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The Power of the Pen

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Stephanie and Daphne in Twain personae
Stephanie and Daphne in Twain personae

Let's step back a century and a half in time. Our nation is growing increasingly divided over slavery. Half of the United States sees African Americans as human beings; the other half thinks they are property. Neither half can understand the other. As Missouri native Samuel Langhorne Clemens wasn't aware there was anything wroing with it, because of what was taught to him in school and in church.

Judge Robert Clayton impersonates Mark Twain in his spare time
Judge Robert Clayton impersonates Mark Twain in his spare time
What separates Samuel Clemens from most of his fellow Southerners, however, is that he comes to realize slaves are people too. What's more, he decides to defend themů using words, not weapons. Using the pen name of Mark Twain, he writes a book about a young boy who learns to see beyond the color of a person's skin.

It's been the subject of controversy ever since.

You guys are probably too young still to have read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but it's a very famous story about a white boy, Huck, and a slave, Jim, who run away together, each running from their own situations. Along the way, Huck realizes that African Americans are capable of love and pain - just like him, and opens himself to the idea of friendship with Jim. By the end of the story, though they go their separate ways, the two have become very good friends, despite their different backgrounds.

Stephanie hangs with Twain's cast of characters
Stephanie hangs with Twain's cast of characters
Sounds like a nice story, doesn't it? So what's the problem then? Well, it seems there are too many to count. Some people just over a month after it came out thought the book's subject matter was trash. Later, others didn't like the way Huck disrespected religion. Even later, African Americans opposed its frequent use of the negative term "nigger." And the list goes on.

But all this from a book about a little boy and a runaway slave? Daphne and I were so fascinated by the controversy, we decided to visit the childhood home of Mark Twain in Hannibal, Missouri. Perhaps we could get to the bottom of things there.

Map
The first thing we noticed about Twain's boyhood home was how close it was to the Mississippi River, which was an endless source of inspiration for him. In fact, Twain loved the river so much, he used a navigational term as a pen name. For safety purposes, river boats needed to be in at least "mark twain" -- 12 feet of water. Samuel Clemen's pen name thus meant "Safe water ahead."

 Welcome to Hannibal, Missouri!
 Welcome to Hannibal, Missouri!
We also saw that Mark Twain wrote about the world that immediately surrounded him, and learned most of Twain's characters were Hannibal residents. Huck was his best friend and Tom Sawyer (another of his most notable characters) was the author himself.

Tom Sawyer conned all his buddies into white-washing this fence
Tom Sawyer conned all his buddies into white-washing this fence
The racism in the story wasn't taken from real life though. In fact as we learned in one of the museums, Mark Twain had a great deal of contact with slaves growing up during which he sensed they were different, but didn't really understand why. This young viewpoint became the backbone of "Huckleberry Finn." Twain describes racism through the eyes of an uneducated child - and that is what makes it so powerful

.

Stephanie meets the Mississippi River
Stephanie meets the Mississippi River
Daphne and I discussed this with a number of Hannibal residents, and most seemed to echo the thoughts of Kay Ellis, who worked at Mark Twain's Boyhood Home. "We can't change the past, whether we like it or not. The important thing is that if we teach this book in the classroom, we must make it relevant to the time." And by making it relevant to the time, perhaps we can understand why it existed in the first place.

Stephanie navigates the Mississippi River
Stephanie navigates the Mississippi River

This, I believe, is the lesson that can be learned from "Huckleberry Finn." Censoring or ignoring our past will not make it go away. Rather, we must address it. We cannot change history, but we sure can learn from. it

Stephanie

Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org

 

Links to Other Dispatches

Neda - The houses that King Cotton built
Rebecca -- Pass the gumbo!
Teddy - The amazing journey of Booker T. Washington