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Mark Twain Forum <[log in to unmask]>
Sun, 2 Feb 1997 19:39:09 -0500
TEXT/PLAIN (165 lines)

Fishkin, Shelley Fisher. _Lighting Out for the Territory:
Reflections on Mark Twain and American Culture_.  Oxford Univ.,
$25.00 (255p) ISBN O-19-510531-l

Reviewed for the _Mark Twain Forum_ by:
     Wesley Britton [log in to unmask]
     Grayson County College

     Copyright (c) Mark Twain Forum, 1996.  This review may not be
     published or redistributed in any medium without permission.

On one level, Shelley Fisher Fishkin's most recent excursion seems
to be misnamed, but one suspects that's because the more obvious
titles have already been used: Howells' _My Mark Twain_, Budd's
_Our Mark Twain_, and Disney's _Mark Twain and Me_.  On another
level, _Lighting Out_ reads like a companion volume to a PBS
television series in which learned experts take the audience on a
pictorial road trip pointing out landmarks about their respective
subjects, accompanied by detailed commentary that reveal as much
about the commentator as the ostensible central figure.  On a third
level, _Lighting Out_ can be seen as a sequel to _Was Huck Black?_
as Fishkin now personalizes her twin interests in Twain and black
history, using each to mirror the other in the past and the

For Twainians, Fishkin's road trip merges history with the author's
unique view of the American tableau, and the resulting volume is
both pleasurable and illuminating, and most of us will inevitably
compare our own internal Twain mindscapes with that of Fishkin.
For example, while reading the opening chapters on Hannibal, I
found myself flooded with images of my own 1985 trip to Twain's
hometown, sharing similar impressions with Shelley's later visit,
and how I then too observed the small-town ambiance building a
whitewashed image of Twain that is more tourist-friendly than
historically honest.  In Shelley's case, one would expect her
interest in racial history to have a central role in this personal
look into modern America's Mark Twain.  Predictably, from the
outset of this book, Shelley's journalistic study quickly points to
the Hannibal few inhabitants know or wish to recall. Drawing from
interviews with current residents and local papers showing how this
microcosm of America prefers to mythologize itself, as well as its
favorite son, Hannibal erases the presence of black culture while
not even reading the books of the man that provides the town

I confess I found myself thinking of _Was Huck Black?_ when she
discussed the background of the historic "Indian Joe" and how he
had been unjustly square-pegged into the round hole of Twain's
fictional murderer by town mythmakers; scholars too often have a
propensity for enthusiastically branding people such as "Sociable
Jimmy" as literary models as much from a speculative thesis as
from reliable evidence.  Still, Fishkin's unearthing of black
perspectives on Hannibal history is sadly eye-opening, a mirror of
local histories throughout America.

Logically, Fishkin's next stop is Elmira, New York where she draws
connections between the "matter of Hannibal" and "the black
question," exploring the influence of the abolitionist Langdon
family on Twain's development as a writer and social thinker. She
begins by showing how Elmira's "Aunt Rachel" (Mary Ann Cord)
inspired "A True Story" which led to Twain's impassioned cries
against the inhumanity of slavery in _Huckleberry Finn_. Then,
Fishkin connects the literary past with the scholarly present.  She
relates her search for a living descendent of Mary Ann Cord, as
well as the discovery of the now famous letter written to the Yale
law school in which Mark Twain unequivocally showed he was not the
racist portrayed by John Wallace and other black advocates of
banning _Huck_.  This behind-the-scenes look at important new
directions in Twain scholarship both reveals the joys of discovery
and justification of long-known truths about Twain and his
influences. Like no other book I can think of, it blows the dust
and MLA stodginess out of what we academics sometimes forget--our
individual, very human and personal quests for knowledge and
understanding that brought us to this game in the first place. This
book may be one not often quoted in brown-bound journals but will
be read by thinkers who share Fishkin's drives and pursuits with
equal passion and commitment for something beyond dry tenure-
tracking publications. It is this section of the book _Publishers
Weekly_ must have had in mind when their reviewer

     Fishkin's book is a call to arms that we not forget America's
     history of racism by banning from our classrooms one of the
     few authors who wrote about it with honesty and clarity.
     (_Publisher's Weekly_, November 18, 1996; pgs. 54-55)

It is throughout the first two sections of _Lighting Out_ that
Fishkin adds her eloquence and insight to defend the continually
embattled _Huck Finn_. She demonstrates the need for understanding
black history alongside an understanding the irony of Twain,
bringing together two lines of discourse that are more unified than
some care to admit.  Her discussions on _Huck_ are worthy of
extraction into new, inevitable anthologies on this inexhaustible

In the third extended section, Shelley moves well beyond racial
issues.  Her vista becomes largely contemporary, exploring _Our
Mark Twain_ in public debates, the classroom (a most useful
section for teachers in the humanities), the commercial marketplace
in Hartford, Dallas, Austin, and throughout Our America, calling
attention to Twain as a ubiquitous presence that no single scholar,
no single academic or community entity can fully grasp or define.

While her encyclopedic litany covers much familiar ground here,
both general readers and specialists will find new information on
Twain media, Twain technology, Twain impersonators, and even
Twain's influence on "Roadrunner" cartoons. I must admit her media
section is an excellent update of my own "Media Interpretations"
_Mark Twain Encyclopedia_ entry (which, with modest footnoted-
understatement, Shelley acknowledges as being somewhat useful), but
she is probably in a minority in finding praise for Paul
Rodriguez's _A Million to Juan_.  She lists international Twain
productions not easily found in other sources,and extensively
reviews Twain's presence in literary efforts by 20th century
mystery writers, psychic frauds, and Twain sequelists and copyists
such as Greg Matthews.  It is this section that makes_Lighting Out_
useful for reference sections in libraries, making the volume more
than a collection of miscellaneous essays geared for Twain
enthusiasts.  This section can be considered a helpful update
to Louis Budd's _Our Mark Twain_, expanding Budd's purview to the
advent of the 21st century.

Fishkin ends the main body of _Lighting Out_ by exploring Twain in
hyperspace, and, Ye, even into the realm of this very _Forum_.
While this might seem the logical stopping point, she adds a
lengthy epilogue bringing together her various themes, returning to
the importance of _Huckleberry Finn_, responding to the criticism
of Jane Smiley by reiterating the points-of-view most of us now are
all too intimately familiar with and sadly forced to restate again
and again. One would like to think this discussion might be the
last word on the subject, but there is certainly no last word on
_Huck_, race, and loaded language.  And that is one of Shelley's
important themes--that _Huck_ should never be pushed outside of the
racial discourse in America's schools.

While _Lighting Out for the Territory_ is not an essential addition
to Twain studies (or American Studies in general), it is very much
a useful and valuable read for scholars and general readers alike,
a book many students should find understandable and perhaps even
moving because of its lack of scholarly apparatus and emphasis on
the personal road to new perspectives.  For me, it's one of the few
books by an academic on an academic subject I'd like autographed--a
personal touch for a personal book.


Note: I feel I should comment on my earlier allusion to Shelley's
"Sociable Jimmy" theory.  I'm reminded of the George Carlin routine
in which he says if you put four black guys and four white guys in
the same room for twenty-four hours, after they come out the black
guys aren't saying "Hi, how are ya, good to see you, have a nice
day."  Instead, the white guys are saying "Hey, what's happening
brother, git down," etc.  In other words, I have no question that
African-American speech patterns, diction, and voicings are part-
and-parcel of _Huck_ and elsewhere.  I buy the general theory but
am not convinced of Jimmy's importance in particular.  Any comments
on this from the rest of the Forum?  While this subject may be
well-trodden ground by now, Shelley implies in _Lighting Out_ that
her theory is now generally accepted by the academic community but,
judging from conversations I've had with some of y'all, I'm not
sure that is so.