American Lit, Book Review, Fiction, Mark Twain, Religion, Satire, Short Story

Thoughts: Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain

CaptainStormfield

 

Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain
Final Verdict: 3.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 37

Extract from Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven is a satire of Elizabeth Stuart Phelps Ward’s The Gates Ajar, which was published in 1868 and became widely popular at the time.  In that religious novel, the protagonist-narrator, Mary Cabot, discusses her ideas of the afterlife with her widowed aunt, shortly after the main character’s brother has been killed.  The author had lost her mother, stepmother, and fiancé in short order, during the American Civil War, and wrote the book as a sort of coping mechanism, and also as a way to reach out to women readers in similar situations.  She claimed that the book was divinely inspired (“The angel said unto me, ‘Write!’ and I wrote”), and its positive views of heaven, one wherein families and friends would be reunited (a newish concept, not based in the true vision of heaven, as explained in the Bible) would later inspire other writers, such as Emily Dickinson.

Although Twain began writing the book sometime around 1868, it was not published for the first time until 1907, just a few years before he died.  It was the last of Twain’s works that would be published in his lifetime and it clearly reflects Twain’s disillusionment with the promise of heaven and a “happily ever after.”  Twain, like Ward, suffered great losses in his life.  His wife and his daughters all died in relatively quick succession, and Twain struggled in his later years with depression and anger.  Although always a satirist, the themes in his stories became much darker, more biting and anti-religious, as his own sadness and heartache grew.

Captain Stormfield, though comic and seemingly light in tone, clearly demonstrates Twain’s darker outlook on life and the afterlife (or lack thereof).  The main character is Captain Elias Stormfield, who is traveling on a ship through space, chasing comets and other vessels from distant planets.  He becomes lost along the way and ends up at the gates of heaven.  But, as it turns out, he’s at the wrong entrance (which is realized only after much discussion with the gatekeepers, who must evaluate maps for days on end before they can locate our tiny, miniscule, germ of a planet, Earth) and must be transported to the correct gates before he can be admitted to the afterlife.

storm

Captain Stormfield was inspired by Captain Edgar Wakeman, a sea captain whom Clemens met in 1866. Wakeman’s eccentric personality made a tremendous impact on Twain, and he is the inspiration for many other Twain characters. Wakeman’s retelling of a dream he had about his own visit to heaven was the inspiration for the story.

The bottom line is this:  Twain uses humor to poke fun at how very silly are our beliefs in heaven.  The evolution of this “new heaven” came about during and after the American Civil War, when so many people were in need of comfort; they found this comfort in the belief that loved ones would be seen again in heaven.  This new heaven is the one we, most of us, think about today – so that evolution clearly held true, though Twain mocked it from the start.  Twain seems to be calling out these fantasies as exactly that: fantasies.  He had no illusions of being able to meet his wife and daughter in heaven again, and that stark view of life and the afterlife certainly affected his writing and his temperament.

But it is not just the vision of heaven he mocks, but also the way we perceive greatness in the here and now.  Nearly everyone is present in heaven, from Napoleon to Socrates, King Henry VIII to Shakespeare.  But, as Stormfield’s guide,  Sandy McWilliams, explains – those great and influential figures from history, be it the epic poet, Homer, or the prophet Mohammed, if lined up end-to-end, might still come up at the rear, behind average, everyday folks who were capable of so much but were never afforded the opportunity to be great.  Earth’s heaven is also geographically similar to the physical earth, but when a new arrival goes looking for someone to talk to in his home region, say England, he might soon discover that the majority of souls wandering that region do not speak English at all, because the history of that land is so ancient, and our perceptions of it always so “now” – so self-centered.

Captain Stormfield learns soon enough that heaven is not what he expected it to be.  Although he does don a halo and wings, and sits on a cloud playing a harp, he soon realizes that to do this forever would be madness.  How boring would it be to sit in one place for all eternity, strutting strings and smiling at people?

In this short story, Twain asks us to re-evaluate our conceptions of celebrity, fame, and power, to keep our tiny little planet and our tiny little lives in perspective – to, in effect, check our egos at the door.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level:  High School+
Interest:  Humor, Satire, Atheism, American Literature, History.

Notable Quotes:

“Well, when I had been dead about thirty years I begun to get a little anxious.”

“Inside of fifteen minutes I was a mile on my way towards the cloud- banks and about a million people along with me. Most of us tried to fly, but some got crippled and nobody made a success of it. So we concluded to walk, for the present, till we had had some wing practice.”

“It’s the sensiblest heaven I’ve heard of yet, Sam, though it’s about as different from the one I was brought up on as a live princess is different from her own wax figger.”

“You have got the same mixed-up idea about these things that everybody has down there. I had it once, but I got over it. Down there they talk of the heavenly King–and that is right–but then they go right on speaking as if this was a republic and everybody was on a dead level with everybody else, and privileged to fling his arms around anybody he comes across, and be hail-fellow-well-met with all the elect, from the highest down. How tangled up and absurd that is! How are you going to have a republic under a king?”

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Autobiography, Mark Twain, Non-Fiction, Victorian, Victorian Celebration

Review: The Autobiography of Mark Twain

The Autobiography of Mark Twain

Final Verdict: 4.0 out of 4.0

YTD: 20

 Charles Neider considered Twain’s Autobiography to be “a classic of American letters, to be ranked with the autobiographies of Benjamin Franklin and Henry Adams.”  While I haven’t read the Adams autobiography, I absolutely agree that Twain’s is comparable in importance and substance to that of Benjamin Franklin; and, as The Modern Library says, it is probably “one of the best 100 Nonfiction books of the 20th Century.” 

One of the benefits of reading an autobiography, and their primary appeal for most, is that they allow readers an opportunity to learn more about a historical figure’s life and work – things that could only be guessed at or inferred by reading their fiction, watching their movies, examining their politics, etc.  Twain’s autobiography fulfills this promise, in that it reinforces what one might learn about him through his fiction, but also reveals so much more about his private life, his personal ambitions, and his deep, deep pains.  Most who are familiar with Twain’s novels know that he was considered (and is still considered) to be one of America’s greatest humorists and satirists.  But Twain did not look at himself that way – he believed himself to be a moralist and a sermonizer – one who allowed humor into his stories when it occurred naturally.  Twain cared deeply about the human race, but was also so disappointed by it.  

When reading Twain’s works in chronological order, it is clear that the nature of his texts change over time.  In the beginning, his stories can be characterized by a youthful innocence – a playful, all-American view of the world (The Adventures of Tom Sawyer).  The future stories become more complex and delve into more delicate territory (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; The Prince and the Pauper) when he begins to look at race and class issues, social and economic inequalities.  Ultimately, his late works are almost despairing in nature – the early hopefulness and joyful themes becoming distilled, to say the least (The Mysterious Stranger).  One might wonder why – but the Autobiography explains.  Twain had been a trusting, almost naïve person for most of his life.  He put his finances into the hands of publishers and lawyers who would ultimately betray him.  He speculated and invested in “certain” ventures, only to watch those ventures disappoint and nearly ruin him financially.  In addition to his financial losses and the deceptions he endured, he also suffered through the loss of many of his closest friends and family – including his wife and three of his children.  Twain even felt personally responsible for the death of his only son, who died an infant.  These losses and disappointments seemed to haunt him throughout his entire life and, throughout the Autobiography, there is a heartbreaking desire for death – a respect and appreciation for it which only one who had suffered enormously could truly feel or understand.  Repeatedly, throughout the passages, Twain describes bluntly his envy for those who have passed on from this world and expresses an anger toward those who helped him survive, when he himself was at death’s door.  It is a private despondency not often exposed in his public persona or in his writing.

Ultimately, I found Twain’s Autobiography to be wonderful and painful.  Anyone who is already a fan of Twain’s writing will certainly enjoy this text; however, conversely, those who do not enjoy his books may have difficulty with this, because his style and approach in narrative and essay form are similar (also some credit must be given to the editor, Charles Neider, who put some structure and organization into this edition of the work – Twain had dictated the entire thing, so its original form was far from fluid or cohesive).  It was incredibly rewarding not just to learn more about the man and his private life, but also about his writing process, his relationships with other prominent writers and figures of the time (William Dean Howells, Ulysses S. Grant, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bret Harte, in particular).  Baring witness to some of the more intimate moments and relationships – especially, for instance, Twain’s friendship with General Ulysses S. Grant, adds so much to my appreciation of Twain as a person.  Similarly, witnessing him lose his cool and blast certain people who he held in the highest contempt is, of course, hilarious.  Twain clearly tried his best to be respectful and considerate of all people (at least in his adulthood), so when those rare moments occur when Twain describes dealing with people he truly despised – it is a (guilty) pleasure to witness!

For fans of Twain – do yourself a favor and read his Autobiography.  As much as I thought I knew about Twain, I now realize that I can approach his works with a deeper and renewed appreciation. 

Notable Quotes:

“It is an odd and curious and interesting ass, the human race is.”

“When I was younger I could remember anything, whether it had happened or not; but my faculties are decaying now and soon I shall be so I cannot remember any but the things that never happened.”

“Where prejudice exists it always discolors our thoughts and feelings and opinions.”

“It seems a pity that the world should throw away so many good things merely because they are unwholesome.”

“Doctor Meredith removed to Hannibal by and by and was our family physician and saved my life several times. Still, he was a good man and meant well. Let it go.”

“But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most…?”

“I have always preached. That is the reason that I have lasted thirty years. If the humor came of its own accord and uninvited I have allowed it a place in my sermon, but I was not writing the sermon for the sake of the humor. I should have written the sermon just the same, whether any humor applied for admission or not.”

“It is the will of God that we must have critics and missionaries and congressmen and humorists, and we must bear the burden.”

“I was not able to convince her that we never do any duty for the duty’s sake but only for the mere personal satisfaction we get out of doing that duty. T he fact is, she was brought up just like the rest of the world, with the ingrained and stupid superstition that there is such a thing as duty for duty’s sake, and so I was obliged to let her abide in her darkness.”

“I do like to hear myself talk.”

“The sweet placidity of death! It is more beautiful than sleep.”


Read as part of the Victorian Celebration
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Ancient Greece, Book Review, Fiction, Gay Lit, GLBT, Historical, History, John Steinbeck, Literature, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Religion, Satire, Sexuality, Suzanne Collins, William S. Burroughs

Brief Thoughts on 8 Books

The books listed below are those I read for last week’s Read-a-Thon.  I planned not to write a review for each, because I don’t really have time to play catch-up on 8 book reviews, particularly with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) starting in two days.  I did want to get some thoughts and a “rating” down for all of them, though.

1. Teleny, or The Reverse of the Medal by Anonymous (Oscar Wilde) 5 out of 5

2. The Red Pony by John Steinbeck 5 out of 5

—While I did not enjoy this one quite as much as The Pearl, it is still incredible.  The Red Pony is actually a tightly woven collection of four short stories about the same young boy and his family.  Steinbeck is one of America’s greatest storytellers, and I’m reminded anew of just how brilliant he is every time I pick up and read something by him.  The way he recreates rural and poverty-stricken American life goes beyond genuine accuracy – it is perfection.  The emotions he evokes, the nationalism (not patriotism) he inspires, and the history he harkens back to — I am never disappointed.  The story of Jody, his parents, and their farm hand is the story of every American boy and his wide-eyed American dreams.

3. The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 4 out of 5

—Absolutely hilarious.  I almost don’t know what else to say about this book.  It is simple but imaginative.  Hilarious but poignant.  The book is a reimagining of the Creation, through the diaries of Adam and Eve.  The reader first sees the world’s creation and the discovery of all life and things, including Eve, through Adam’s eyes.  The diary entries are typically “male” – not much concern for anything but hunting and gratification (“What is this annoying thing that talks, talks, talks, and gets wet in the eyes when I ignore it?”).  Then, the reader sees the same events and things through Eve’s eyes, which is wholly “feminine” – the pretty lights in the sky that one could reach if they only just climbed a bit higher in their tree, the moon that someone steals each morning and brings back each night, the animal friends and the new babies to love and nurture (which Adam believes must be another species – perhaps bear? Perhaps kangaroo?).  Not my favorite Twain, as it is a bit simple, but it is still classic Twain – witty, cynical, holier-than-thou.

4. The Cat Inside by William S. Burroughs 3 out of 5

—For those not familiar with William S. Burroughs – he was the “godfather” to the American Beat generation.  He did a lot of drugs, had sex with a lot of boys, and shot his wife when trying to aim at an apple on her head.  He was a strange, twisted, brilliant man who had a bizarre love for cats.  He worshipped them in a way near to the adoration given cats by the ancient Egyptians.  Burroughs believed cats were the ultimate species and he allowed them to run rampant on his ranch, feeding them, playing with them, forcing friends to care for them when he had to be away.  This book is a sort of collection of diary entries about his life with cats.  It certainly tells of Burroughs and there are many “Burroughs-esque” elements to it but, overall, it’s probably one which could be skipped. Unless, maybe, you’re a bizarre cat lover.

5. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins 3.5 out of 5

—The final book in The Hunger Games trilogy, and definitely my least favorite.  I enjoyed certain aspects of the book – such as the inside-look at District 13 and how it is managed, not to mention the way it must readjust to the influx of new residents, as people from the other Districts flee their homes.  I also appreciated that this book took place in the “real world,” outside the games – and was not just all about the champions (although, largely, it was).  I was disappointed in the ending, though – it felt haphazardly constructed and unfulfilling.  Too much time was spent inside District 13, doing not much at all (even the group’s attempts at rescuing the captured champions in the Capitol is left to the imagination) – too much politics, too much angst, and too quickly resolved sub-plots.  The finale was predictable (though a bit welcome) and the fate of one of Katniss’s love-interests (and that relationship) was sadly, sadly deconstructed, as if Collins just got sick of having Katniss so indecisive so made up her mind for her.  It was an okay book, but not a great conclusion to an otherwise interesting series.

6, 7, & 8 The Oresteia (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides) by Aeschylus 4 out of 5

—I definitely enjoyed this trilogy more than I expected to, especially since I was reading it in the late, late hours of the read-a-thon (somewhere around hour 18).  It is hard to rate these as separate plays, since the trio really only works together in total – but they are separate plays and were written and performed separately at times, until the collection was completed.  All-in-all, I found Agamemnon to be the strongest of the set, but each of the three were interesting.  The Eumenides, in particular, with its examination of morality and judgment, a new judicial system and the struggle between old and new gods (old and new belief systems, moral structures, punishment processes, etc) was fascinating to read, particularly as precursor to modern-day judicial systems (the presence of the first ‘jury of peers’ is here).  Aeschylus and The Oresteia are definitely worth the read.


November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I will be writing my very first novel (at least 50,000 words) and would truly appreciate your sponsorship. All donations go to The Office of Letters and Light – a great charity working for a great cause! If you can spare even $5 (or more) – please Sponsor Me and help me stay energized to write my book and WIN NaNoWriMo!

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Essay, Fiction, Humor, Mark Twain, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Politics, Religion, Satire, Short Story, Sociology

Review: Who is Mark Twain? by Mark Twain

Who is Mark Twain? By Mark Twain
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

YTD: 14

Plot/Story:
4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impacful

Who is Mark Twain? is a collection of short stories, essays and letters, published posthumously by Twain’s editors.  It encompasses a wide range of political, social, and educational ideals, as well as some insight into Twain’s personal and family life, as well as funny anecdotes about his journey from San Francisco nobody to over-night sensation.  As usual, I connected strongly with Twain’s pieces – I tend to be aligned well with his philosophical points of view (when he praises the U.S. Journalists for being irreverent, except where actual reverence is due, as opposed to foreign presses which pay reverence to pretty much everything, I about shouted with joy), but I did disagree with him in one respect: he completely bashes Jane Austen, in the short essay “Jane Austen.”  Now, I had heard that Twain wasn’t a fan, and it’s not hard to imagine why – when you compare Twain’s world and work to Austen’s, it’s almost polar-opposite – almost.  Twain touches on Austen’s satire and parody, but only briefly – and in a way which indicates that Twain didn’t think Austen really knew what she was doing, and her later critics made it appear as if she was being satirical when, in fact, she really believed what she was writing.  Now, I don’t know how far Twain went to familiarize himself with Austen’s works or personal writings – he mentions two books, which he tried to read repeatedly, but couldn’t get into. That’s fine and dandy, but I do think Twain was off on this one, because Jane Austen was a brilliant comedienne who, I believe, truly knew what she was doing and saying.

Characterization:
3 – Characters well developed.

This section really only applies to those works of short fiction in this collection – the essays and letters due have characters, because Twain tends to respond to everything with a story.  Still, his characters really shine in stories like “A Group of Servants,” “The Undertaker’s Tale,” and “The Snow-Shovelers” (which was also a brilliant statement on politics and ethics hypocrisy).   Some of the strongest characterization, in my opinion, is found in two stories whose main characters are animals: “The Jungle Discusses Man” and “Telegraph Dog.”  Here, Twain uses animals in human situations to discuss human nature – which was fascinating (and the first, “Jungle” reminded me of a twisted retelling or foreshadowing of The Lion King, actually). 

Prose/Style:
3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Twain’s prose is fluid and easy to follow.  Whether he is writing a fictional story, a letter to an editor, or a biographical letter to a friend, his language is effortless and his ability with puns and world-play is uncontested (the only class of writers I can compare him to are Shakespeare, Swift, and Vonnegut).  I adore the satirists, but they have to be brilliant if they are going to get it right, and Twain definitely gets it right (most of the time).  Reading his pieces is like conversing with a charming old friend, who just wants to catch up after the years, chat about how things have been going, and tell you how completely wrong you are about everything, but all the while offering you candy and cigarettes, fluffing your pillow and refilling your drink.  He cares deeply about people, and he cares about giving the proper kind of respect to the people who have earned it.  All of this, the sentiment of his convictions and virtues, comes across in the tone of the language, and through the undercurrent of the words – the actual words often saying the opposite of what Twain really means. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.

What I enjoy so much about Twain is the way he tackles difficult issues, be they politics, religion, education, or social ideals, boldly and confidently, but with a reassuring and refreshing sense of whimsy and fun, as if to say “there’s no reason to be bothered about any of this, really.”  He is serious, but calm – he can put the “smack down” on anybody he finds in the wrong, and he does in quite a few instances in this collection, but one gets the feeling that Twain finds all arguing in general, rather silly – he just wants to live a good life, and to encourage that in others, and he gets most dangerous and powerful when he is writing against any attack on people’s rights to happiness and well-being.  He pokes-fun at people in a brilliantly endearing way, but he does the same to himself, which makes the reader comfortable in knowing that, at the very least, Twain is a man who can take an honest look at himself and criticize where critique is due. 

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: High School and above

Interest: Satire, Non-Fiction, Memoir, Auto-biography, Short Story, Politics, History

Notable Quotes:

“I asked the British Government to tell me what head I came under.  . . . Now you will never believe it, but I give you my honor that this – this, which you see before you- was actually taxed as a Gas Works.”  – Twain discussing taxes imposed upon his published fiction in England, before copyright laws.

“It seemed to sort of recognize me as one of the Friendly Powers – not on a large scale, of course – not like Russia and China and those, but on a – well, on a secondary scale – New Jersey.”

 

 

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Alan Gribben, censorship, Mark Twain, NewSouth Books, Saturday Uncensored

Censoring Mark Twain: A Literary Embarrassment

Censoring Mark Twain: A Literary Embarrassment

NewSouth Books is publishing an edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn that removes every occurrence of the “n-word” and replaces it with the word “slave.” I am outraged by this desecration of a classic American masterpiece – the editor specifies readers’ “discomfort” and possible book banning as reason enough to censor the book, but my question is: Where have all the teachers gone?

Mark Twain wanted us to be uncomfortable, that’s the whole point. He wrote the story to reflect the attitudes and situations of the people – to force Americans to look this problem in the face, reflect on it, and deal with it. My hope is that everyone who cares about honesty in American history and the liberty and protection of writers, will speak up and out against Blair Publishing and this asinine, spineless censorship.

The work is provided with an Introduction by Editor Alan Gribben, who attempts to explain his reasoning behind censoring all 217 occurrences of the word nigger, as well as other racial slurs against Native Americans. The intent, based on Mr. Gribben’s argument, is not to replace the original work, which scholars and the literati will no doubt continue to prefer, but to make the book more accessible to less-learned or more sensitive readers, by excluding one of the English language’s most hateful descriptors.

As my readers know by now, I am a staunch opponent of any type of censorship.  I can certainly understand where Mr. Gribben is coming from – his hope, as a Twain scholar – is to make the book (truly, the defining piece of American literature) more commonly listed amongst school reading lists and more confidently taught in classroom settings.  This is admirable, to be sure, but at what price?  My questions are as follows:  1) Who gives anyone the right to alter the original intent of an author, particularly one as paramount to American literature as Mark Twain; 2) How is it not plain to see that, by removing the word and its overall sentiment, you dilute the meaning and intent of the work; and 3) When does shielding a sensitive public from the truth of a time, place, or particular sentiment, do the people any justice?

Let me take a walk through Mr. Gribben’s introduction (found here), point out areas of disagreement, and explain my own reasons for being so utterly outraged and fearful for the future of American literature, if its masters’ origins –the foundations for all American writers to follow- are in peril.

On page eleven, Gribben points out that “Twain scarcely had to concern himself about the feelings of African American or American Indian readers.”  What Gribben does not mention, though, is the actual reason why Twain was only concerned with white readers, which is this: It was the white reader’s mentality and attitudes which Twain was calling into question.  Twain was not concerned about offending anyone, because he was hoping to rattle the cages, to get people worked up, annoyed and, ultimately, reflective.

On page twelve, Mr. Gribben reminds us that Huck Finn was said to have been a boy of “’sound heart and a deformed conscience’ – in other words, someone reared amid such pervasive prejudice that he had a hard time seeing through its premises.”  I agree with Mr. Gribben on this point, but I would ask – how, then, by denying the reader the opportunity to truly live in Huck’s world, to see first-hand the complete and utter disrespect and debasement with which Huck’s “role-models” treat the minority races, can the reader get this sense of Huck’s internal struggle?   He goes on to say that the “implications of permanent inferiority . . . repulse modern day readers,” at which, I assume, Twain would stand up and cheer!  Thank goodness these words and actions repulse modern readers – they should!  And they should be there, always, as a reminder of a time when we, as a society, were not repulsed, so as not to ever forget and thereby repeat the damaging mistakes of our past.

When we get to page thirteen, Mr. Gribben mentions how he is “unable to utter the racist put-downs spoken by numerous characters” in the book, when giving lectures or public readings, then seems surprised that the audience, too, would feel discomfort.  The audience, like the classroom, will take its cue from the speaker (as Mark Twain well understood).  The solution, then, to this “nagging problem with the text” is not resolved, as Mr. Gribben asserts, by simply removing the words – it is only masked.  The key is not to turn from these feelings, but to embrace and examine them – to explain the text, as it is, and as it was meant to be.  Open up a dialogue, learn from one another.  Will it get uncomfortable?  Probably.  Will some be hurt, others saddened, and still others hardly affected at all?  Absolutely, yes.  But by masking the true nature of the work, and the intent of the author, we do a great disservice to Twain’s bold and near-revolutionary stance on social conscience – and that is the lesson we should be teaching, the point we should be getting across.  Mr. Gribben seems to forget that the language of this novel is not a “problem,” as he concludes, but is in fact the key element of the story, without which it would not stand as the beacon of American literature that it is today.

On page fourteen, Mr. Gribben reasserts a notion he had been signifying throughout the initial portion of the Introduction, which is that Huckleberry Finn has long been considered the “mandatory statement about American slavery.”  I would argue, though, that the book is not about American slavery, it is about the American conscience, and Mark Twain, by making use of genuine dialect, slang, and inflammatory language, was needling at his readers’ consciences from start to finish.

We arrive at page fifteen, wherein Gribben empathizes with teachers who are weary of assigning the beloved classic “because of the hurtful ‘n word.”  Gribben asserts that this is “proof that a single debasing word was overwhelming every other consideration.”  If this is true, then the tragedy is not the presence of the hurtful word in this great American text, but in the lack of courage in our teachers.  Where are our Aristotles? Our Platos?  Who is teaching our teachers how to teach, and why have they become so afraid of facing American history realistically and explaining to our future generations where we came from, who we were, and what we have tried to become?   There is no “here” without a “there” and it was the river-boat journey in-between which carried us ever-onward.

Gribben goes on to state that “the term ‘slave’ is recognized globally as an affront to humanity.”  Yes, as it should be – but Huckleberry Finn can hardly be read “authentically,” as Gribben asserts, if this stated attitude, and Huck’s journey itself, is diluted by the censorship of its most offensive language; the counter-sentiment to Huck’s cry: “All right, then, I’ll go to hell!” when he chooses to stand by Jim despite the “civilized” beliefs of his society (that the Christian thing to do with a runaway slave is return him) must be there in full-force, or we reduce that most momentous of literary moments to something fleeting and inconsequential.

On page seventeen, Gribben makes a valid point about how teachers become misguided in their attempts at teaching this text.  He says that, “some teachers go so far as to write the offensive word in large letters on the board and encourage their students to exchange opinions about it.”  Of course, this approach could be disastrous, if the dialogue is not carefully and sensitively planned and guided, with previous historical insight into the presence of the word in the text, where it comes from, and what Twain was doing with it.  I once had a Biology teacher who would throw out similarly provocative words, related to anatomy rather than literature, in an attempt to “break the ice” and get her students more comfortable with the “naughty words.”  Did it work?  Not really – but that was largely because the teacher did not treat the words as seriously as they should have been, as the teacher with the large letters on the board probably had not done.  But to erase the word completely is equally harmful to our understanding of the work itself, and to the possibility for further progress and growth as a people who are capable of learning from and lamenting the past, without having to be mired in its shames without opportunity (the opportunity being social and personal maturity).

Later in the Introduction, Gribben somewhat paradoxically claims that if the “allusions to an inhumane institution” (slavery) make readers uncomfortable, it is a fortunate thing.  He goes on to ask: “Would we rather have a novel written about the American South of the 1840s that entirely avoided the existence of slavery?”  How does one distinguish, then, which aspects of the American South of the 1840s are worthy of inclusion, or deserving of exclusion?  There are current attempts at re-writing that history, excluding the existence of slavery from classroom textbooks, for instance, which Gribben would seemingly oppose vehemently, based on his assertions above.  But how does he disassociate that question from this one: Would we rather have a novel written about the American South of the 1840s that entirely shies away from the existence of derogatory slurs and very real social sentiments of that time, negating any of the progress we have made to-date?  It seems Gribben makes this argument by focusing again only on slavery as the issue in Huckleberry Finn but it is not just slavery being berated by Twain – it is racism and the human conscience. Twain is begging his audiences to WAKE UP, not to roll over, cover their eyes and ears, and hope that all the bad words go away.

Similarly, Gribben points out the importance of the oft-debated and somewhat offensive “sometimes comically ungrammatical dialect.”  On page twenty-seven, Gribben argues that “Jim speaks with an untutored dialect because it was against the law in most slave states to allow slaves to attend school or otherwise learn to read and write.”  This is an interesting argument, and one with which I agree and have made in my own defense of authentic dialect in this novel.  Yet, if the dialect is so offensive to many, how can Gribben be for leaving it in the text while being for excluding what was then a very real, common, and authentically used term?  These are two sides of the same coin, both equally important, but to argue in favor of one and in opposition to the other is a blatant double-standard, and one which needs serious re-evaluation.  I agree completely with Mr. Gribben’s point that the dialect must be left genuine, and my argument is the same for the use of natural, if highly offensive language.  How do we justify honoring the contentious grammar, but then completely remove the controversial language?  Why cannot we teach the importance of both, in parallel, in the same way?  It seems by removing the heated language from the natural dialogue, we are deflating a balloon – the item retains its vivid color, and is certainly something to be held in one’s hand, but with very little purpose.

Gribben concludes by speaking to the impact Twain’s writing (Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in particular) had on modern American literature.  He mentions that, by affording us a naïve and rather unreliable (by virtue of being uneducated) narrator in Huck Finn, the reader is then made “to carry out most of the task of constructing its meaning.”  He furthers this by noting that the book “prompts readers to check on whether or not they are succumbing to social pressures in order to avoid admitting that a pervasive practice might be tremendously wrong.”  He relays this information in direct correlation to the reasoning behind many nations’ attempts at banning or censoring the book (fear of revolution) – though he does not see that he now is the one “succumbing to social pressures” (31) by censoring the greatest of all American novels because it is preferable to causing offense and it is easier than explaining true intent by forcing readers to search for deeper meaning.  Gribben mentions that it is “conformist and cowardly of us to assume that prevailing laws and customs, no matter how solidly established, are too sacrosanct to be skeptically examined and tested.”  Fortunately, the pendulum of explicitly racist dialect has swung far from its arc of the 1840s; unfortunately, however, what is now “sacrosanct” is the view that any racist language, regardless of purpose and intent should be barred on the grounds of preserving dignity and righting historical wrongs – this, sadly, misses the obvious: Twain, by being scrupulous and meticulous in his prose  – language, dialect, and narrative voice – was the original champion for the idea of alike humanity and common decency.  Censoring his work, diluting the errors and passions of the characters, and ignoring the truth and reality of the time only furthers the misunderstanding that the work in some way perpetuates racist feelings.   Upon correct reading and careful guidance and instruction, one realizes that this book does just the opposite, and rather than taking the simple road out – away from the sensitive spots – we should, instead, fight for confident, competent, and courageous teachings of these socially and historically significant works.

*As a side-note:  I am particularly bothered by a certain bit of logic that Mr. Gribben attempts to use, in support of his argument.  At one point, he tells an account of how he, at a Mark Twain conference in Pennsylvania, had to cross a line of picketing parents to get into the venue.  The parents were there, reportedly, because one teacher had asked an African American boy to read the part of Jim, the slave. This, not unexpectedly, caused an incident and flamed the protest; yet, one must ask – how exactly does this relate to the book itself?  One teacher’s ineptness at presenting the material, or one group of parents’ potential over-reaction, has nothing to do with the power of the book.  It is duplicitous to infer that these parents were there protesting the book, based on its language or anything else, when they were, in actuality, protesting the apparent discrimination in the classroom, which could have been, through proper use of Twain’s text, a learning experience for all.  The use of this anecdote is a flawed logic and should be dismissed, as the two arguments (one against the events in the classroom; the other against the book) have nothing to do with each other.

“The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter – it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” – Mark Twain

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Book Review, Fiction, Mark Twain

Review: The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain

With each new encounter, Twain proves himself to me to be both brilliant and complicated. The Prince and the Pauper is a tale of cautious optimism; unlike later works (Huck Finn, The Mysterious Stranger), in The Prince and the Pauper, Twain seems to still believe in humanity and its potential for goodness – for greatness. Though this novel is set in England, Twain is particularly concerned with the state of affairs in America, during the time of the Civil War – The Prince and Pauper’s search for identity – shouting to be heard, to be recognized and believed – mirrors what was happening in America, both in terms of politics and social justice. Writers were comic critics, and only the wealthy businessmen, politicians, and landowners had any real say. Still, in this novel, Twain seems to see a glimmer of hope. That he chose Edward VI, whose reign was short-lived (and whose demise was prophesied in retrospect) seems to imply that Twain believed America was at the cusp of a possible change for the better – the beacon on the hill. A final Eden, but that, in all likelihood, the greatness could not be sustained, and only memories would last. Brilliant, hilariously Twain-esque, and truly heart-breaking to one such as myself, who is more familiar with Twain’s later, more cynical works.

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Book Review, Christopher Marlowe, Classics, Drama, Fiction, Henry Miller, Literature, Mark Twain, Sherwood Anderson, William Faulkner

Review: The Earlies Part 1

Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe

Liked it a lot. Didactic, of course – but not as incredible as I has assumed it would be. Then again, put into historical context, maybe it is (was) quite amazing.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Where has this novel gone? It’s quite incredible – and nobody has ever heard of it! Anderson weaves a series of short stories from the same small town together, discussing the deconstruction of provincial, farm life and the advent of “the city.” The bottom line – nobody knows that EVERYbody is different.

Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Pretty amazing, especially coming out of the early 20th Century. Hilarious in his obsession with ‘the C word’ and sex and all the dirty diseases that come with it. Also, funny to watch Miller denounce the practice of putting so much importance on the literary geniuses like Goethe, Emerson, Tennyson, etc – but then watch as he quotes them left and right within his own prose. It’s a wonderful experiment with language and stream of consciousness, though. Definitely worth being named a classic, even if a bit bizarre.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

You know, everyone calls this a “boy’s” book – generally speaking, people think the book is for children. I read it when I was a kid, and I didn’t like it. I re-read it a couple years ago and liked it better. Finally, I read it again recently and fell in love with it. The reason? It is not a kid’s book. It’s a very adult book, with themes that were way over my head as a ten, twelve, and even fifteen year old reader. Tom Sawyer, maybe, can be called a boy’s book, but Huckleberry Finn truly is the great American novel. Amazing.

Light in August by William Faulkner

Faulkner is certainly a powerful force and innovator in American literature. I have to say, I was wary of touching his works after my first experience, with The Sound and the Fury. However, Light in August was much easier to follow while remaining just as interesting and even dangerous. They last chapters were a bit of a letdown, they seemed out of place and unnecessary, but this novel as a whole made me re-think my position on Faulkner and …heck, I may even try another of his novels. In a few years.

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