, like Mark Twain, expressed his sense of loss and grief.
Rather than asking students to discuss in class, encourage them to create a digital or non-digital photo-journal that illustrates one such example they want to share with the class. Each photo-journal should have written descriptive captions to aid viewers’ understanding of the message. Students should create a title for their photo-journals.
B: “The Aged Pilot Man”
The assigned texts and moments in historical and present time often continue challenges and life-changing events. “The Aged Pilot Man” is an effective poem to scaffold with MS and HS students, examining first-person narrative “as it happens” moments in time. That the narrator is a child allows for students to identify and to discuss how they, too may have witnessed and experienced life-changing moments.
Describing such a critical and possibly life-threatening moment through the voice, memory, and description of a child is important. An interesting activity to scaffold with similar curricular texts would be an As I Saw It project. Allow students to create an As I Saw It Vision Board. The aim of the Vision Board will be to recreate through images and descriptions a moment in time that surprised, even perhaps, frightened each student. The students may elect to use a personal experience or newspaper articles, news programs, even interviews with another person (friend, family member, neighbor).
Once the As I Saw It Vision Board is completed, students can discuss as a class and even think about creating an exhibit in the school to share with others. Each student can curate during the exhibit.
- Up Next…
In the next post, I’ll share exemplars of poetry which can be scaffolded for Linguistic Exploration…